Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Iron Horse, 2

TRAIN thoughts, continued.

Katherine remarked in response to my first 'train thoughts' post that everything I had written was about the train itself, and never mentioned where I had actually been. True.

I've been thinking about that. I could talk about the canyons the California Zephyr goes through ascending into the Rockies from the west: Glenwood Canyon, Ruby Canyon, Lower and Upper Gore Canyons; the quietude of ascending the western slopes of the Sierras in a heavy snowstorm, while the train moves slowly, climbing upward; the desolate parched country around Green River Colorado, framed by the Book Cliffs rising for thousands of feet to the north; the great alkaline flats of Utah; the still San Francisco Bay, with black crumbling wooden piles rising up out of the shallows, telling where docks had once been, that served forgotten enterprises.

But words seem so inadequate. Words often seem inadequate to me to describe landscape. What I really wish is that I could draw. The appropriate language to talk about visual phenomena is a visual language. I wish drawing were taught in school, the way writing is. Most people write adequately if not spectacularly, and if they were taught to draw, it would make a more interesting world. I'd like to read about what my friends thought of the people and customs and food they encountered on their visit to Egypt, but when it comes to the pyramids and the sphinxes and the Nile, I'm much rather see their drawings of them.

Oh, and if they'd cook me a dinner comprised of the foods they enjoyed in Egypt when they returned home, that would be the best way to describe the foods. The best language to describe gustatory phenomena is a gustatory language. Don't you think? Think of all the lame writing by wine critics: "Full-bodied, with hints of blackberry, anise and tannin, and a lengthy finish." Does anyone know what the hell that means? Just let me whether you liked it, and then let me taste it for myself, please.

The view of human life you get from window of a railway train is a pretty grim one. Train tracks are not built through expensive neighborhoods. They seem to have been built through mostly industrial areas, and houses that are built near train tracks might be charitably described as 'modest'. In Pennsylvania there are a lot of hard-scrabble houses about the tracks, in the Midwest there are trailer parks. Buildings that abut train tracks are invariably built to face away from them. The train passenger always sees the backs of things: people's messy backyards, the tires and trash they threw over the back fence, the broken toys. Even in active, healthy cities, such as Truckee, which is a mountain sports mecca in the Sierras, and the tracks parallel the main street, what you see is mainly the backsides of buildings.

One advantage in crossing the Sierras or the Rockies by train, I have learned from talking to train passengers from these areas, is that in winter, the train almost always gets through. This is not true of cars. Apparently, the interstates through both ranges are often closed by snow in the winter, on very short notice. Trains are almost never held up. Plowing tracks seems to be easier than plowing highway. Or maybe Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, cares more about getting its freights through than the states do about keeping the interstates open. As I mentioned above, we crossed from west of the Sierras to the east in a driving snowstorm. It had apparently been snowing for a day or more, and there were piles of snow by the rail bed that seemed to have been left by a railway plow. I saw one of these plows later on, a small, bright yellow engine with a huge plow mounted on front, a high as the engine was.

We crossed via Donner Pass. It was nearing dinner time, and as we passed Donner Lake I couldn't help but notice that the other passengers were looking mighty delicious. But I decided to hold off until the dining car started its dinner service.

After several days of dining car food, I've come to the conclusion that at its best, it's diner quality. That's not necessarily bad. A well-run diner with a chef who cares about quality can turn out a toothsome omelet or burger. But quality isn't consistent. One day saw a Denver omelet and home fries that had a distinctly stale taste to them. A few days later, the Denver and fries were perfect in taste and seasoning. Dinner is more problematic. Sauces are heavy, vegetables pedestrian, meat tended to be overcooked. Salad dressings (frenchthousandislandranch) are obviously bottled, and abominable. Service, however, has been consistently prompt and friendly throughout the trip.

I had  expected to do a lot of reading on this trip, but I've done less than expected. Unfortunately, the compartments on the 'Superliner' cars aren't designed for reading. The overhead lights are too dim to read by at night. There are little spot 'reading lamps' mounted on the seats (like the ones on the underside of the overhead rack in airplanes), but they are poorly adjustable, and can't be made to illuminate a book in your lap. To use them, you must hold a book 18 inches above your lap, a tiring position that no one will do for long. Thus, reading is limited to daylight hours. Glad I brought a laptop for nighttime hours. Lots of other passengers did too, I've noticed.

Really bad engineering on the lights, guys.

The other sleeper cars, the 'Viewliner' type, are much, much better. Nice bright fluorescent lamps above each seat, and in the ceiling (that can be individually turned off if you don't want that much light). A higher room, too, with a luggage space at the top, which the Superliner doesn't have. Each standard sleeper room in a Viewliner has its own toilet and washbasin, too, a plus. The Viewliner may be a newer type of car. Amtrak between Philly and Chicago runs Viewliners, but on the longer leg between Chicago and SF runs only Superliners. If you have a choice (which I suspect you aren't going to, on most trips), get the Viewliner.

 Rumors are flying that transcontinental service will be abolished at the end of this fiscal year (whenever that is) because Amtrak can't fix its chronic deficits. If so, this may have been my last chance to take this trip, ever. I'm glad I did. It's been an interesting experience


meaning: gas, spirit
genki == healthy, high spirited
tenki == weather
The three strokes at the top, and the bent stroke on the right are a representation of vapors. Henshall suggests taking the crossed strokes as an 'X', and this mnemonic  'Spirit-like vapors from source X'. Not one of his better mnemonics, if you ask me. But most people don't have a problem remembering this kanji, it must be one of the most commonly used in Japanese.


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