Sunday, March 28, 2010

October 13, 2009 Day 4: The Cascades

I woke up at 5am expecting to see a spectacular sight, Mt. Shasta. It was too dark to see anything, so I went back to sleep.
Last night was rough I was jerked back into consciousness by two episodes of panic attacks. I was startled out of sleep by this horrid sensation that the train was going sideways and was on the verge of tipping over. It was a sensation more towards my tipping over my head rather than rolling sideways off the bed. Once the bed is pulled down, the danger was more from banging my shins on the bed and falling into it rather than falling out.
I can’t imagine two adults comfortable in this deluxe sleeper once the bed is pulled down. The folding mini desk would have to be put away. The top bunk is only for the smaller of the two adults. They never pulled it down for me; I pulled it down myself just to be nosy. There is a heavy metal ladder that you can use to get up, but I didn’t want to try that in a moving train. There are straps that you attach to the ceiling that they recommend you use to keep you from falling off.
Last night had freezing rain because another rider told me she had seen icicles. That was probably snow I saw last night. The rain was only an issue when it created ice on the tracks, which explained some of the slow moving. But we escaped the big rain storms that struck California. I just hope it clears up by the time I arrive on Thursday morning!
Morning was strange. I went to the dining car and another elderly woman sat in front of me, she forgot her dental bridge so I had to talk fast to divert myself from the gaping hole in her mouth. Just as she had started to thaw out towards me, the train stopped and she looked up and realized it was her stop! Lost my breakfast buddy.
Then I met Maggie, she used to work for the state’s attorney office, retired now. Then I met the Canadian ladies again, they have been friends since they were 12yrs old! How wonderful for them! How many people can say they stayed friends with anyone who wasn’t related to them? They were 63yrs old!
Again it was a great conversation. Maggie told us about her aunt who was learning to arrange flowers when one of her closest friends died. So Maggie’s aunt created a beautiful cross made from some pieces of wood she had found and had put flowers on it to make a floral cross. So during the burial, the cross was at the foot of the casket, except it was raining heavily. Well, the flowers started to come off and soon all that was left was the wooden cross with “Packed by Heinz” stamped across it.
Valery told us about her two dogs, one she inherited, a chow chow and her other dog, Jim who was a Lab/Beagle mix. She told us how when she walks the dogs, they have bells on their collar and she carries bear spray. She gets bears in her front yard, in the neighbor’s yard, moose wandering about and it’s normal for her.
After breakfast I spent time in the parlour car and I met George, John and Juanita, two friends traveling with 4 other friends on a cross-country train ride. They were going to Portland as their final destination before they went home. Juanita came from Atlanta, while George and John came from Cincinnati. Juanita told me how she had gotten the chance to fly a student plane where she flew with the joystick for 45min. Only to land and find that her 12yr old grandson who was in the ROTC, had, that same week, flown a Cessna!
"Talk about stealing my thunder!" She laughed.
Then the train entered the Cascades and most conversations stopped because we all stared out the window to watch the tremendous mountain passes. The informational brochure said we went through 22 tunnels as it wove in and out of the mountains. Just as the tree line cleared and we got a good look at the valley below us, we ran into a tunnel. We all sat with out digital cameras and recorders trying to capture the moment. Unfortunately, I knew that it would take a full camera crew to capture what I saw, experienced and translate it to film. My frantic attempts to capture the moment most often fell flat. But I still tried desperately to chronicle the landscape, with a few notable results.

I think what I find more amazing is that each photo was taken by my cell phone, balancing against a jostling train and eeking a moment through the treeline to get just a glimpse of the majesty of mother nature.

All too soon it was lunch time. I ended up sitting with John, the retired railroad engineer who told us that when he used to work, “…you weren’t allowed in the cab without a six-pack!” and George a retired teacher. Across the aisle in another booth, sat Juanita who had recommended I try the tropical chicken salad, which I did and it was good.
I went on vacation alone and yet it seemed like I was suddenly adopted by strangers.
John and George both discussed everything under the sun. Both were well informed and kept up with current topics. Our discussion included politicians who were caught in scandals. In referring to a politico who was caught in a men’s room, both gentlemen openly mentioned that they thought anyone who protests too much has something to hide. The discussion began when the conversation turned to the openly gay mayor of Portland embroiled in a scandal. Then it turned to health care reform. Neither one could understand why anyone would be opposed to it. Bonnie and Valerie spoke of how well the national health care worked for them.
We had a 20min stop in Portland, OR. I stepped out to see what kind of Amtrak souvenirs I could come up with. And at that little shop, I ran into Valery who gave me a warm hug goodbye. She and Bonnie would transfer from the train at Seattle and proceed on the bus service up to Vancouver, another 3hr trip.
Dinner was early since the train would be coming into the station and ending its trip. So I went ahead and reserved for 430pm. Of course, I was the only one to eat that early. Oh well.
But after a while I was joined by a great-grandmother of 14 who was going to visit her granddaughter at Fort Lewis. She was traveling alone! She was born in 1930, 79yrs old and still vibrant, engaging and sweet. I met another John who seemed to have spent his youth traveling. At 18, he was on a motorbike going through East Germany and told us how he needed a special permit to sleep in a hotel in East Germany, despite having his visas, passports and various other documents showing that he was allowed into the country.
John also spoke up for health care reform. Then another elderly woman across the aisle from us was finished with her dinner and tapped John on the shoulder.
“I have to disagree with you. I’ve had breast cancer for 3yrs and I’ve paid zero. Medicare took care of everything, I broke my knee; a $8700 surgery and I paid $60. We have great insurance.”
So John said, “And where’s the catch?”
“Nothing, we have a great system.” She nodded at me condescendingly. I was the youngest person at the moment and thus I must be stupid.
John asked her. “You have medicare?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
John politely corrected his stance. “Then, let me say we need health care reform for younger people who don’t qualify for medicare. God bless you.”
John knew courtesy, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. He and I stayed and talked for a bit longer after we had finished our meal and the great-grandmother(I’ve forgotten her name) left.
I told John the reason why I had to miss my original train ride. He gave me his full name and I gave him mine. He explained what my name meant and we talked about certain things. I had told him that I was so happy to see all the rivers we had passed and it was at this point that we had a bit of sun. I had said that this was only the 2nd time in 4days that I had seen the sun. Then he suddenly said:
“You have all four elements, you have earth and water. You just need sun and air. “
I looked at him; slowly and sadly realized. “Yes, that’s what I’ve been looking for.” He turned to me and said “Talk about synchronicity; that just made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
I just needed to get away, I didn’t think I would find such kind consideration and generous hearts.
Perhaps it was because we were trapped in a moving vehicle and thus thrown together. It made rudeness that much more of an offense. Perhaps that’s why people were pleasant. But not everyone was so open and talkative. There were two people I met that were just not in the same plane. I think one was a shyness and awkwardness that she still hadn’t overcome. The other was a man who even John and George noticed, just wasn’t a nice guy. I hadn’t said it but the minute he left our table at lunch, John and George who were obviously good friends commented on it and the conversation flowed again.
After dinner I went back to my cabin, the walk back through the train was tinged with melancholy. I was going to miss my cabin, my train and yes, the conversation. People who I met for the first time, shared moments of laughter, profound thought; hopefully we all made each other’s lives just a bit brighter for that moment of shared community. I was moody and cranky, I hate good byes and I had anthropomorphized the train and would miss it as an extension of myself.
But when the train stopped in Seattle, I left my cabin, walked out of the station, leapt into the next available cab and was driven away. I didn’t take a look back. I had one moment when I thought to take a picture of the station, I had taken pictures of as many of the stations that we had stopped. But I didn’t take a picture of the Chicago Union Station, where the train ride began and I didn’t take a picture of the Seattle station where it ended. I guess like every good story “in medias res” was the best part.
I sit in my hotel room now, missing the chuga-chuga, wondering where the whistle went and feeling like I’m still rocking. But then again, it’s another adventure tomorrow. Tomorrow I stretch my legs and move.

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