We boarded the train in Emeryville, California, which is just a hop, a skip, and a crumbling flyover ramp from the deep-water port of Oakland. There, under the shadow of the Bay Bridge and the anxious gaze of the San Francisco office district, massive ships lumber in from all over the Pacific rim --especially China-- leaded and laden with hundreds upon hundreds of thoroughly un-inspected containers filled with thoroughly un-inspected products. All but a cursory few will still be thoroughly un-inspected when they are transferred to truck or to train and lugged into virtually every nook and cranny of Our Fare Land, which is supposed to be worried as hell about that sort of thing...
...according, that is, to the government-- which is precisely the same government that conducts all the un-inspections.
Still, security at the port is a thousand times tighter than is the security at the local Amtrak station. Emeryville is crammed into a nook --or maybe it's a cranny-- on the map between Oakland and Berkley. Any Cal students looking to transport anything illicitly need not seal it into a baggie and sink it into a mostly full shampoo bottle and then sweat the x-ray machines, man. Just put it in your pocket and take the train. As someone who doesn't particularly like the TSA pawing through his underwear and whiskey flasks, and who always gets pulled aside for a little extra look-see at airports (thank you, Howard, for putting all those red flags next to my name), even I think Amtrak's screening process should consist of more than: "Got a ticket?" Apparently, nobody cares if a passenger train gets blown up or if its passengers get infected with some slow-acting but inevitable biological nightmare-- not even if the train in question is destined, as ours was, for the boisterous bowels of Chicago's Union Station.
But then, why should anybody care? After all, Amtrak itself somehow manages to find something to crash the City of New Orleans into every third week or so.
The train we took was the California Zephyr. I'll spare you all the details. There are lessons to be learned from a train ride, but you have to be something of a history buff or an engineering buff or be one of those people who gets downright sexually aroused by railroads to really appreciate said lessons. Assuming that I, as usual, am the only one in the room who pitches a tent over such things, I'll avoid a full travelogue and impart only a handful of observations...
(1) Burlington, Iowa, is pretty well off any major, modern-day beaten path. I'd been to Burlington before --just passing through, really-- but it wasn't until I had the luxury of seeing it from the vast viewing windows of a dining car, snaking its way through the old and, uh, "down" part of town, that I could really appreciate what a big commercial center it must once have been-- say, eighty or a hundred years ago. You can tell by the architecture.
(2) We laid over in Salt Lake City for several of the wee small hours of one morning. I got off the train to get a little polluted air and wandered into the "station." I've seen smoking kiosks that were bigger than Amtrak's "station" in Salt Lake City. They had three vending machines. I found none of them inspiring-- and I'm a guy who is easily inspired to consume. I wandered outside again and walked over to the bus station next door. It was the size of a small shopping mall, and there were some brightly-colored machines in there, calling to me. Before I could commune with them, though, a rather, um, imposing woman with a utility belt and a no-nonsense mien intercepted me...
"Can I help you?" she asked in a what-the-hell-are-you-up-to tone of voice.
I explained that I was in search of better vending machines than the ones at the train station. She informed me that the bus station was closed.
(3) While rolling through Wyoming we passed a number of hopper-style cars piled high with dark, chunky material. My traveling companion wondered aloud what it could be.
"Coal," I said.
"Coal? It can't be coal. Nobody mines coal anymore."
I felt my eyebrows shoot halfway up my forehead. "What about all those coal miners that got killed in West Virginia last year?" I asked.
"That's Appalachia," replied my companion. "That doesn't count."
Judging by the way one of those very same coal widows was utterly ignored by Joe Biden and the other Democratic presidential candidates at a debate in Soldier Field, that statement is true. But I didn't give up...
"Okay," I said, "well, what about the coal miners trapped in Utah. And what about that coal mining accident in southern Indiana?" A day later, still on the train but now in Illinois, I said, "Hey, come here a minute."
"What?" asked my companion.
I pointed out the window. "What do you suppose that is?"
"What what is?"
"All of that coal, piled up in all those coal cars, on that unit coal train we're passing. Are you gonna try an' tell me that isn't coal?"
Heavy sigh. Roll of the eyes. Shake of the head. "I'm not going to try to tell you it isn't coal, Killre."
I no longer travel with that companion.
P.S.... Bud "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits" Selig must go.