Traveling by Amtrak in the Company of my Son
an 11 day voyage, © Peter Tinits
I HAVE HAD A ROMANTIC fascination with trains since listening to their whistles at night from my bed in Toronto when I was my son’s age and younger. I sleep well on them. I have slept comfortably on corridor floors beside the toilet on crowded European trains when it was the only place to lie down. I have slept on a plank which folds out from the wall on Indian trains, with my backpack chained to my leg for safekeeping. This is not to illustrate the strength of my stomach and leg, so much as to establish my credentials as a train aficionado.
Until 2004, it was possible to take a train directly from my home in Stratford, Ontario to Chicago without getting off. Stratford, the Shakespearean theatre capital of Canada, is on the Toronto to Chicago line. I had seen Shakespeare but never Chicago. Amongst the world’s great train trips is the Chicago to San Francisco line, the California Zephyr. I could theoretically walk from my house to the train station and ride to the Pacific Ocean.
Reading down the list of stops on the itinerary was a eureka moment. They included the ski resort town of Winter Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Aspen, Reno, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. Amtrak allows stopovers at no extra charge. Amtrak Vacations offers rail-air vacation packages, which means that you can make the return trip by air without the usual inflated cost associated with one-way flights.
I had an idea this trip would be a way of promoting supplementary father-son bonding with my eleven-year-old. As it turned out, we complemented each other in several ways. My middle-aged eyes can no longer read road signs until I am level with them and already past. My son Andrew sees minute details and has a memory like video replay. I sense menace in dark streets and missed travel connections. Andrew is an uncontaminated optimist.
Andrew’s sense of direction is still developing. His instinctual choice is usually 180 degrees wrong, and I advised him to use this to our advantage by deciding a course for us, and then applying a 180-degree correction factor. Armed with his powers of observation and my knowledge of trigonometry, we set out.
Day One – Stratford to Chicago
I was a little leery of the reception we might receive in America. There had been news reports that in the wake of nine-eleven many Americans considered Canada a haven for terrorists and believed we were not serious allies. We boarded the Amtrak, a train of only four cars at 9 a.m. in Stratford. Our seats were beside members of an American tour group returning to Illinois after a session of gorging on Shakespeare. They regarded us with intense interest, as if we were things of beauty, as if they had been with each other night and day for a full week.
When I told the man seated behind me what we were up to, the entire population of the rail car simultaneously registered the information. People rushed to offer us home made cookies and suggestions as to what we might like to see in Chicago. These elderly English teachers and retired insurance executives welcomed us into their family.
Sharon across the aisle, who was in her sixties and volunteered at the Art Institute of Chicago, was the recently widowed wife of a radiologist. She was attractive and impeccably coiffed, wore expensive-looking jewellery and warmly recommended the gallery as a must-see. She had the clean, healthy look of someone I might have known in college. I would likely have telephoned the numbers or emailed the emails on the business card she gave me if I were ten years older and single. Being a doctor as well, I would have qualified.
Another American woman who chatted with us warned us not to stare up at the giant Chicago buildings when we got off the train, as we would label ourselves as rubes and invite trouble. We should keep our money out of sight and next to our skins. She mistrusted Sharon’s wholesome looks, and recommended the Museum of Science and Industry.
We made good progress right up until we got to London, Ontario, the second stop. There, we were delayed for two hours while emergency personnel dealt with the aftermath of a car-freight train collision further down the track. When we finally got close to the border, a young lady from VIA Rail told us mournfully that on Monday and Wednesday this week U.S. customs officials had taken several hours for an extra rigorous inspection. She then wisely exited the train. This was Friday.
In Port Huron, Michigan two customs officials and two soldiers in camouflage gear stopped the train and evacuated it of all people and belongings. They spent hours searching through the train and luggage of the grey-haired Shakespeare aficionados. Our American friends seemed not to be bothered by this. They said that the soldiers were junior and fearful about missing anything. The terrorist yield must have been low that day.
Being genuine, rosy-cheeked tourists, they left our luggage completely untouched. We were the only foreigners, and the only ones to escape scrutiny. We pulled into Chicago at 11:30 p.m., six hours late. I pressed my wallet close to my skin, snuck a look up at an impressively tall building and accepted a ride from a cab driver who greeted us with “Get in!”
Day Two – Chicago
Our hotel was in a good area, only one block from the Magnificent Mile shopping district, just north of the Chicago River. My son watched cartoons while I went for a jog past gleaming superstores well stocked with luxury items for discriminating clientele. I returned to tell him what I had seen and that “mummy must never know.” Mummy was on that day in Lithuania, escorting her elderly father to an emotional reunion with relatives he had not seen since World War II. There was no immediate risk.
Suitably covered with sun block 25, we walked together to the foot of the old Chicago Water Tower, where we heard free live jazz and boarded a free tourist trolley bus. The driver was bubbling with quips and enthusiasm as he drove south on North Michigan past the Art Institute of Chicago to the museum campus, on the Lake Michigan waterfront. Getting off, I hung my head because I didn’t have anything smaller than a twenty to put in his tip jar. He might have been twenty dollars good, but I was too cheap to acknowledge it.
At the museum campus, we were faced with choosing amongst the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium. We enjoyed exotic fish, organized thematically by habitat at the Shedd Aquarium, which also houses the “Oceanarium.” This theatre has an impressive panoramic glass backdrop blending infinitely into the lake, and a performing dolphin show. We watched two IMAX films at the Planetarium, to do with the impossibly huge and still expanding universe. The Field Museum looked impossibly huge, so we went for a swim in Lake Michigan, as the locals seemed to be doing with impunity.
We hiked back to our hotel through grassy Grant Park and along North Michigan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. We passed a open-air modern art exhibit, but the streets had gotten significantly more creepy after dark until we reached the Chicago River. America’s muggers seemed to stay south of the river, but the beggars were out in force on both sides.
Day Three – Chicago to Omaha
In the morning, we walked to Navy Pier, a twenty-minute hike from the Magnificent Mile area. Navy Pier has the distinction of being an amusement park on a pier. There is a large Ferris wheel, but otherwise little for sophisticated thrill seekers. Surrounding it, we found more beaches with remarkably clean water and parks bedecked with floral finery.
We took a cab to Chicago’s Union Station and boarded the California Zephyr around 3 pm. The rail cars are an imposing two stories high and gleaming silver in colour. The porter showed us our sleeper compartment. Andrew was enraptured by its seats and walls which could be magically folded into beds, tables, cubbyholes and a closet. There was even a shower down the hall. We watched the continent begin to drift past our window, although at this stage there were only deserted industrial suburbs and tired Illinois towns.
Meals, included with sleeper reservations, are served on white tablecloths in the dining car with transcontinentalist dinner companions in foursomes. I had an excellent, apparently BSE free, steak for supper and heard the first of many dinner table life stories. People are quick to share intimate details of their lives if they sense that they will never see you again and that you have a long train trip in common. We understood that there are lots of miles of unchanging cornfields to pass through in Iowa.
Our new friend Tom suggested that we adjourn to the observation car to watch the train cross the Mississippi River. He was a computer programmer in Omaha who had almost taken a job in Vermont, and who had married the woman whom he regretted not marrying after marrying his first wife. He was lucky. It is rare in this world of tangled webs to be able to move up-weave to try a different strand.
Day Four – Fraser-Winter Park and Grand Lake, Colorado
We woke and peered eagerly out our window to see where we were. It was a wide dry plain in Nebraska which we had entered yesterday evening. We went to the observation car to wait for the foothills of the Rockies and were met by geriatric delinquents. They were hoarding seats for their friends, their eyes looking through us complacently. Returning to our cabin, we spend the next two hours watching train tracks in Denver station, waiting for freight trains to clear the tracks.
Lunch was with a Vietnam War veteran living in Sacramento. He told us he detested the congestion of California and only lived there because his wife was a teacher. Having not fought in a war, I didn’t dare challenge his line of thinking. I looked closely at his wife to see if she looked guilty about not finding a teaching job in an airier state.
When he discovered we were Canadian, he remembered that American draft dodgers had found refuge there. He had been a member of the Green Berets and had been in battles with 90 per cent casualty rates. I asked him whether he had been drafted or had volunteered. He was drafted but had twice volunteered for additional training, in the sniper and then Green Beret corps, in the hope of avoiding the active duty. Ultimately, when the war didn’t end, he was trapped.
I asked him whether he had survived because statistically someone had to, or because of some skill he possessed. Showing some agitation, he said that he had decided not to die in that jungle. He had reacted to every situation swiftly and decisively. He felt no remorse until he got home, where he was multiply decorated, as if for consolation. I was impressed by and felt uneasy with his fierce melancholy. When the meal was over, he and his wife told me that they didn’t share these stories with many people. I would prefer to have this man on my side when teams are being chosen for armed combat.
As we waited in the corridor with our luggage, Andrew noticed some water dripping from the ceiling. He moved my luggage out of harm’s way, and unfortunately some of the drops fell on his head. As he brought his hand from his hair to his nose, he said, “Daddy, this is not water.” I smelled his hair. It was definitely eau de toilette—overflow from a toilet reservoir upstairs. We got off in the middle of a lightning storm in Fraser-Winter Park, Colorado, three hours late.
At first, we declined, and then further down the road were convinced to accept a ride from a friendly American family in an already full minivan. They dropped us at the Fraser Hertz car rental. We cruised the pretty ski resort town of Winter Park where we sheltered until the storm subsided. A spray can labelled “Fart Extinguisher” in a gift shop caught my son’s eye. I decided to purchase this invention because Andrew still needed cheering up, and like my son, I was curious about the efficacy of its application to human hair.
With the lightning moving away to the south, we did an about face on Highway 34 and headed north for Grand Lake, a picturesque town on an alpine lake just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. The waitresses at dinner were Russian exchange students, a service industry phenomenon that we would see often in Colorado. They were lovely girls still emerging from Soviet indifference to the process of feeding people.
Day Five – Grand Lake to Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Since I had been dominating the agenda, I gave Andrew the choice of driving through world famous Rocky Mountain National Park or playing mini-golf. He chose mini-golf, and so we walked into downtown Grand Lake. The golf place hadn’t opened yet. Consequently, we activated plan B, driving into the mountains along the highest paved road in North America.
Here, finally, were some very majestic peaks, comparable to the Canadian Rockies. I found myself getting vertiginous behind the wheel. The driver can look up at the peaks or into the chasms only very briefly before plunging to his death. When half the time we had allotted for the park had elapsed we executed a dangerous U-turn, snapped a photo by a stand of aspen, and drove quickly back to Fraser to meet our morning train.
I harassed the Russian girl at the Hertz car return to hurry with the paperwork in order to catch the 11:40 train, which didn’t arrive until 14:40 railroad time. We were beginning to detect a pattern. After two hours on the platform, a man in a Ford truck especially equipped with train wheels cruised up to us. In a “do not despair” voice, he told us that the train was very close. Our stomachs were grumbling about missing lunch, but we didn’t dare leave. We decided we should bargain on trains being three hours late, but we should always be on time just in case. This would prove to be an unnecessary precaution.
After safely boarding, we cautiously asked about the tardiness. There was a chorus of “It’s not OUR fault! It’s the RAILROAD’S fault.” We replied “But you ARE the railroad.” “Nooooooo. We don’t own the tracks. The freight companies own the tracks and their trains get priority.” I considered telling them that this doesn’t happen in Switzerland.
We settled into the observation car with its panoramic windows for the three-hour trip to Glenwood Springs along the Colorado River canyon. This trip is beautiful, and Amtrak provides a knowledgeable guide to mingle with and inform the passengers. He informed us that the river rafters who were mooning us were indulging in a well-established form of greeting. We arrived in Glenwood Springs in a light drizzle.
We wheeled our luggage the short distance to the Hotel Colorado. This is a once grand hotel, gone slightly to seed and was my favourite lodging of our trip. The ceilings are high and the walls festooned with pictures of dignitaries who frequented the place in its glory years. It is located across the street from the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, which bills itself as the largest spring fed swimming pool in the world. We had dinner in the fancy hotel restaurant under the watchful eyes of Teddy Roosevelt and Al Capone, hunters both. The buffalo steak was excellent.
Day Six – Aspen
We had a full agenda: Hot Springs, Fairy Caves, and Aspen. Rising early, we crossed the street to the pool. It is now privately owned, but was once part of the Hotel Colorado grounds, which extended to the Colorado River.
The pool is truly huge. It is the size of two Olympic sized pools filled end to end with naturally warm slightly sulphurous water, slate gray in colour because of the concrete bottom. We swam lengths, dodging the older bodies who were ingenuously absorbing mineral and vapour cures. The water was too warm for nonbelievers to find refreshing. It’s probably better in winter.
Back in street clothes, we caught the tour bus to the Fairy Caves. The tour company is located right next to Hotel Colorado. This cave complex was first commercialized a century ago by a lawyer diversifying from finding holes in contracts to mountainsides. The property lay neglected until a decade ago when additional caverns were discovered by an intrepid new owner who squeezed through long crevices, passable only by holding an exhaled breath. This is not something I would ever consider. The caves are interesting, but more knowledgeable cave tourists informed me that there are larger stalagmites/tites to behold in Arizona.
We caught the RFTA (Roaring Fork Transportation Authority) bus to Aspen in the afternoon. The trip takes an hour and a half. It costs six dollars and leaves from in front of an ice cream parlour a block from Hotel Colorado. Kelly sat across the aisle from us on the bus. Kelly is a single mom who recently relocated from Seattle to waitress in Aspen. She told us that like us, ex-president Clinton had been carousing in Aspen just last week.
The bus gradually filled with other Aspen waiters, mostly Spanish speaking and distinguishable by the pressed white shirts they carried on hangers. No one here could actually afford to live in Aspen. Kelly showed us where to get off the bus. She took us by the hand and showed us where the shops were, where her restaurant was and where to catch the bus back.
We set off on our own. We had tickets that evening for a performance at the Aspen Music Festival but no other commitments. Aspen has many upscale shops. As we are not shoppers by nature, our feet quickly got tired and we needed to kill some time. I purchased a magnesium based incendiary device for igniting campfires that my son had his eye on in an outdoorsman’s shop. Once outside, Andrew suggested that we discreetly try the magnesium.
As we looked over the restaurant menu that evening, the Russian waitress explained that she was not really a student. Her father had spent a lot of money paying the Russian firm that found her a job and organized her papers. We were honoured to be served by a genuine daughter of the Russian oligarchy, making her way in the new world.
After dinner, we hiked a fairly long way to Harris Concert Hall. In the summer, aspiring and established classical musicians mingle and give recitals under an elaborate tent. It was pastoral and congenial. It is modelled on Tanglewood Massachusetts, where they do a similar thing a little better.
Patrons filled the concert hall to capacity. Even the stage had seating for students behind the musicians. I am a collector of experiences, but have no classical music background. They were playing Shostakovich, yet another Russian. Although it seemed technically good, the return bus to Glenwood Springs ran only hourly.
At first intermission half the program was done, and I consulted Andrew about whether we should catch the 9:10 bus back. He searched my eyes for clues, not wanting to disappoint me. I presented the arguments for staying, which were that the best might yet be coming and that I had paid for the tickets. He reassured me that he was also in favour of leaving.
We flagged the bus down on Highway 82 and Kelly was there, having been dismissed early because business was slow. She asked about our day and showed us where to get off the bus. As we parted company, she inquired nonchalantly whether we were still really leaving tomorrow.
Day Seven – Glenwood Canyon
In the morning, I visited the weight room while Andrew watched cartoons, which he must occasionally do to maintain good karma. Because of my happy experience with the buffalo, I decided to indulge in the hotel breakfast. I had the Eggs Benedict (Al Capone’s favourite breakfast menu item.) This was quite a lot like an expensive Egg McMuffin. Andrew had the raisin bread French toast, a favourite of the Roosevelt kids.
We went downstairs to Canyon Bikes in the basement of Hotel Colorado to rent bicycles. They gave us a map and we cycled to Glenwood Canyon. This was thrilling for me. The bicycle path follows the Colorado River gorge. Feeling the wind and sun beside the white water and cliffs is a big notch above seeing it from the train window. Spectators, who would have enjoyed watching Christians in the Coliseum, wait at hazardous looking stretches of rapids to view the rafters and kayakers.
An added benefit of traveling with an eleven-year-old is that he has no agenda. My son was generally happy to provide companionship while doing whatever I wanted to do. We cycled for three hours, after which Andrew’s patience had entirely run out. He was exhausted and bitter. We returned to the hotel, which we had checked out of in the morning, to get our luggage. Andrew sacked out on a bench in the change room of the gym downstairs while I snuck a free shower. We got some takeout food and headed for the 15:27 train, passing a mini-golf course, in which he showed no interest.
The 15:27 arrived three hours late. When the train did arrive, it was like coming home. We got another sleeper compartment identical to our first one, only better because it was on the second floor and closer to the free juice and coffee. The conductor, who recognized us from a few days before, came over and apologized for the pee falling on Andrew’s head. After another good steak dinner, we went back contented to our compartment to convert the seats and walls to beds. Amtrak showed a movie in the observation car after dark, but it was always the same one.
On a train, toilet facilities are down the hall. Most men my age have to get up at least once at night to urinate. I got used to sleeping with my walking shorts on. This not only prevented having to wake up to look for them in the dark, but also helped to keep the neighbours on side. My wallet slept with me in the right-hand pocket, and my camera in the left. Travel documents and reserve funds slept in a belt around my waste. Sleeping was admittedly lumpy, but I had no security concerns while making water.
Day Eight – Tahoe City
We woke up in Nevada, having traversed Utah overnight. As had become our custom, we eagerly looked out the window for strange new wonders. There were limitless expanses of giant sand formations. We stumbled down the hall for last call to breakfast and made two new friends at our “Alice Through the Looking Glass Restaurant.”
We were seated across from a man and a boy. They were on a father-son train trip to San Francisco. He was a doctor. I was a doctor. His wife was a teacher. My wife was a teacher. We were eating breakfast. They were eating breakfast. We shared impressions and wondered at it all, like monkeys looking in a mirror. If you travel far enough, you will eventually meet yourself.
Although the train was supposed to arrive in Truckee, California at 11:50 a.m., it seemed like we would still be on-board for lunch. We were just pulling into Reno, Nevada. From the dining car window, the main street looked full of ambling gamblers. California was only a half an hour away. The Californians seated across from us said that if beauty were a concern, it would be best to stay on until we got to the western (California) side of Lake Tahoe. We chugged into Truckee three hours late. This was no surprise, but it would cut into our time in Tahoe City where we had allotted only one day.
After a phone call, the people from Enterprise Car Rental picked us up right from the train station. We drove toward the lake along the skinny little Truckee River, which was as congested as a California freeway full of bumper-to-bumper bobbing river rafters. Squaw Valley Ski Resort, home of the 1960 winter Olympics, was on the way so we stopped for a picture. We found our motel in Tahoe City seconds after they had cancelled us as no shows. The proprietor behind the desk said he could have sold the room ten times over. I made a mental note to build a motel there some day.
We now had only the evening and the next morning to spend. The lake was pretty here, misty and ringed with boulders and low mountains. The roads were too jammed with traffic for touring the shore by car to be any fun. The proprietor said Lake Tahoe was too cold for most people to swim. We ventured no further than the motel pool, swimming miles much as Burt Lancaster would have done in The Swimmer.
Day Nine – Truckee, California
Andrew was still asleep. The motel guy had said that A Santé fitness club behind Safeway supermarket was good. I left my son a note and went to make up for the coming sedentary day on the train. Call me crazy, but A Santé was another major highlight of my trip. There is a full splendid view of Lake Tahoe out the front window.
No one was swimming in the lake. The club attendant was not a swimmer but she said that you could drive to a beach a few miles east if you wanted to see people in the water. The day was going to be very hot. The roads were extremely congested. I had come a long way. I did a mental calculation of how much time I would need.
Andrew and I conferred over how late we thought today’s train would be. Our experience to date was six, three and three hours late. He optimistically said one, but I bet three. He changed his mind to three hours, I suppose because he loves me and respects my judgement. We bought snacks for the train at the supermarket, cursing nervously because our checkout line wasn’t moving. I had to admit that California is crowded. Enterprise dropped us back at the train station in Truckee at 11:30 a.m., twenty minutes early for the train.
The station manager told us sympathetically that the train was three hours delayed, but that she could watch our bags. So, we were both right. I would have had time to go swimming in Lake Tahoe and record a new entry in my book of achievements. We bought drinks and walked around. We visited a toy store. At the the jail museum, an older, genteel couple from the historical society showed us their wares.
The local friendly barber sat with us at lunch in a trendy sandwich shop on the main street. He was so busy he was constantly turning people away. I told him to charge more and made a mental note to invest in a Truckee barbershop. We sat some more and then went back to the train station. The train would be delayed for another two hours, until 4:30.
Andrew and I played a game of chess on a bench inside the station and chatted with the manager who had watched our bags. Then I heard a frightening rumour. It would be 5:30, and someone whispered 6:30 before the train would arrive. I went back to the manager and asked if she could confirm the 5:30 time. She told us that she couldn’t keep calling, but that we could call Amtrak at an 800 number ourselves for updates. It was on this day in Truckee that I made the acquaintance of Julie from Amtrak.
Julie is a congenial “fembot” who speaks with you in full eloquent sentences. She is earnest, yet business-like. She is courteous and concerned even when provoked by an unpleasant, petulant caller. She confirmed the 6:30 p.m. time. The train station was closing and we were getting a little desperate. The station manager said that she was sorry, but she couldn’t take everyone home with her, evacuated the waiting room, locked the doors and took no one home with her.
We waited on the platform with a man and his son and nephew. He explained that it was not Amtrak’s fault. Amtrak did not own the train lines, and freight trains took precedence. This pawn of the system named Gary, reciting the party line, irritated me. We waited on an outdoor bench on the other side of the station until 6:15 before we went back to the platform.
Gary had called Julie on his cell phone again, and the revised time was 9:30 pm. This was getting very worrying. As we walked toward the main street together, Gary’s son suggested that we have dinner together. I had lost my taste for these particular dinner companions because Gary had explained to me about Amtrak not owning the tracks. Andrew and I had to sit somewhere to consider our options. Derelicts were beginning to congregate at the train station. I didn’t want to spend the night on the street.
I bought Andrew some ice cream, planted him on a bench beside a pay phone and called Julie again. I didn’t own a cell phone. The revised projected time was still 9:30 pm. I got through to a live person in Chicago. There would still be a bus to meet the train at its terminus in Emeryville. My third call was to our hotel in San Francisco. They would hold the room, but advised not walking to the hotel after dark. The clerk gave me the numbers of two cab companies. We needed some more American cash and a backup plan.
After wheeling our luggage along the sidewalk to the historic Truckee Hotel, we approached a young male at the desk. Yes, he had one remaining room. When would we know whether we would take it? Something in our panicked, haggard demeanour made him volunteer to hold it for us free of charge until 9:30 pm. This was more than a little surprising.
He was giving us directions to the closest bank machine when a teenage girl burst into the hotel. She asked breathlessly whether there were any rooms. The clerk responded calmly that he had just sold his last one. No one spoke and I stared hard at the clerk. He met my gaze innocently. I was stunned by his kindness and allegiance. As we were leaving the hotel, Andrew said that he felt sorry for the “lady.” I walked out of the hotel looking past her and her relatives in stony silence.
We met Gary on the street and camped with his group under a streetlamp outside a bar. Now that our future was more assured, he didn’t seem so bad. Eventually, he asked what I did for a living. “Anesthesiologist. What do you do?” He paused a long time before he said stockbroker. For the past year it has been less safe to admit to this occupation.
Gary’s wife had driven home to San Francisco in their car earlier in the day. They had been staying in a vacation home in Truckee. He was returning by train for adventure. From a bench across from the train station, we watched the last chance bus for San Francisco leave at 9:00 p.m. We all walked to the station together and waited. Nine-thirty came and went. Gary was getting openly critical of Amtrak. He was going to call their customer service department on Monday. He was going to board the train, pay by credit card and then cancel payment.
Some school kids from a camp were waiting with us on the platform. Everyone called Julie, and she opined 10:30 p.m. There was a rumour that the train would stop for five hours in Truckee while the crew had a nap. The kids started to cry. Gary went back to his vacation home. When the train arrived eleven hours late at 10:40 p.m., the conductor refused to take our tickets, implying that the ride was free.
Day Ten – San Francisco
As they wouldn’t let us change our reservation to a sleeper, we slept sitting up in coach. This was just as well because at 5 a.m. they took us off the train in Emeryville and bussed us to downtown San Francisco. The streets were deserted. It must have been a slow night. The muggers and beggars had given up. We followed the lead of another father-son team and walked the four blocks to our room at the Holiday Inn. Andrew slept until noon while I organized some activities.
I love the cool fresh air in San Francisco. I have happy associations. I remember hanging onto the back of a moving cable car in the late 70’s when I was on my way to do my medical internship in New Zealand. On this, our day ten, there was a two-block line up to board the cable cars near Fisherman’s Wharf.
We took in most of the city’s major sights, but primarily from behind the plate glass window of a tour bus. I particularly liked how Haight-Ashbury had morphed into something more mature but still hippy-ish. Andrew liked Lombard St., the most crooked street in the world. We both liked the Botanical Gardens at Golden Gate Park, with each of its avenues dedicated to a different country’s native species.
Everyone knows that San Francisco is alive with great things to do. The bus tour was really all we had time for out of an intended two-day stay. The airport shuttle gave us a last feel of the hills the city is built on. We arrived two hours early at the airport and were told that due to security concerns, the airplane to Toronto would be delayed two hours. There were regular announcements at the airport that unattended luggage would be destroyed. We saw a corpse with paramedics pumping on its chest in an airport corridor. This seemed to attract no notice from passers-by.
I was standing in the aisle of the flight home preventing leg clots. The flight attendant poured me a cup of hot tea. The plane began shaking. The co-pilot came on the air and told us to sit down immediately, fasten our seatbelts and cross our legs beneath us. I didn’t like the way his voice cracked. I have heard the same sound in my own voice when things were not going well with an anesthetic.
Momentarily, I couldn’t think of how I could regain my seat while balancing rodeo-style a teacup, the contents of which were freely scalding my chest and splashing onto my seat. I put the cup onto my son’s tray table to sit down. The flight attendant rushed over and put it on the so-called floor.
I still like trains. I feel warmly now toward Julie from Amtrak. Sleeping sitting up in coach is at least as comfortable as sleeping first class on a plane. Considering all the new realities, it’s good to be on the ground. Terrorists and weather patterns leave you a sporting chance of survival.
Amtrak is far from perfect. They’ll pee on your head and make you wait forever, but they’ll feel bad about it. You can’t plan to be anywhere at a set time. I never met anyone who arrived on schedule. You spend a lot less time at your destination because you arrive late, and have to wait to leave late again, but they’re embarrassed.
Andrew told me he enjoyed the waiting because we spent time together. I was flattered, and so I changed my mind to liking it too. They were the best times. They were the times to hold on to.