LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK – Part One

BLOG #33, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK
Part One
August 19, 2015

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Once more, we heard the haunting “All Aboard!”

Once more we were shown to our aptly-named “Roomette,” and shoe-horned ourselves in. And once more, we felt forward movement—another adventure begun.

Sadly, air travel offers little adventure anymore: cramped seating with only inches separating passengers and no leg room at all. Food-wise: maybe crackers, pretzels, or cookies. Only on transcontinental flights do you receive more than that. And once you climb to cruising altitude, all you see are clouds below you.

Not so, train travel. Comfortable seats with plenty of space between passengers and more than adequate leg room. Large windows; and in the Vistadome cars, glass overhead as well. A café car for snacks and a dining car for meals. For those who travel in sleeping cars, all meals are included. For travelers with families, larger sleeping quarters are available.

Children love it for they are not strapped down and can roam the train at will. Once they experience train travel, they can’t wait to get on another train. They are mesmerized by the scenery outside their windows: the mountains, plains, rivers, lakes, oceans, cities, people, animals, birds—entranced, they watch as the scroll of America unwinds before their very eyes. But adults too are fascinated at being able to really see America.

It is travel as it used to be. No driving hassle, jockeying with traffic; no toll booths, no road-work.

Equally significant: on trains travelers from all over the world get the opportunity to really get to know each other. In the dining car, you are seated in groups of four or six, facing each other; thus everyone gets acquainted. One hears much laughter for, once introduced to each other, they share their personal journeys with each other and become friends. Since many of the seats in the Observation Car are set at angles, this too encourages conversation. Others gather around tables conversing or playing table games.

At night, room attendants convert roomette seating into bunk beds. Admittedly, the beds are narrow and the overhead mattress is thinner than the one below, but even so one can sleep far easier than those on coach seats. There is something sleep-inducing by lying down on a train bed. Once the train is in motion, the gentle rocking is akin to being rocked to sleep as a child. You tend to awaken only when the train stops. And in the interstices of sleep and waking is the haunting sound of the engine horn far ahead drifting past you.

For this particular trip, we left our home on the top of Conifer Mountain, 9700 feet in elevation high in the Rockies, drove down to Golden as dawn broke; there we boarded Light Rail for the brand new renovated Union Station, already the hub of downtown Denver. Here we boarded the California Zephyr that had departed from Chicago the day before.

No sooner were we ensconced in our roomette when the train left the station. Shortly afterwards, on the intercom, we were invited to head up to the dining car for breakfast. Then we’d ricochet down the weaving cars like drunken people, laughing all the way. After being seated by another couple, we gazed out the window as the train began the long ascent to Moffat Tunnel in the Great Divide (from which all Front Range rivers run to the Mississippi and the Caribbean and all rivers on the other side empty into the Colorado and Mexico’s Sea of Cortez/Pacific Ocean).

We’ll continue this saga on Wednesday, August 26th.

 

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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 1)

BLOG #21, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part One)
May 21, 2014

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Yes, trains, long considered antiquated and a quaint holdover from the past, have quietly and unobtrusively in recent years become the “in” thing with thousands of travelers. Hadn’t realized it until Connie and I boarded The California Zephyr at Denver’s rapidly changing Union Station on April 20. Actually, “rapidly changing” is a major understatement, for it is a stunning transformation. Even though the construction is still going on, it is the talk of the plains: A new upscale hotel is going in, buses from all over the region have been rerouted so they disgorge and pick up passengers in a large state of the art underground terminal directly below the train waiting room. Same for light rail. As a result, already over a billion dollars of new construction is changing the city skyline of what locals call “LO-DO” [lower downtown].

The initial news that Sunday morning was not good: the train would be two and a half hours late. We later discovered that a big fire had broken out near the tracks in the vicinity of Omaha. But not to worry, the train would make up a lot of the time later on. And it did: an hour and a half of it before we reached Sacramento. But the delay didn’t appear to bother anyone very much. Just accepted it as another example of what regulars label “AMTRAK time,” the result of freight train corporations owning the tracks, and consequently having priority over passenger trains. But, in reality, as everyone knows all too well, air travelers face jammed skies and weather-based delays and cancellations virtually every day, not counting mechanical problems—so, delay-wise, it can be a Hobson’s choice.

ALL ABOARD!

Since it had been some years since we had last traveled by train, we wondered what it would be like in the Year of our Lord 2014. It was enough that finally here around the bend, the long silver city on steel wheels backed into the still-under-construction station. We were surprised to see how excited we were–it had been a long time since we’d experienced anything but dread and distaste over the prospect of boarding yet another flying cattle-car. So this was different. How different we didn’t yet realize.

We quickly discovered that, as through-travelers to California, we were assigned a through-car. Not so for shorter-distance travelers who had to settle for potluck car-wise. But not to worry: they could later change seats if they so desired.

Downstairs (adjacent to the restrooms) were storage facilities for large suitcases. No charge for them such as is true with most airlines today. The smaller case we could stow in the overhead above our seat upstairs. After picking just the right seats for the anticipated view, and then positioning our smaller suitcase or bag overhead, with a giant sigh of relief we took our seats and watched the scurrying around, including the boarding of the last passengers and train attendants–and the journey began.

Unlike air travel, where only the person sitting next to a window can see out, here everyone can see. Furthermore, passenger jets fly so high today that rarely can even those sitting next to the windows see what is passing below; whereas in trains, the continually unrolling of the travel scroll reveals a world that’s only feet away–and not 40,000 feet away such as in airplanes.

After a while, an attendant came through, checked to see if we were through-passengers, then wrote our destination down on a card and attached it to the overhead rack. Later on, we learned the reason for that: late at night, unless aroused by an attendant, some people sleep through their destinations. One young woman in our car, who was supposed to get off in Elko, Nevada, dropped off to sleep after being awakened, and didn’t get off until Reno; there she had to wait for the next eastbound train the following day.

After we had been checked in, we were free to wander. What a difference from air travel where, most of the time, you remain strapped to your seat, and only get up for potty breaks. Even then, in the forward compartment, no one is allowed to wait in line. No such restrictions on the train. The most popular place to be is the observation car, for there you can look up as well as out. In our case, since passengers see two of the most beautiful mountain ranges in America (The Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas), in consecutive days, almost everyone jockeys for a seat in the observation car during those stretches. Especially was this true when traversing Colorado’s iconic Glenwood Canyon.

The snack car too was almost always in use by someone. And then there was the Dining Car, where three meals a day are served. Reservations are easy to secure. Only when your number is called do you enter the Dining Car. Then you are seated. Unless you specifically ask to be seated alone, generally you join others already seated. We always prefer to thus get acquainted with our fellow travelers, for that’s what makes train travel so fascinating. Reminded me of the long-ago days when air-dining was such a pleasure; today, you’re lucky if you get pretzels, peanuts, or crackers. On the train, it is a leisurely affair–no one hurries you. Though you don’t dine on fine china, at least you have clean white tablecloths, and can order from a surprisingly large array of options. Even for vegetarians such as us. And the food was certainly good, and those who served us most gracious and interesting to talk to. And it was clear that they–and all the other train attendants we chatted with–loved their job. Many had worked for AMTRAK for much of their entire careers!

So what a different world! No reason to be struck with deep-vein thrombosis that happens on long air flights, because everyone is free to wander. Children love it, for it’s like the entire train is just one long fascinating moving playground. In fact, a good friend of ours, who when he heard we were traveling by train to California, asked what we thought of train travel. After listening to my answers, he booked The California Zephyr west to Emeryville [San Francisco], and the coastal AMTRAK south. He and his family of four got off at Santa Barbara and drove up to President Reagan’s mountain hideaway; then drove on to Disneyland, after which they headed home by the same route. Later I asked him what he thought of train travel. He had booked a family sleeper [though AMTRAK travel is generally cheaper than air travel, sleeper compartments cost considerably more – sort of like traveling business class by air]. He said his kids loved train travel! In fact he said, they’d asked if they might always travel by train from here on!

But our journey had just begun. Part two of “Trains – The New Way to Travel” will resume on Wednesday, June 4; as next week we’ll break for Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club June book selection. By the way, there’s always lots of time to read on trains.

I have so much more to share with you about why so many people – including young people (college age and young adults) – are gravitating to train travel today. See you June 4.