The Journey of Rail Travel
By Samantha Curley
hirty minutes in, suppressing the heavy sigh that signifies boredom building deep within my chest, I already began to feel antsy and claustrophobic. Only one hundred more half hours to go, I thought. Fifty hours on a train from Chicago to San Francisco with my dad. We were wine country bound; father-daughter bonding at its best. Even as one of the biggest on board, ours was a small, family-sized sleeper car made for four but barely fit for two. Like a game of Tetris, the couches’ stiff cushions would fall into carefully stacked bunk beds that took over the room each evening. I imagined the New York studio apartment my mom described from her 20s in which she could wake up, make bacon, and brush her teeth without ever leaving her bed. I let out a subtle sigh, trying to mask the boredom as fatigue, or maybe relaxation, figuring my dad wasn’t paying attention to notice either way. Good thing mom isn’t here. Her presence would have overwhelmed the already full room with chatter, emotion, and expectation. Small reading lights and tabled trays unfolded from the walls of the sleeper car, feigning to exude the comfort and luxury of a hotel room. There was no Internet and I was trying to be a good travel companion by resisting my iPhone attachment disorder.
Classical music lulled softly from my dad’s wireless iPod speakers, interrupted, of course, by the occasional Eminem or Lou Bega song. My dad, Phil, is almost as meticulous with his iTunes library as he is with his travel arrangements. Few words passed between us. We each read and drank wine from plastic, biodegradable cups while eating cheese and crackers as an aperitivo before our 7:15 p.m. reservation in the dining car. After a family vacation to Italy several years prior, my very stoic, Irish father made the decision to become Italian, if not by blood, than certainly at heart. This mainly involved an exclusivity for Italian wines and a propensity for saying grazie to the waiter at every Italian restaurant, including the mostly Hispanic waiters at The Olive Garden. His talk of retiring to Italy and opening a bed and breakfast had recently subsided, I think due to my mother’s refusal to be an ocean away from her currently non-existent grandkids. This was an expectation neither my brother nor I gave much credence to, though I secretly carried that strange and shameful combination of desire and worry that empowered and intelligent young women often feel yet never talk about.
Only three more hours until dinner. Growing insecure as the silence heightened the strangeness of traveling on a train just my dad and me, I closed my eyes and thought about napping. It would take maybe an hour to eat and still it would only be 8:30 p.m., at the latest. How early is too early to go to bed? I should have brought another book. Idle thoughts filled my mind as the California Zephyr Amtrak train rumbled and purred more than chugged, making it painfully obvious how slowly we were moving. Moving with steady confidence – there’s nothing like 200+ tons of steel to give you a secure sense of purpose – but without hurry.
I’d flown to San Francisco before and made several road trips from Chicago to the east and south coasts. I had even spent the summer before college commuting to and from work by train after my dad suggested I make some money and attend to my resume by working at his law firm as a paralegal. To Phil’s relief, I hated the work (promising him I’d never to go to law school myself) but I did enjoy the thrill of shuffling through the newspaper in the mornings and people watching in the evenings for the single half hour between suburb and city.
This train, the travel kind, was different. A little daunting, certainly inefficient, but swelling with nostalgia. As if, in our fast-paced, globally connected, and web-addicted communities, we think we can (or would want to) return to some idyllic and romanticized notion of the slow and simple past. The cacophonous juxtaposition of Mambo No. 5 against the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, however, was enough to convince me that nostalgia doesn’t always bleed well into the present moment.
The vacation was my idea – a once-in-a-lifetime, daddy-daughter bonding adventure. The train ride was Phil’s – an idea that sounded like an even greater, and much needed, adventure. My life moved too fast and while I knew it was true, everyone felt it their duty to remind me. I had recently uncovered a secret, running bet between my parents regarding my timeliness to family events: for every minute I was late, my dad owed my mom $1 and for every minute I was early, she owed him $50. Apparently, tardies and dollars added up quickly and Phil was already hundreds of dollars in debt to my mother. I also secretly knew Phil devised the game to distract my mom from her frustrated anger at having raised a daughter who didn’t understand that “on time” meant five minutes early. But despite my stubborn refusal to acknowledge or change my overbooked calendar, I did want a break. As the train patiently ticked away at the remaining half hours, I became aware that my father, too, needed the stillness of this journey together. While we both wanted the bonding experience, I think, perhaps more so, we needed each other for the excuse to slow down.
We ate our first dinner with a couple from South Carolina. They had gone to high school together but didn’t know each other back then. Or he knew her, but, as always seems to be the case in these sorts of stories, she didn’t know he existed. I wonder if that is always a true detail or something a couple decides to add in afterwards for romantic effect. I imagine they don’t discuss the mechanics of how or where it fits, rather it just becomes, seamlessly and together, the way they tell it. After reconnecting on Match.com, he proposed on a train over the Continental Divide three years previous. They were still very much in the honeymoon phase, even of a second marriage, and they liked to talk. I learned his first wife was bipolar and left him because she could no longer take being married to a pastor. Currently he was a Chaplain at the hospital where his new wife was a neonatal nurse. They were getting off in Grand Junction and driving through five National Parks in an effort to visit all 58 in the country. It was a good dinner and I started to settle in to the pace and relationship of the train, at least for the duration of the meal.
Sleep came and went and morning dawned. It was disorienting to step into the alternate reality of train travel. To begin a journey by boarding a miniature living room and sitting down to share a meal with strangers. To go to bed and wake up and to still be moving, trapped inside a little compartment. And then there were the conductors in suits and gold-trimmed hats reverently walking up and down the cars protecting the safety and comfort of each passenger. They were the train’s wallpaper, present everywhere but you had to look in order to see them. There were the iconic whistles that preceded the monotone voice over the intercom announcing the location and duration of the current stop, usually a wooden platform breaking the flow of natural landscape, the only visible evidence of human life nearby. And the stale smells – an equal combination, I concluded, of the train itself, its plethora of “well-lived” passengers, and the consequences of Phil’s indigestion unleashed within the confines of a train car. Confronting the slow, gritty feeling of travel while also trying to submit to this rhythmic and lyrical dance of moving from here to there left me feeling awkward and rigid.
We met an other couples – the one from Reno who could have been transplants from the California gold-rush era, the gay couple from LA who had retired from Delta Airlines ground crew, and the absolutely lovely couple from Ireland who talked engagingly about court rooms and good books. I wondered who we were – my father and I – to these people. In our remaining meals, I learned to quickly begin every conversation by making it quite clear that our relationship was one of father-daughter; I was Ms. Curley, not Mrs. The subtle sighs of relief and softening of expressions from across the table when I referred to Phil as ‘Dad’ made me half smirk, half cringe. Did they remember similar experiences with their parents? Or did they feel a jealous regret at never having had such an opportunity? Did they believe our still emerging closeness best captured in the chemistry of those mealtime conversations?
Twenty four years of experience had taught me – like all real Irish-Catholic men – my dad is quiet and aloof, his quick-wit and good-natured humor surface only after a drink or two. At social gatherings I enjoy watching people subtly maneuver for the seat next to his, hoping to catch the hilarious running commentary that passes his lips unnoticed by the group-at-large. During our second, and last, dinner on the train Phil kept his phone on the table, unashamedly getting text message updates on the score of the Patriots game. By the end of the meal he was announcing each score out loud to the entire dining car. Every time his phone made the familiar ESPN text message noise everyone stopped mid-conversation and looked over, waiting to hear his real-time game update. I smiled, admiring my dad’s ability to unite a room (even if it was a dining car), feeling proud of who my father was, and just a little more at home.
My own phone spent more time alone and unnoticed in between the cushions of our sleeper car as the fifty hours passed with meals and books, some exploration, and a lot of sitting. His big reveal of the trip, Phil had brought two identical puzzles and we raced to see who could complete theirs first. The effects of intense concentration and movement gave me a nauseous headache that I chose not to disclose. Growing frustrated with myself, I couldn’t help thinking, four more half hours down.
While I had envisioned hearing wild stories from my dad’s high school years, or the wisdom he felt ready to bestow upon his now adult daughter, the two of us mostly sat side-by-side in silence. We sat and watched the land pass by, although we were the ones moving. Still fighting to ignore my notice of half hour increments, I tried to focus on time passing in terms of landscape. The names of landmarks became less familiar and more exotic-sounding: the Sierra Nevadas, the Moffat Tunnel, Glenwood Canyon, and Donner Lake (the site, Phil told me, of a tragic pioneer journey that ended in cannibalistic history). From cornfields to plains to mountains and desert, we rumbled across America, the alluring sense of dynamic permanence and relational silence straining to seep into my bones. I struggled to sit in the stillness of moving from here to there that I would have quickly excused (or napped through) on a plane. A stillness my father and I would soon come to fill with the activity of wine tours, a hot-air balloon ride, and the fancy meals of Napa Valley. I both longed for and feared a deeper connection to the father I saw myself becoming and was surprised to be finding it in the slow, gritty moving of the train. Perhaps this was not just part of the journey, it was the journey of rail travel.
Then, somehow in the midst of time keeping and half hour pacing, the hours were suddenly up. The last forty-nine of them requiring less effort to survive than the first. The train managed to slow to a stop with as much intention as it had moved, and we gathered our bags and stepped back into life; feet on still ground for the first time in two days. Making our way through the station to the car rental booth, still caught in a land-struck haze, I lost my favorite travel coffee mug and began to sweat in the California heat. Thankful for the journey, thankful for our one-way plane tickets home, and thankful for (yet still feeling slightly insecure of) the five more days my dad and I had together.
With the significance of the past fifty hours hanging unspoken between us, we waited in line, got into our car for the week, and headed to our bed and breakfast, two more half hours away, in Napa Valley.