Carol and I boarded Amtrak’s #59, still known as The City of New Orleans, on a Monday, but not in the morning. There were eleven cars. There would be three sets of only two conductors each for the trip to New Orleans. There were 218 passengers. The train no longer carried mail. In short there wasn’t much still in common with Arlo Guthrie’s ballad, except this: Guthrie released his version of the song in 1971, and the cars we were riding in dated back to the 1970s.
Happy Hour began the moment Carol and I located our berth, unpacked what we’d need for the night from our bags and turned the luggage over to a steward for stowing below. Our initial gales of laughter were less from the wine than from discovering the dimensions of our “bedroom” accommodations. Opposite of the TARDIS, it seemed somewhat smaller on the inside. Two people maneuvering around soon resembled a game of Twister. The berth contained everything you’d find in a master bedroom. There was a full-size bed, a sink, a bathroom and a shower. We eyeballed the total space at about 36 sq. ft., perfect for two pygmies built like #2 pencils.
The New York Times columnist Russell Baker once recalled going for a walk because he was stuck for an idea for a column due the next day. Someone threw a potato out of a window along the way, and it hit Baker in the head. Suddenly, he had his idea. As I recall from his memoir, he was never stuck again.
I didn’t set my expectations too high, as I boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder at Seattle’s King St. Station bound for Chicago. I’d already gotten an email informing me there’d be a one hour delay due to track work. Hey, that happens. Generally, you don’t learn of airline delays until shortly after you’ve already left for the airport, and you wait out what becomes rolling further delays from the comfort of a straight-backed gate seat, landscaped with squalling children and families traveling with a small petting zoo.
Since this first Christmas without Carolyn is a first rate train wreck, it’s appropriate I’m riding Amtrak’s Cascades line to Vancouver, BC. Upon boarding, I did stifle the impulse to ask the conductor to show me the emergency brake, just to prove to me he knew where it was.