I arrived in the Bay Area for the first time 50 years ago this month. I was 18 and had never been more than a few miles west of the Mississippi River. On summer evenings sometimes I’d see clouds building in the west and thought maybe that’s what the Rockies might look like on the horizon. After working for eight months at my first job — as a copyboy at Chicago Today — and saving most of what I earned, I bought a ticket from Chicago to Oakland on Amtrak.
I was moderately serious about keeping a journal, and I wrote a long entry about the train ride west. From the dates in my notebook, I can see I didn’t write the narrative until about three weeks after the fact. So while I think I believed everything happened just the way I related it, and I feel that I must have worked from notes of some kind — my notebook is remarkably free of scratch-outs and rewriting — some of the details about people and places may have become lost by the time I wrote it all down. Reading the account now, I can see a few mistakes. For instance, I put the town of Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Summit, and I seem to have been confused about Bay Area geography. What follows is the first partof the entry, complete with botched spelling and punctuation, embarrassing asides, vague semi-true historical details, and with notes where I feel the need to explain or correct something.
The date on the journal entry in my notebook is February 9, 1973, when I was visiting with a family friend up in Twain Harte, Tuolumne County. I believe the train I was taking, the California Zephyr, pulled out of Chicago’s Union Station at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, January 19 and arrived in Oakland almost exactly 48 hours later.
West on the Train
The train rolls out slow from Chicago’s center, and gathers its speed through the West Side. The afternoon is cloudy and is turning dark as you enter the Prairie, past the grey, dirty town of Aurora.
Familiar Illinois country: neon lamps scattered across the rich farmlands. Farms and their houses stand close by the lights, in the deep dusk you can see a few as the Burlington opens up. The farmers sit inside the houses and wait for the warmness of March and April to break the dormancy of the winter earth; or, impatient, they wait for the furrows to dry so their combines can take out last year’s corn and soybeans without sinking.
They might see the train running west beneath their big sky; red lights flash at rural crossings, cars wait for your thirty-second passing, and go on. The land is unchanged as you head west, pulling into Galesburg at 7 o’clock. The station is small and dimly lit, the town looks quiet, a few neon signs flashing down quiet main streets.
And you continue,. You’re coming to Iowa. The train stops at Knoxville; “I didn’t know we stopped here;” ah, well, Burlington next.1 Eating a turkey sandwich with a middle-aged couple from the Quad Cities, talking on the expense and extent of the Midwest night life. Out the window, the reflection of the broad Mississippi River. The “Father of Waters,” flowing to New Orleans, by Memphis, St. Louis, New Madrid, Vicksburg, river towns along the way. Picking up the Missouri and Ohio and smaller streams along the way. I’ve never been more than 30 miles past this in my life; it’s a real border.
I stop in the dome car after dinner, and sit. The sky is clearing now, there’s a full moon riding in the clear Iowa sky. I’m going. I really am. And the excitement is there, a good feeling from talking to the people in the diner. What a feeling. Iowa’s farmlands slide by under the moon. We stop in a town (Ottumwa? Osceola?) and people at a crossing wave. I wave back but they can’t see me.
Into Creston, Iowa, back in my coach. The Strand theater stands a block from the tracks, its marquee dark. Even this excites me: I remember Phillips and Robinson2 going to the Strand, maybe this is the same one? They saw “Change of Habit,” with Elvis Presley. What excitement.
The land along the tracks alternates between dry, rolling hills and long, flat stretches. The moon lights all: the water standing in the turned up fields, the tall hillside grasses; small creeks all through Iowa shine with the fullness of the moon.
It was late, and I was getting tired, so before we got to Omaha I tried to sleep. It was sort of uncomfortable, but I didn’t mind much. I tried sleeping “stretched” across two seats, but that didn’t make it, so I sat up and watched as we crossed another dark river, the Missouri, and moved towards Omaha. i think it was around one in the morning by this time, and about nine hours out of Chicago; I kept thinking we weren’t going too fast.
An old lady got on in Aurora, who looked like she was about eighty, and whose eyesight was failing her. Everytime she left the car, she’d come back and have a lot of trouble finding her seat. It seemed incredible that she was finding her car everytime (because by the way most people looked when they walked through, it was obvious that they were sort of confused).
Her troubles were compounded after they turned off the lights for the night. There was a kid who was going to Omaha who helped her out a couple of times. She left her seat for a while after he got off though, and a middle-aged serviceman took it (someone had taken his old seat). She returned in the dark, and found him sitting in her seat. So she went to sit in another place, only to remember she left her shoes in her original seat.
Being awake, I saw she was having some kind of trouble, and got up and said to her, “Yes, that’s where you were sitting.” She replied that she knew, “but he’s sleeping over my shoes. I guess I’ll get them tomorrow.” All she said was in a hoarse, almost child-like whisper. That’s what she reminded me of in a way, a small child on a long trip without his parents. She walked away then, down the aisle, and went to sleep.
And I tried. I dozed off, and woke up in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska. A woman was changing seats on the downtown side of the train, trying to see something. It was the same woman I had asked the time of in Omaha.
“Is this Lincoln?” I asked, knowing already that it was. “Yes, I lived here, that’s why I’m trying to see out. I wonder if it’s changed any.” She was middle-aged; her hair was a greying shade; in the dim light I really wasn’t sure what color it was. She wore glasses, and her face had a set expression on it, I don’t know, a neutral half-smile. She was the kind of person you think looks older than they really are.
I didn’t think Lincoln looked very interesting, so I went to sleep again, and woke up several times during the night. I was able to tell it had turned cloudy; I woke up around dawn, in time to see the cloudy, blue light of Saturday morning covering the range country of the Nebraska Sand Hills. This is the country where half of the fleeing Cheyenne tribe got lost and surrendered in November, 1876. This is the country where they died two months later in the sub-zero January plains.3
I went up to the dome car again, and saw us pass the “Welcome to Colorado” sign on the highway parallel to us. Colorado! The snow started just as we crossed the state line (or so it seemed) and got worse all the way into Denver, where they had about five inches down, and the heavy snow still coming down.
I went to breakfast at the first call, right after we entered Colorado, and met a kid from Green River, Wyoming (he’d gotten on in Galesburg). He was letting me in on all the facts of life in a small Wyoming town (there isn’t any other kind).
Yes, there are only about two people per square mile in Wyoming. “There used to be three trains a day coming through town, now there’s only this one three times a week.”
“We had a motorcycle group once; we just rode around. One time we went to Salt Lake. The cops there don’t like you; they didn’t like us. We rode in, and just went around the city. After dark a cop came up to us and said, ‘If you’re looking for a place to sleep, you can go over to the park and I won’t arrest you. You may have your head smashed in with a rock after you’re asleep, or get stabbed or killed or something, but I won’t bother you.'”
He had been visiting with his sister , who lives in Rock Island [Illinois]. He was there for a couple of days, killing time, and hitting all the bars on the Iowa side of the river. Now he was going back to Wyoming, and he was pretty glad.
“It’s great up there. My brother had a party once, with drugs and everything. When the police tried to come and get them, they just took some dynamite and blew up the road in front of them. “
The Burlington Northern stretches across the almost endless American plains, along the North Platte River in Nebraska, sometimes crossing the route of the Pony Express. In the days of the railroad, when steam was king and unquestioned, there was the Burlington and the Great Northern. The former ran its crack passenger carriers down this line; the famous “Zephyr.”
But after World War II, and before I was born, the railroads started on a long down grade, losing their battle against air travel, resigning themselves to the category of anachronisms.
The steam days ended in the middle fifties, and new diesel powerhouses wound the trains down the steel rails. There was the Illinois Central: “City of New Orleans,” “Panama Limited,” and “Floridian”4; the Louisiana and Nashville5: the “Humming Bird”; the Burlington Northern: the “Zephyr.” And they ran on their rails to the line of the horizon and were gone, and the big skies in the middle of the continent were cut at sunset by long, silver vapor trails high above the rich farmlands; and in the red dusty summer dusks, the last shrill whistle echoed, before I was born.
Now there is Amtrak, and passenger service barely survives. But the lore at the railroad crossings, bright red lights flashing in the prairie darkness at midnight, made me take the train, and we were pulling into Denver now in the snow.
I got off for about five minutes there, and got a copy of the last issue of Life, and a Sports Illustrated. Pretty soon we were backing out of Denver and transferring to the Union Pacific line, which would carry us through northern Colorado to Cheyenne and across the southern range of Wyoming. Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River, and Evanston.
End of Part 1.
1. This is confused. We would have passed through Knoxville, Illinois, before Galesburg, not after. Did the train make an unscheduled stop at Knoxville? I don’t recall, but probably not. The next stop after Galesburg, for the record, was Monmouth, Illinois, not Burlington (Iowa).
2. High school friends and neighbors.
3. In fact: We were well south of the Sand Hills. We were even farther away from the area where half of the Northern Cheyenne band of Indians were captured during their flight from Oklahoma. And that event — the surrender I mention — happened in late October 1878, not November 1876. The “the sub-zero January plains” refers to the Cheyennes’ desperate attempt to escape from Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska, in January 1879, and the massacre that followed. At the time, I think my reading on the topic consisted of the historical novel “The Last Frontier,” by Howard Fast.
4. “The Floridian” was not an Illinois Central train; it appears to have been a train invented by Amtrak to continue service between Chicago and Miami.
5. The L&N was actually the Louisville and Nashville.