Observations On the Train – Part One
Swaying with the rhythm of the rails, today’s trains glide rather than clack along the tracks. In 1925, Southern Pacific was contracted to build a railroad spanning from Roseville, California to Springfield Junction, Oregon near the town of Eugene. This feat of engineering surpasses the imagination: men with picks and hammers, the ringing of iron, and the leaching of sweat and blood from their pores. Memory frames such as these are rarely conjured by most passengers. Instead they stagger from car to car on unsteady sea legs to feast on provender or panorama, occasionally guzzling far too much booze. One woman in particular on this train has become loud and inebriated. Attired from head to toe in white, her small frame weighed down by too much gold jewelry, she brags about her PhD in English Literature. In slurred parlance unusual for the decorum of the average elderly university professor, I silently question the veracity of her assertion. Others gaze at the magnificent scenery, while passing under tunnel after cool tunnel, carved through mountain upon mountain. Old telegraph wires bisect the beauty of vast lakes and rivers pooled at the foot of the Cascades. Apparently the cost of taking them down trumps any improvement in the majesty of the view.
The Conductor strikes up a conversation with a few of us in the Parlour Car. His retirement is imminent, and he is anxious to get into his wood shop and create things of beauty doubtlessly inspired by twenty years on this particular run. Pointing out grazing grounds for deer and elk, he pauses to indicate a hillside that collapsed onto the train a year ago, taking out tall fir and pines along with their giant root systems. Tumbling downhill onto the moving train, miraculously no one was hurt. They had to detach some cars and move the debris, then move the cars again. In an offhand manner, he pulls out his wallet and shows me a black and white photograph of his Los Angeles policeman father, killed in the line of duty when his boy was seven years old. Buddies of his dad on the force stepped in to replace the irreplaceable, and he recalls with fondness: I lost a dad, but gained over a hundred of them.