Off The Beaten Path

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Spanning America’s Distance By Rail

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The Memories of A Child Grownup

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As a child I remember trips from Cincinnati to Atlanta by rail. Visits constituting homecoming in parental terms were – for me, much anticipated opportunity to ride the train. From the early references to “Choo Choo” to progressively advanced hoopla that preceded the ride, the trip was nothing less than fascination from beginning to end.

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Travel in the last years of a “Jim Crow” South was confusing to a Black child whose Northern-sanitized view knew little of overt Racism presented beneath the Mason Dixon line. Once “crossed’ the Southern view was overt and foreboding; with a change in perception deepening the further South ventured.

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Perhaps it was more a child’s perception of parental uneasiness, difficult to hide. After all the “Negroes’ ” 20th Century migration South to North happened for reason(s), with the extent – and direction, of travel determined by how far one could get by bus or train on a Sharecropper’s dime or what family member waited on the other end to receive a wearied traveler, in search of a better life. Distance evoked difference. Regardless of how one “got” North, a return South was always accompanied by mixed feelings and righteous indignation of the sort expressed to cousins that I’d rather thirst than ever drink from a water fountain named “Colored”.

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But the train was mostly different. It seemed an escape for everyone, regardless of direction. Consistent were people who ‘looked like me’ in professional service positions, but I do remember — through sleepy eyes and “why?,” a persistent changing of seats to places less integrated throughout the journey; unknown, as to whether these actions were compelled or preferred. But mostly I remember the clickety clack of metal on rails and sights that whizzed by like a slowed story to a movie’s film. And trains that backed up for no apparent reason — often on high bridges while other witness slept, then failed to believe the occurrence in the harsh scrutiny of a morning’s light.

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A very many places past, offering swift glances of life to the tune of a persistent horn-blow announcing each time and place. Warning, but forgiving with each softened sound and diminish away, suggesting I might consider return again, when in full possession of the better- controlled destiny of an adult.

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Grown Folk Planning and Prep

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Years past, and for the last six of them I’ve focused on visiting as many countries as possible. This year’s business priorities and personal economy delayed plans for an expansive adventure abroad; to a closer look to home — crossing (this) country by train. This trip would have to be special to match the grand memories of a child, seldom the same when revisited as an adult.

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The original trip was definitively Washington, DC to Chicago to San Francisco; speculatively, down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles for the second leg of the journey; and hopefully across the Southwest (Flagstaff, Rio Grande, Las Vegas, Albuquerque-Santa Fe). Then, possibly having had enough clickety-clack, a flight back to Washington, D.C. Approximately six days on-train – give or take some hours, two or three days additional time embedded for stops of interest in between (Denver, Flagstaff, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe). How special would this be? — I’d be gone close to forever.

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Adjustments occurred when I priced this out. In coordinating rail, timing is everything. Demand reduces availability and increases the cost of coach seats and “rooms” alike, meaning the price you research and the price at ticket purchase is often subject to vast differences. Life learning: You snooze you lose. The final route was D.C. to Chicago, to San Francisco; four days in San Fran then a flight back to Washington D.C’s Dulles.

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Horn Tootin’

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I initiated my own personal journey at Washington, DC’s Union Station, boarding Coach on the 51 Cardinal. It was a seamless check-in; no TSA, no multiple lines or stops to complicate and frustrate the boarding process. Have a good trip and you’re off.

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The Cardinal had started its journey at NYC’s Penn Station through Philadelphia, Wilmington, Delaware prior to reaching the nation’s capital. From there it seemed too much time was spent in Virginia is for Lovers (beautiful but out my back door and explored regularly), to a seemingly-appointed West Virginia Sunset, and a midnight train to Cincy — for ever so brief a homecoming in the eye of one’s mind. Time and space – protracted and protruding into endless Americana views represented by the Midwest-rustic houses and functional farmland of Indiana and Illinois; until the mixed retro/modern rail yard in Chi-town marked an end to this initial phase of the journey.

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Train Culture

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But we are far too ahead of ourselves. Because just as interesting as the many and places you “sample” on a train journey, are the people you have opportunity to meet – or not meet, along the way.

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First thing noticed are the “characters” around you and, in the interest of fairness, you readily admit that your own uniqueness will only add further to the flavor. My first contact was with “Christine”, the senior coach attendant, initially thought to be the conductor. The conductor must have been “Virgil” — not to be seen but obviously the more-senior staff person whose name she would reference on questions unanswered or things slightly wrong. Whoever he was, she was the one clearly in-charge of this phase of my journey and whether (or not) I would enjoy it, save the individual in the most essential role — The Engineer.

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Christine will listen to where you’d like to sit then tell you where to go, literally. Possibly hurting your feelings and definitely meeting your perspective — attitude to attitude. You remind yourself that this is an “experience” then do as you are told while mumbling that you need a window for photography. You and everybody else. Chris had been doing this “over 30 years” providing her blanket approval to work your nerves if you decided to work hers. But then she would soften and offer something “extra” or unexpected, that remind you this persona is just a part of the “different experience” you paid to have. You can be – and often are insulted on a plan; but seldom do they work so hard to keep you entertained in the process. Needless to say this photographer eventually acquired a window view when a neighboring occupant – a University of Virginia professor, departed the train in Thomas Jefferson’s Charlottesville, VA just like Chris said he would:

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“Not much to see ‘fore then anyway.”

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Across the aisle a retired couple is riding the rails frequently to keep up with the grandchildren– he, a former Amtrak employee, has earned the time and right to ride the rails for free. But it wasn’t just the cost factor that formed the attraction, but a true affinity for the slower pace. Other discussions highlighted fear of flying and travel hassle as other opinionated rational.

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One gentleman with obvious health issues was passionate about railroad history and its nation-building aspects. He now rides the rails more often than not, stopping for brief visits with those who traversed his life but not to the extent of wanting to stay. He was fascinating to listen to though business success and living-life failure, leaving you wondering just what phase this might be.

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And there was drama. A young couple, notably happy, awaiting the train at D.C.’s Union Station, declined in relationship fervor through many miles and various smoke breaks to Chicago. By Chicago they had reached the point of breakup, and physical separation off the train. Why? By close proximity, folks in coach knew more than should: Infidelity alleged through some DC incident against a now distraught young man who looked like his world might end if his sweetness never returned. Because the train reflects snippets of life, we will never know the story’s end.

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In a viewing car through West Virginia, a bubbly hair stylist from Alabama spoke about her youngest child in college and a longtime fascination with the train, finally taken, to visit relatives in Chicago, while a young Criminologist on her way home to Indiana for Summer spoke about her first year at college and her recent engagement to a hometown boy. Mature anticipation at seeing her Mom, she was anxious to plan her abundant life ahead.

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Another traveler attended my high school in Cincinnati (small world) but further query brought no friend or family connection worthy of discussion. Truth or Fiction: He seemed brilliant but had a sad life — self-induced and “circumstanced,” and still influx; commanding a couple of hours of rail-time, provoking advice – on my part, and enhancing my appreciation of blessings in life, enormous in comparison.

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It’s easy to strike up a conversation in coach or the snack bar, and sometimes learn more than you bargained. But like the constancy of movement from wheels beneath, you can leave it all behind in the “comfort” of a well wish or “see you around”.

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A Touch of Class

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A Chicago transition from 51 Cardinal’s coach to a California Zephyr sleeping car room generated a more private option to the ride than the enhanced socialization of coach. The train had more rooms as well as coach seats and because it now took me longer to get from one end of the train to the other, I (finally) learned that walking briskly on a train trumps the “hungover” uncertainty of slow deliberate steps, to not tarry at train connection points, and how to take a shower without fear of injury.

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Exceptional room attendance and memorable dining car experience are apparently included in the cost of the ticket. Props to professionals like “Elaine” for effortlessly smoothing the journey. And as far as the dining is concerned, there’s no table (or room) for the exclusiveness of one or two. Amid a white linen tablecloth experience you sit with folks unknown and exchange aspects of life in the time it takes to order and eat a hot meal. Like speed-dating its speed-talking with a slight edge of formality.

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Learned: About the pride of authorship of a new poetry book — just published, from a young woman returning from a short homestay to “temporary” residence with her well-to-do brother and wife in Reno. During the course of an Iowa dinner she lead a lively discussion of how hard it is to keep and maintain a good job in this economy, having just lost her third. At the same table was a rich older man, son of an even richer older man, on his way to CA to marry his third wife, a woman he’d recently met online. Dining with three women, I’m sure he failed to see our raised eyebrows when he shared her much younger, good-looking photo among our well wishes.

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Next morning, over a Denver breakfast, “shared” the benefits of a relocation opportunity with a sleepy young man in IT heading to Salt Lake City. Everyone at the table agreed he needed coffee as the waiter hastened to bring him enough to keep him functional in his conversation. This, a dialog further complemented by a Chinese National who had just completed her degree at Boston U, here with her Dad – in from Beijing, to celebrate through this trip and a follow-on coastal rail-ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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Hobnobbed: With a soon-to-be-rich young man, a day later at breakfast, somewhere between the Nevada and California border; he, working with partners to transition success in Snowboarding competition to a lofty business opportunity. Ironically his reason for the ride was a car breakdown in Salt Lake City with an urgent need to get to CA; the train offering convenience as well as another entry in his book of experiences and its fill.

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-Sigh- “But the train is just an alternate mode of transportation.”

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Aside from those who see it only as an alternate way of getting from point A to B and those who try it only once, the mode seems to invite those with a different approach to life – a free and easier spirit and a back to basics sensibility. Not (for possibly once) conflicted by clocks that hurry, they might just want to take their time and see a little more. These are road trip people, the type that used to see the USA in their Chevrolet; now finding more utility in letting someone else do the sort of driving that still enhances their view.

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Highlights

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Lest you think I talked my way cross-country and didn’t see a thing, here are my most vivid impressions:

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New River, West VA At Sunset

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There’s a place in a river’s bend at sunset where the water sparkles and everything green turns to gold. At 250-360 million years, the scenic New River or Kanawha is considered the second oldest river in the world (second only to the Nile) and nicely traverses the Appalachians creating a corridor of numerous, unusual species of plants and animals in its wake. The New River Gorge is not only scenic, but also offers numerous opportunities for water recreation such as rafting and kayaking. But it was a railroad-specific view of the Sun’s gentle kiss that provided an unexpected treat in the late afternoon of a long travel day.

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Starry, Starry Night

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In the middle of nowhere void of light, the sky becomes accessible from stars that twinkle bright. Closest to the memories of a child is this view when tucked tightly in a room’s bed; when surrounds seem more awesome than they’ll ever be again. There’s something else reminiscent — the clickety clack of wheels on rail and the long toot of a horn chronicling every intersection. How could there possibly be so many? Count like sheep, then fast asleep.

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Rocky Mountain High

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With the dome car over-populated by a tour, observation relinquished itself to the quiet enjoyment of Rocky Mountain from the room — a view of both sides further accentuated by a neighbor’s vacancy. A look back to a city “Mile High” presents a surreal view seemingly dropped in place by hands now unseen. A look forward presents a long, circular climb of mountain and streams headed to a more vibrant flow. Negotiating Big 10 Curve and traversing 29 tunnels in South Boulder Canyon presents an opulent “new” view, with each turn more compelling than the one before. Six point two miles of Moffat Tunnel offers respite until a snow-tinged sloped “new scenic” at Winter Park-Fraser eases into view. Soon a series of road-less and mostly inaccessible canyons drench the Colorado in whitewater, then lessen the effect where high cliffs and formations change ordinary river tributaries at sunset to no less than wonders to behold…This is why you came; holding extraordinary views you will remember when all others have diminished in their intensity.

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Interpreting Utah

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The starkness of Utah is immediately apparent in crossover from the warmth of the Colorado’s rocks. Though I had viewed this transition previously by air, it’s only through the close proximity of train travel that you appreciate the variety of possibilities that form our earth. There are Remnants of forgotten stretches — Highway 50, the loneliest highway in America. Noting in my journal, far too generally to all of Utah due to this one spot “It’s like God made everything else beautiful and then decided to put the excess here”. Miles and miles of sand, salt and rock…Formations, eerily different. This perspective held until the pioneer spirit of Helper, Utah, transforms the wilderness to greenery and a final analysis of: To each his own. If Butch and Sundance thought it good enough to return for a stay or two, who was I to argue this point. But it was in the muted sunset in the mountains – viewed through the back and forth of a train’s ascent that I experienced an inexplicable sense of peace and calm, adding further to the value of the place. Amid thoughts that less may be more, the soothing was sufficient to lure a twilight sleep prior to a late evening descent into Provo.

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California’s Sierra Nevada Range

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Traversed Elko through Reno with limited interest, having overcome a notable train malaise since the Utah, prompted — perhaps, by continuous views of similar landscape throughout Nevada, and extensive time on-train. Been there, done that. This was like the Mojave Desert part of CA (to the South), where I had lived previously. In the morning of the last day I fully welcomed the 180 degree change in scenery that an advancing northward Sierra Nevada elevation provided. This was clearly an instance where a State’s distinctions – one from the other, is immediately discernible. This route featured fresh-air greenery punctuated by snow-capped Evergreens and freshwater beauty with a history at Donner Lake from stations at Truckee (Lake Tahoe) through the city of Colfax crossing of the Range.

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For Just Once, It’s Not About San Fran…

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Though we will speak about the City by the Bay leg of this journey later on; this Off The Beaten Path was about the train.

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Travel by rail maintains its connections to a “time past when” with a slower pace and an acceptable sprinkling of attitude sufficient to keep you grounded to those things that matter — at least through the duration of the ride.

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And what did I learn as an adult from those early, fleeting impressions of a child?

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I learned that sometimes it’s better to go slow than to move fast; that we spend a lot of time chasing after those things fleeting and not enough time taking in the richness of life, the conversation of good people, and visually consuming the abundant nature that still exists around us. With the innocence of a child I conversed with everyone presenting opportunity and – in the process, re-learned how to make a friend, regardless of mindset and preconceived notions; expecting nothing from the interchange but the magic of the moment.

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Do it again? I can’t wait to take the next phase of the journey on the Southwest Chief, saving the Pacific Coast Starlight for another strategically planned adventure.

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Just have to program in some time…

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All photographic images (non-video) are © Pamela Kelly Phillips,
PK Phillips Photography, 2012

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