Friday, August 13, 2010

Train Trip - Part Three

NOTE: This post is rated PG for mild potty talk.


If the “part three” in the title of this post hasn’t tipped you off, I’ll tell you now this post is part of a series. I’m trying to mimic the wild success of the various series that everybody seems to like so well: the Harry Potter books, the Star Wars movies, etc. I guess when a series is upscale it’s called a “cycle.” Yeah, that’s it. The albertnet train trip cycle!

There’s a bit of a chronology problem here: I meant to post this a day or two ago but didn’t have Internet access. So this post leaves off with Flagstaff, Arizona, even though I’m in Los Angeles now, on the final day of the trip, in a hotel lobby. (Lousy music is playing here. Were I a dictator, I would ban songs in which the singer repeats the chorus more than 100 times total and/or 10 times in a row. A bit ago some countryesque wailer did “I want it back” ad infinitum and then a male “vocalist” repeated “This is the time” endlessly.) There’s not too much to say that’s train-related about L.A., other than we spent about 3½ hours on a bus yesterday getting to and from Santa Monica. Excellent people-watching and we didn’t have to park.

Scenery – part one

Once we went from Kansas into Colorado—from Central to Mountain time—it was as though the Midwest ended and the West began, in the span of just a few miles. The landscape went from tamed, orderly, and irrigated to scrubby, varied, and wild. We also went from largely 2-D to 3-D: hills and mountains began to appear as we made our way across Colorado and New Mexico. I imagine all that farmland gives a feeling of comfort to a Midwesterner, but the rugged Western landscape better captures my imagination. It’s the last land to be settled, and yet feels older; little towns look stuck in time. I’m reminded of the many road trips I’ve taken between California and Colorado with family or college buddies, and how enjoyable they were: singing along with the stereo, no A/C, windows rolled down, flying my hand out the window and feeling the burning wind against it, my back stuck to the seat with sweat. This next generation will be missing out as the A/C-less cars go gradually extinct.

It’s tempting to say it would be nice to open the window of the train. In reality that might mean a lot of diesel smoke or something. And I have to say, the air in the train—though it can get stale due to the A/C—is a fair bit more comfortable than suffering through the heat we’ve passed through. I hopped off the train the other evening somewhere in Iowa and was hit by this massive wall of damp heat, just like a steam room. I gave a gasp of astonishment and several of my fellow passengers (smokers, mostly) chuckled with recognition. This train—the Southwest Chief, which follows a more southern route than the California Zephyr we went east on—goes through such places as Needles, California which is said to have some of the highest temperatures in the world. Erin had lunch in Needles once when it was 120 degrees out.

We just came upon the most gorgeous cloud I’ve seen in over sixteen years (that is, since the last time I was in New Mexico):

Train architecture – part one

Our family sleeping room spans the whole width of the front of a sleeper car, so there’s a window on either side. A narrow hallway runs down the middle of this car, with smaller sleepers on both sides. These smaller sleeping rooms consist of two seats facing each other; the lower folds into a bed and a bunk swings down from above. Two people sharing such a car better get along, because they’re facing each other all day long. Toward the end of the hallway is where all the carry-on baggage goes. Across from this is the door through which you enter and exit the train, and next to this a very narrow stairwell with a couple of 90-degree bends in it. Upstairs are more sleeper cars; there’s a very narrow, low hallway on one side, with windows a child can see out of but not an adult (they’re too low). As the train lurches from side to side it’s a trick not to slam into the outer wall or—worse—fall through a curtain into somebody’s sleeping compartment.

To go from one car to another you have to go upstairs. This is where the doors are between cars. There’s a no-man’s land between cars with intimidating sliding plates for a floor and manifolds protecting you from the elements and, I suppose, from jumping. (When it’s really hot and humid, you get a taste of the air outside the train.) The doors to and from this in-between space are electric, with a large rectangular steel button you press to open the door. There’s another door-opening button at foot level; when I showed this to the kids there began a constant battle over whose turn it is to open the doors as we make our way along.

Lindsay kicks this door button with real attitude: six years old going on teenager. She strides along, sucking her two sucky-fingers, and boots that button as if kicking a yapping dog out of the way (though of course she’d never kick a dog). I’ve tried to tell her just to push on the button, but it’s useless. There’s nothing definably wrong with her technique, just like my music teacher in elementary school couldn’t discipline me for my singing manner. (I had an over-the-top enthusiasm that was clearly insincere, but not in any way the teacher could nail me for. How do you send a kid to the office for singing ironically?)

Situation room – part one

When it comes to public restrooms, I think it’s safe to say most adults will get through their business as quickly as possible. These places are a necessary evil. But kids find fascination wherever they go, and this is no exception. Lindsay is just learning to read and makes her way through every placard, sign, and logo she comes across. She’s not comfortable flying solo in a train restroom so I’ve had to crowd in there with her on several occasions. The worst was when we both had to do serious downloads, while Alexa was waiting outside to be escorted back to our seats.

As I prepared the ring-shaped paper toilet seat liner, carefully tearing at the perforated points, idly wondering why train and airline bathrooms use the same liners as other public toilets, with the same paper tongue that is supposed to reach the water in the bowl and thus secure the ring, even though the water level is nowhere nearly high enough with a train toilet to reach the paper tongue, Lindsay asked (in her own words) for a full etymological exegesis on the brand name “Rest Assured.” It’s not easy to explain branding to a child. I don’t really know what these toilet seat liners actually assure us of. They’re really just protecting us from an unsavory idea, when it comes right down to it. (If this entire discussion makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you avoid the next few paragraphs and skip ahead to the section titled “Train architecture – part two.”)

Lindsay had a leisurely time of it, pausing in her business to lean forward and try to read a placard on a trash compartment door that said, “Used Diapers & Sanitary Napkins.” That first word, “Used,” is pretty tricky when you think about it, and the others were even harder. I read the placard for her, exhorted her to hurry up, then had to explain what a sanitary napkin is. There is no A/C in the restroom, and no ventilation.

While Lindsay enjoyed her session, I idly looked more at the trash compartment and discovered that although it had two little spring-loaded doors—the one I mentioned already and another next to it reading “Trash”—they both led to the same receptacle. I had to wonder exactly why they did this split-door arrangement. Are there lots of passengers whose need for order includes segregating their normal, minimally grody trash from diapers and sanitary napkins? And among these compulsive neat-freaks, is there a significant subset that fails to notice that the split-trash system is just a sham? (Amtrak’s catering to a tiny subset of the population reminded of the TV screens that used to hang in Bart subway stations with written statements like “Watch the gap” that were translated, in a picture-in-picture arrangement, into sign language. You know, for those deaf illiterate people.)

Relieving herself must give Lindsay a strong feeling of well-being. Halfway through wiping, in the midst of a toilet paper inspection, she said, “I love you so much.” Such timing. “Uh, you are talking to me, aren’t you?” I said. Nonplussed, she said of course she was. The heat and fumes were really getting to me. Alexa was restless outside, telling us to hurry up. According to the slow choreography the situation demanded, Lindsay and I switched places and she showered the restroom with ricocheted water from the hydrant-like sink spigot while I unburdened my own overfed body in the much-abused commode. Finally done, I washed my hands before flushing, so I could plug my ears with clean hands during the flush. (Like a passenger jet, these train toilets have the loudest, most violent flush you could possibly imagine, seemingly capable of tearing a man’s toupee off and greedily swallowing it.)

Alas, the jet of water was too directional to completely clean the bowl. It was a rifle and what we needed was a sawed-off shotgun. As Alexa protested outside and my brain wilted in the heat and reek, I flushed the wretched toilet three more times before deciding it was okay to leave. By this point Lindsay had had enough of the place as well, and suggested a Lemony-Snicket-like title for it: “The Bad Bathroom.” I joined in with “The Lugubrious Lavatory” and later we got Alexa in on the game (“The Terrible Toilet” was one of her contributions).

(Don’t get the wrong idea here, by the way: I’m not complaining about Amtrak. The restrooms are about the only thing these trains have in common with the airlines. The people onboard the train are friendly and helpful, and everything is more comfortable.)

Train architecture – part two

One night we had a minor crisis involving the bunk beds. Erin decided to take the larger of the two upper berths instead of sharing the lower bunk with me. This meant the smaller of the upper berths was the only one available to the kids, and the other kid would have to settle for the smaller lower birth—the smallest and lowliest bed of all. Lindsay began to weep. Like Alexa, she naturally assumed that birth order would define things and she’d be stuck with the lousy bed. Alexa, to console her, began to sing the praises of the lower berth: more headroom, greater safety, etc. I mentioned the lightning storm I’d watched from the lower berth’s window in the middle of our first night. But as I couldn’t promise another lightning storm, this was little solace for Lindsay. I suggested that they share the top berth: no dice.

These are the conflicts that test a parent’s mettle, especially after he’s just spent twenty minutes digging through five compartments each of half a dozen carry-on bags, in the narrow hallway of a lurching train, for clean pajamas, and finding them twisted together with dirty laundry, sandals, and other personal effects, and is tired from the stress of catching two different trains earlier in the day and rescuing carry-on bags from a locker with a sketchy fingerprint reader, when his entire back and both feet are itching from mosquito bites, and the other sleeping car passengers have their doors open for ventilation and can hear every syllable of our family disputes.

I suppose I could have played the “strict parent” card and told Lindsay to take the lower berth “because I said so!” but I’m not into big battles, tears, etc. and gave the kids a bit longer to work it out on their own. Finally Alexa suggested that I pay one of them to take the bottom bunk. I pointed out that I shouldn’t have to pay, because my bed situation doesn’t change either way, but that I felt a financial arrangement might be just the thing. After a spell of haggling Alexa agreed to pay Lindsay $0.75 for the privilege of taking the top bunk. See? Kids can work it out. And in the process they learned a valuable lesson: money talks.

Scenery – part two

I spent a fine afternoon watching New Mexico roll by. (Never mind that it’s actually holding still while the train rolls by; you still use the terms “sunrise” and “sunset,” don’t you?) Red rolling hills dotted with scrubby plants, like an extreme close-up of razor stubble. Higher hills and buttes, mesas, all those cool Spanish-named geological features, and mountains here and there (the Sangre de Christos I reckon), some covered in trees, some bare. The land is dry, but not dead.

When Erin and I did our big bike tour in ’94, we decided that New Mexico and upstate New York were the prettiest states in the U.S. Part of the joy of New Mexico is how pristine it is. One evening during our bike tour as we rode through one of the poorest counties in the state, two different cars pulled up right next to us and drifted toward the shoulder, forcing us to stop or be run off the road. Just as we’d decided these were the meanest people in the West, a guy came running out of a little adobe house near the road and yelled for us to stop. He was incredibly friendly and invited us to stay the night at his place. After some hesitation, we accepted. In addition to having a great dinner (homemade tamales!) and a nice sleep, we learned that the people in that area all spoke an ancient 16th-century Spanish and were hostile to outsiders as a way of preserving their land. Our new friends said that when developers, usually from Texas, arrived to scope the place out, they simply disappeared. Word got around, and outsiders have learned to stay away. Of course I have no way to validate this story, but the fact remains this is a gorgeous area that hasn’t given way to tourists or retirees.

Situation room – part two

If you were bothered by situation room part one above, you should just stop reading right now.

It’s tempting, after a few days on the train, to think I’m getting the hang of things. For example, I passed up the temptation to wait until the train stopped to take a shower; the porter had warned that at these stops the water gets disconnected, so you can end up fully lathered with no water to rinse with. (Showering in motion is a bit of a trick, too, as the train swings around and you don’t have much to grab onto. And I had a devil of a time getting the water back on after lathering, as the knob was hard to turn and my soapy hands couldn’t grip it hard enough.) I also learned to use the toilet before running my kids and myself through our dental regimen, because the hyperactive faucet turns the counter-top into a big pool that can dump water on you when the train jerks.

Of course, such confidence is the stuff of fools—there’s always an unforeseen cataclysm waiting in the wings. In my case it was using the toilet at a station stop. I’d finished up and had only to flush when suddenly the power went out. This is actually pretty common at the longer stops and I’m sure there’s a good reason for it. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the toilet wouldn’t flush without electricity! I tried to wait it out, but I just couldn’t take that tiny, hot, stuffy restroom anymore. And yet, I couldn’t imagine leaving the un-flushed toilet for the next guy—I’d done some serious damage in there. I decided to wait just outside the door, but first I headed down the short hallway to my room to grab my wallet—the original point of this trip downstairs. (In the midst of my toilet situation, my family was waiting for me up in the dining car.)

Alas, on my way back to the restroom, I was waylaid by the friendly couple in the next sleeping room. I couldn’t exactly beg off—what would I tell them? “Sorry, I can’t dally—I’m babysitting an un-flushed toilet down there.” So I had a very pleasant conversation throughout which I was totally distracted. The woman had never been outside of Indiana before this trip, and now they’d been out for forty days. Any minute now somebody could board the train and take a quick left into that tiny, stinking restroom vestibule. The man was impressed at my kids’ vocabularies. A mere ten feet away an act of unintentional vandalism was underway. The couple was retired and loving it. Any second I might be running down the hallway, everything in super-slo-mo, my voice drawn out into a long, low drone: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Suddenly, deus ex machina: the lights snapped back on, the A/C whirred back to life, and there was a pause in the conversation. I quickly said, “Well, I’d better join the family up in the dining car. Nice to meet you!” I dashed down to the toilet. Nobody beat me there. Whew!

Off the train

Now we’re in Flagstaff, Arizona (while our house is under constant police surveillance, even though it houses items of only sentimental value and no resale value, so don’t even bother burglarizing the place). We’re in a nice bed & breakfast. It’s nice to have a place to spread out all our clothes and such, so we can sort them by totally filthy versus only lightly worn, and figure out which snacks have botulism versus a mere reek. Flagstaff strikes us as a really cool town; the climate, people, and general feel remind me of Boulder . Check out this sign I saw in a sandwich shop:

It was a timely sentiment, because after having a picnic and some run-around time at a little park, we went on a family hike that became a bit of an ordeal. We were searching for the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. The kids’ bedtime is too early for Lowell’s telescopes at this time of year, but at least we could have checked out their sweet interferometer during the day. We were told the observatory was reachable by this trail, but we might as well have tried to find Pluto. Tall ponderosa pines prevented us from seeing what lay ahead, so it was an act of faith to keep on hiking. At one point we split up and Alexa and I forged ahead; this was of course a very bad idea. “The Blair Witch Project” came to mind, and eventually we were looking for hikers to eat. Alexa asked if she could drink from the muddy puddles alongside the trail. Oddly, there was nary a soul up there. By the time Alexa and I gave up, made our way back down the trail, reunited with Erin and Lindsay, and made it back to the B&B, our hike had lasted well over three hours.

Today we get back on the train and continue our journey. Now it’s time for breakfast, luggage sorting, and such; maybe I’ll even have time to upload this post. There may or may not be another train trip installment, depending on how remarkable the rest of our journey proves to be. Thanks for tuning in!

dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. It is impossible to overstate just how envious I am of you and your family for making this trip. It is an incredibly remarkable thing -- partly because of just how un-remarkable train travel has become (in this country, at least) (that is in that no modern American is really remarking about train travel anymore). First you guys ride your bikes across the country and now do it by train?!? What next, horseback? Flinstones' replica car with stone cylinders for wheels? Mastodon? I await the story of your next family adventure upon the edge of my well-ensconced and sadly provincial seat.