Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Train 5: alongside the Humbolt

Another day, and another sunrise opens to reveal an incredible change in scenery. Last night I fell asleep the moment I had propped up my head with my pillow. We were running no more than forty minutes late last night, and I had hoped to be awake to step off an get some fresh air when we paused for half an hour at Salt Lake City. I was, however, out like a light. I will have to return to Salt Lake another time.

When I first look at my watch, it's 06:30. We've now passed into Pacific Time, so I turn it back an hour and savour the extra sixty minutes my day will have. The Pacific still seems a long way away.

I sit up the lounge car, watching the scenery race past. We are crossing a vast, barren plain, it's surface of rough grass and scrub only disturbed by occasional fences marking the boundaries of ranches, or lines of telegraph wires that disappear to some distant telephone. The distant mountains that surround us are capped with snow, and as we turn across this immense flat bottomed valley, the sun seems to move back behind another mountain range, treating me to a second sunrise. This is a landscape that I have never seen before, and it leaves me breathless.

My on board bridge coach passes by, and points out the Humbolt River, just visible some way off besides us. This is the river that the settlers who would eventually reach Califronia followed. Unluckily for them it disappears into a sink for about forty miles near here. Once more, I have to admit that without the comfort of a train to carry me away from this place, and a plentiful supply of food and water, I would not like to be out here on my own. It may be beautiful, but it also feels incredibly vast and unmeasurably ominous. My bridge expert has also hunted out here - apparently there are plenty of chucker out here (an animal I've never heard of... apparently it's "slightly smaller than a pheasant", which doesn't give me much to go on).

I head to the restaurant for breakfast. The first eight of us are put together on two tables of four. Amtrak maintain this very sociable policy of placing passengers together. It saves tables being dirtied unnecessarily, and helps the conversation flow. I'm pleased to be sitting with two sleeper passengers and another coach passenger. One is English, touring a new part of the USA by train on his own, because he gets more holiday time than his partner. Opposite is a young man, returning to southern California after helping his mother move to Toledo in Ohio. To my right is a native of Denver who now lives in California. He's returning from an annual trip back to see friends. Over French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, grits and fried potatoes, and fuelled by a free flowing source of coffee, the conversation flows, and all my sour memories of the dining car are erased.

The sun rises higher in the sky, and my second full day on board this leg of the California Zephyr begins.


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