Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Amtrak Blues

This is the first year that Tiel has been able to get two weeks of vacation together, so we're taking a long-delayed train trip. It was going to be Portland-Chicago-New Orleans, but that's just not going to happen any time soon. We're visiting people in upstate New York and coming back with a side-trip to Grand Rapids to see Chuck Pippin and Mushtaq.

A lot of people have bad things to say about Amtrak, and some of it is true. Cheap oil and effective lobbying by the airline industry have left us with a starved passenger rail system that can hold its head up proudly with, say, Bulgaria. But that's a rant for another time. Even with its problems Amtrak still provides a really wonderful experience.

We left Friday afternoon on the Empire Builder. It's one of the most beautiful rides you could ever take. It starts with a ride through the Columbia River Gorge. There's a point part way up when the Douglas fir forest switches suddenly, in less than a mile, to scrub oak, juniper and sagebrush. We missed the Ponderosa pine near Spokane. Night fell about the time we reached Pasco. Pasco gets its name from the Pacific Steamship Company which took freight as far up the river as deep water ships could go.

We were in Montana by morning and went through Glacier National Park during the nicest part of the day. Go there while the eponymous glaciers are still there. The ice is retreating quickly and could be gone inside twenty years.

North Dakota? Flat with loess carved into fantastic shapes by wind and water. Minnesota? Flat. Lots of lakes.

The train arrived in Chicago miraculously on time. The waiting room for the Southbound trains resembles a badly-designed feed lot. Sixteen hours later we arrived in Albany-Rennsalear.

Amtrak isn't up to Japanese or European standards, but it's still very nice. The seats are large and recline. The view is beautiful. The ride is comfortable. It's a bit less expensive than flying, and you don't leave feeling like you've just survived the Middle Passage - otherwise known as flying coach.

I managed to get a good deal on an economy sleeper for the first leg of the trip. The privacy is nice. The shower is very welcome. But it really isn't that much more comfortable. If there are cancellations we might be able to get one on the way back.

Amtrak Blues? It's a damned fine album by Alberta Hunter. Not many can claim to have gotten their chops in the 'teens, had a red-hot jazz career through the early fifties and come back in the seventies. And only one of the is Ms. Hunter.

How couldI have forgotten?

Outside of Buffalo, NY the train stopped. Two police (FBI? Local?) in plain clothes, pistols exposed, got on the train. They went to a group of people and asked if each was a US citizen. They checked passports and took away one guy off with a Ghanian passport. One officer said to the other "The others are in the dining car. We'll have someone get them."

What happened? Who can say? There was something very Centerforce or KGB about the whole thing.