Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

Train — The New Way to Travel (Part Two)

BLOG #23, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Two)
June 4, 2014

Please refresh your memory by glancing back at Part One of this tribute to trains, on May 21.

Now, let’s get back to the pluses and minuses of Amtrak travel. A huge plus has to be the seats. In recent years in air flight, the so-called “friendly skies” have become anything but. In order to cram more and more people into these flying cattle cars, seat-size continues to shrink. Width too. Worst of all, knee room. Once a plane is in motion, and the person in front of you reclines the seat, you are lucky if you have an inch or two space between your knees and the seat in front of you. And width-wise, if your seatmate is large (which is more than likely given our national obesity epidemic), you are forced to scrunch and contort your body in order to fit in the remaining space. Needless to say, the combination of the two, bad enough on short flights, can be a recipe for hell on longer ones.

Not so, Amtrak seats: they are wide with plenty of leg room: thus you are free to really stretch out.

As for the nights, that extra space really helps. One serendipity in transcontinental train travel is that when you leave major urban hubs such as Denver or Salt Lake City, enough passengers will have disembarked to enable you to stretch out across two seats. No one tells you that you can, but rarely will anyone stop you from doing so. Of course, if a large number of passengers boarded somewhere in the middle of the night and space became a premium, you’d probably be informed that you would have to surrender one of the two seats.

I’ll do one thing differently next time, however: I’ll take an extra blanket and a pillow. They do turn the lights way down low, which makes it easier to sleep. Sleeper cars, of course, are better. Complete with bedding, bunk beds, toilet, sink, shower, and porter service. But unless you are traveling clear across the country (taking three days), one night in a coach seat is not bad at all. That’s confirmed by the people who, in spite of being awakened by car attendants, sleep through the stops anyhow. But they are the exception, not the norm.

DAY ONE

Since we were late pulling out of Denver, we missed breakfast in the dining car. Consequently, we cobbled together enough items from the Snack Car to get us through. For hours we climbed, along rivers, streams, and canyons, through multitudinous tunnels. But none longer than Moffatt Tunnel (the second longest rail tunnel in the United States). The giant bore was the realization of the dream of David H. Moffatt, a Denver banker, who began in 1902 to construct a railroad west through the towering Rockies. It soon became clear that deep winter snows would bring travel to a halt unless a six-mile-long tunnel could be drilled through the heart of James Peak. Finally, in 1922, the Moffatt Tunnel commission was appointed, and bonds were issued to finance the work. Originally, it was assumed that since the mountain had a granite core, $6,720,000 ought to be enough to complete the project. Once inside the mountain, however, engineers discovered they’d also have to dig through muddy shale, every foot of which would have to be timbered. Result: the price-tag tripled! Even with the tunnel, the elevation is 9,094 feet. To passengers today, it seems to take almost forever to get through it.

Coming out finally, there below was Winter Park Ski Area, one of Colorado’s largest. Passengers had front-row seats as they watched hundreds of descending skiers, and more coming from the far distance. It would be a winter wonderland for some time to come.

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No one wanted to surrender a seat in the Observation Car during the gradual descent through Gore Canyon, following the Colorado River; at Dotsero Junction, where the Eagle River joins the Colorado, the train turns west again, and soon, sheer walls towering over a thousand feet above Glenwood Canyon, almost stops conversation in its tracks. Easily one of the greatest scenic sights in America. In the middle of it, Connie and I were called into the Dining car. What a view! Our entranced table-mates were retirees from West Virginia; a lovely college freshman attending Mesa State in Grand Junction completed our fivesome. Daughter of a professional artist, she was majoring in art herself. So fascinated was she by our travel-related conversations that her eyes widened in wonder as we took her with us all around the world. I shall return to her before I complete this Amtrak series.

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By the way, the highway through Glenwood Canyon took close to twenty years to construct, disrupting traffic for an entire generation.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped briefly in Grand Junction, the state’s fruit-growing heartland. Its Palisade peaches are known nationwide. Also more and more vineyards are being planted here.

Night fell, as we rolled through the Utah mountains. Then came a delicious vegetarian repast in the dining car. Since we’d left home at 5:00 a.m., we were very tired and decided to call it a day at 9:50 p.m. Because we’d gain an hour when we entered the Pacific Time Zone, it meant it was 8:50 p.m., making for a very long night. For even with two seats for each of us to stretch out in, it most certainly was a long ways from our king size bed at home. Our dreams were haunted by the sound of the horn at every railroad crossing and road intersection. Surprisingly, it didn’t keep us awake but rather filled the interstices of our dreams.