Biting my nails on the California Zephyr

IMG_7830Rolling through the Iowa heartland, state of my birth, on the eastbound California Zephyr, rocking at times on uneven rails, passing lush May greenery, flooded lowlands, and muddy rivers, evidence of the heavy rains that moved east overnight, I was a mite concerned about making my connection in Chicago. I left Lincoln, Neb., at 6 a.m. Sunday on Amtrak train No. 6 that was scheduled to leave at 3:26 a.m., its alleged arrival time in Chicago, originally set for 2:50 p.m., looking more like 5:10 as I rode east. The Capitol Limited that would take me home to Alliance was scheduled to leave Union Station at 6:10 p.m., so I worried about cutting it close as the train slowed while some mysterious inspector — person or computerized machine or a combination of the two? — checked the tracks for possible flash flood damage.
The trip to visit my friend in Nebraska was my first by train, and, although train travel is slow compared to jets, it offers many advantages. First, I enjoy seeing the landscape and especially three rivers of monumental importance, past and present, in the United States: the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Platte, the last the river the westbound emigrants followed to Oregon, California and Salt Lake City. The Platte lived up to all I’ve read it to be — wide, shallow and laden with sandbars, and I pictured teams of oxen struggling to pull wagons through that riverine quagmire.

I had left Alliance at 2:10 a.m. May 18, and the novelty of the train ride and my curiosity about the train’s whereabouts kept me wide awake well past Cleveland despite the hour. I am a night owl after all, and geography intrigues me to no end. Darkness and interior lights reflected off windows made deducing our location difficult except when we entered cities, so I guessed at our whereabouts by time traveled, and somehow I managed to recognize the bridge over the Black River in Elyria, the brightly lighted Cedar Point peninsula and Sandusky Bay. I finally slept after crossing the bay and awoke refreshed east of Gary, Ind. I saw sizable sand dunes on the south end of Lake Michigan and the towers of Chicago as the Limited rounded the southwest bend of the lake, and once in Chicago I tried to avoid looking like a gawking tourist as I walked along the Chicago River and pictured scenes from “The Blues Brothers.”
I arrived in Lincoln shortly after midnight on May 19 and spent the week with my friend touring historical sites. On our last evening we enjoyed talking in his living room, and I showed him some basic blues guitar technique. He took a nap, and I wrote in my journal, finished packing, and lay down on the couch, starting awake a half hour later. I had been checking the Zephyr’s progress by phone but decided to arrive at the station at the scheduled time rather than the late time my computer friend Julie disclosed. It turned out that Julie was right about the train being late, and the connection in Chicago was too close for comfort.


The Lincoln station.

All that slowing for track inspection made the Zephyr’s Chicago arrival closer to 5:45 p.m., and I had time only to find my gate, squeeze past people lined up for other trains and get in line. I waited only about 15 minutes and breathed deep thanks I had made it. Others weren’t so lucky. A guy who sat behind me on the Zephyr missed his connection and desperately, forlornly begged a friend for a ride, promising to pay him later. The answer was no, and he swore at no one in particular and complained he had used all his money on train fare. (This should serve as a lesson to those who speak aloud to no one in particular that you never know who is listening.) My biggest problem was having no time to buy supper, but I had some snacks and beer to get me through.
The Capitol Limited made good time, and I again enjoyed the night view of Cedar Point’s lights across Sandusky Bay. I catnapped for much of the ride, but after Cleveland I couldn’t sleep, and I found an empty window seat and studied the dark countryside, recognizing Ravenna but unsure about most other places. I knew I was home when the train went under the Route 62 overpass and passed the long brick building with the multiple diagonal roofs along state Route 183, and I descended to the first floor and gathered my luggage. The train was only 15 minutes late, and I was home.
Now the diesel horns blowing their two longs, a short and a long for crossings hold more meaning. I’m not ready for another train trip just yet, and the one thing I would change is the prices of train food, but I would travel by train again. Next time, though, I’ll go east, through the more interesting scenery of the Appalachians.

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