I was riding the California Zephyr, an Amtrak train that goes from Chicago to Emeryville, California, when I got a song stuck in my head:
“I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars.”
That’s from Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash’s song about a man in prison watching a train go by. When it got stuck in my head, I hadn’t noticed that I was only a few miles from Folsom Prison, in central California.
Anyway, after three days on the train, I’d like to set the record straight about those two lines.
Trains are full of hundreds of people (and teddy bears) with nothing to do but look out the window. You might keep that in mind the next time you think about peeing beside the railroad tracks. I’ve seen seven deer, three hawks, one sandhill crane, and two men peeing.
On the other side of the equation, people notice passenger trains, and sometimes, they wave. I saw kids waving from the front porch of their house, as well as fishermen and rafters waving from the Colorado river. “What, nobody mooned you?” asked a woman I met in the dining car. Evidently, mooning is not unheard of.
For the first leg of my trip, from Cincinnati to Chicago, I sat in the section called “Coach.” Every seat was full, and people lurched up and down the aisle all night long, back and forth the bathrooms. I dozed, but I didn’t sleep well.
In Chicago, I discovered the Metropolitan Lounge, a sparkling, brand-new facility just for first-class passengers. I was eligible, because I had booked a sleeper car for the middle portion of my trip. Suddenly, I had access to free sandwiches, wine, coffee, and deep, comfortable seats.
I had arrived in “First Class.”
When it was time to board the train, the first class passengers were whisked onto the last three cars, the ones behind the dining and observation cars. Sleeper cars are always very quiet, compared to coach. People speak in hushed voices, and the loudest sound is the flushing of the vaccuum toilets. The sound of the whistle is very faint, and even the tracks are super-quiet, unless we are going across a switch, which makes the wheels clatter, or around a bend, which makes them squeal.
One of the first things I did when the California Zephyr departed from Chicago was take a shower. There is absolutely nothing special about a shower on Amtrak; it’s a standard little stall with a stack of bath towels and soaps. But I was traveling at 70 mph while I did it.
Then I got cozy in my private “roomette,” which I only had to share with two teddy bears. I hung up a couple of jackets, set my books and notebooks on the shelves (which are also the steps to the upper bunk), and plugged in my laptop. At 7:00, I went to dinner in the dining car, sharing a booth with three strangers. We all ordered the exact same steak.
Fortunately for my dining companions, there were no tunnels during any of my meals. Whenever we went through a tunnel, I was in my private room, and I kissed my teddy bear. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read Strangers Have the Best Candy.
To return to the Johnny Cash song, the folks in the dining car were not rich folks. We were just average people from all over the world — librarians, retired postal workers, families on summer vacation. Some of us drank coffee, like the song, and some drank tea, wine, juice, or soda. We had our choice of steak, chicken, seafood, or vegetarian entrees. For desert, chocolate mousse was the favorite, but there was strawberry cheesecake, ice cream, and sugar-free vanilla pudding.
Unlike the dining cars of old, we did not have custom china, only plastic dishes. But some of the flatware had an Amtrak logo stamped into the handle. Most importantly, my meals featured a fantastic server named Charleen, an efficient woman with a twinkle in her eye and an encyclopedic memory of everyone’s beverage preferences.
Absolutely no one on the entire train was smoking a big cigar, because we’d been warned that if anyone was caught smoking, they would be thrown off the train. Furthermore, we were told over the loudspeaker, if anyone tried to smoke in the bathroom, all the bathrooms would be locked for the duration of the trip.
For two nights, I had my choice between the top and bottom bunks, and I divided my time between them. Last night, the Big Dipper was hanging over my window, as big as I’ve ever seen it, so I moved to the lower bunk to enjoy the view. There was nothing else to see outside my window until first light, when we left the Bonneville salt flats, crossed the Nevada state line, and passed Winnemucca. The riotous lights of the casinos left after-images on my retinas.
If you see an Amtrak train going by, be sure to wave. Even though it seems like another world aboard the train, we do see you. Some of us are waving back, or else we are mooning you. With the tinted windows, you’ll never know which.