So, let's start with Marla. An ex-military, very experienced train traveler who had personal stories about every conceivable scenario involving Amtrak, including the time she stepped off at a smoke stop and the train left without her. The solution? Hiring a taxi driver to race the train to its next destination. She also doodled like crazy on any scrap of paper she could find. After learning that she was taking classes in both welding and tai chi, I dubbed her a real renaissance woman.
Rhonda was a lesson in not prejudging people. With her quiet, sweet demeanor and denim dress/turtleneck combination, I pegged her for a bit of a homebody. Wrong. Turns out she's a nurse who used to do mission work and has traveled pretty much everywhere in the world. I knew I was in a whole new league when her sentences began starting with, "When we were at Machu Picchu . . . when we were in Nairobi . . . when we were in Moscow . . . Denmark, China,"etc. Fascinating.
The three of us sat the entire day trading stories and laughs, listening to the guys behind us reminisce about Nam and the competitive, beer-fueled cribbage game unfolding across the way, all while winding slowly through mountains and over rocky streams. As the sun set over Nevada, our background music was a guy in the lounge car leisurely plucking around on a ukelele. Perfect.
8:00 a.m. Went to the dining car to sample an Amtrak breakfast, which is really the best deal. A word about train food: it's not bad, but it's not great. The dining car offerings are better than the pre-packaged, probably-would-survive-a-nuclear-blast cafe car options, so I felt okay paying $10 for pancakes, OJ, and coffee. At this particular repast, I was seated with Charles and Nina, retirees from CA who were in love with Utah rock formations and headed to Denver for a wedding. We were joined by John, an older, self-proclaimed "jack of all trades" who "spent a sabbatical as a cowboy" and had strong opinions about everything. He started his monologue with, "There's two things you need to know about hearing aids," and you can take it from there. The background music at breakfast was a huge group of rowdy French people jabbering loudly over their meal.
9:00 a.m. Marla and Rhonda found me in the lounge car for a grand reunion, and we spent another pleasant few hours chatting until their stop at Glenwood Springs, CO. Before departing, they each went down to take a picture of the cafe car attendant, who amused us the entire trip by ending her announcements with a whisper. As in, "Attention passengers, the cafe car will be closing in five minutes." It was creepy and hilarious. When asked why she did it, she replied that she just likes to see who's listening, and when the ladies snapped her photo, she put one finger to her lips.
1:00 p.m. After a brief stop back at my seat (I'd barely been there the whole trip, and I'm pretty sure the burly dude next to me was happy to have the room), I returned to the observation car, where I continued to hone my photography skills. Here are some common enemies of good train pictures: dirty windows, tunnels, sudden walls of rock, passing trains, sudden curves in the track, speed blur, rogue trees, blinding sunlight, and old-fashioned window glare. For the most part, I gave up and just started taking video, but I snapped a few good ones here and there.
3:00 p.m. A girl in her 20s sat down across from me and struck up a conversation. She was on her way from Berkeley to Chicago to start a journalism job and wanted some tips for visiting Minneapolis this winter. She also went gaga over a field of cows and wanted her picture taken with them in the background. What I said: "Sure!" What I was thinking: "You need to get out more." As we chugged higher into the hills surrounded by nothing but rugged crags of rock, she asked excitedly whether we might see more cows soon. What I said: "I think we'd probably need pasture land for that." What I was thinking: "You know cows aren't mountain goats, right?"
Somewhere during that afternoon, we passed through the Moffat Tunnel, which is 6.2 miles long. By this time, we'd been through so many tunnels that they didn't bother me too much, but the combination of exhaust seeping into the cars (because it has nowhere else to go) and knowing that we were hurtling directly through a mountain made the 15 minutes of total darkness slightly unnerving. However, at the other end of that tunnel lay Denver, the third city on my journey.