Riding the rails

Amtrak and oil cars

(Source: Flikr Creative Commons)

“To the gentleman with the ukulele in the rear sleeper: please report to the dining car.” This isn’t the kind of announcement you hear on an airline, but I heard it on Amtrak last May.

I’ve been a fan of trains for as long as I can remember.  From Lunch with Casey and model trains I’ve graduated to Trains magazine and Amtrak, but my passion for the subject continues and even spills over to my professional life as an economic historian.  So, about a year ago I thought it was about time that I took a trip on the routes that have most fascinated me over the years: the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle), the Coast Starlight (Seattle to San Francisco), and the California Zephyr (San Francisco to Chicago).

I rode the rails for eight days, passed through fifteen states and three time zones, and traveled 5550 miles.  (The states were, in order, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.)

I slid along Puget Sound, San Pablo Bay, the Missouri River and the Mississippi River.  I saw the Pacific Ocean, Glacier Park, and Donner Pass.

I saw oil pumps in North Dakota, oil tank cars on every stretch of track east and west, and fracking sand in Wisconsin.  I saw hundreds of blades for wind turbines outside a plant in Wyoming and I saw solar panels all along the routes.

I saw the backyard of America: backdoors to buildings, backsides of restaurants, loading docks, abandoned rail lines, abandoned towns, and abandoned people.  I learned about the first place where Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and sent to concentration camps (Bainbridge Island, Washington).

And I talked to people I would never get a chance to meet in my every day life:

  • A librarian who grew up Scandia, Minnesota, and who now works in Palo Alto, California;
  • A railroader who lost his job 25 years ago when the interlocking towers disappeared from Conrail;
  • The last station agent in America, who rode with me through Glacier Park and made it a most memorable ride. (He worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.)
  • A woman who was born in the Netherlands, married an American, came to the US in 1959, and raised a family on Long Island. (They’re still married to the American: she’s 77 and he’s 89.)
  • A character right out of a book: Reggie Howard was the attendant for my California Zephyr trip from San Francisco to Chicago. He was a central figure in Henry Kisor’s Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America.
  • A woman from Columbia who came to the US in her 20s in search of a better life. She cleaned hotel rooms and homes, waited tables (despite having earned a college degree in Columbia) and worked her way to a green card and a job doing translation services for a company in Missouri.
  • A family-practice physician from Illinois who talked about how as a student he loved learning but hated school.
  • A couple from Miami: he designs custom high-powered boats and she designs and sells jewelry.
  • Two men from the Ukraine (who did not know each other) both working in construction in the Bakken oil patch, and who were both leaving because of the fall in oil prices and consequent decrease in construction activity.

I hope to write more about this both trip as both a scholar and for fun.

However, there’s one thing missing: a loop to the east, touching Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington.  I think I’ll start planning it for this May.  After all, it’s double points on Amtrak Guest Rewards from March 21 through May 21.