||"And therefore to all men this tale
Let gain who may, for everything's to sell.
With empty hand men may no falcons lure..." --The Wife of Bath's Tale
|The Journey West: It
began by, well, heading north. North to Omaha, Nebraska. That was
where my neice was getting married. That was also where I'd be catching
the Amtrak train west. I was up at 5:30 Friday, August 25.
I showered, updated my online journal, and got ready to head out. I got
a surprise in the back yard: a turtle. He looked surprised to see me, too.
I took Satori to the gas station to top off the tank ($2.68 a gallon).
There was lighting off to the north and east. Once the whole family was
in the car, we all headed out for Nebraska. When we headed north towards
Kansas, we headed straight towards the big storm I'd been watching. I thought
we might able to outrun it, but the blue-grey curtain of rain swept across
the landscape, inching closer and closer. A few sprinkles dotted the windshield,
and then the rain fell in buckets– all the time with a blue sky directly
ahead to the north. We finally inched around the eastern side of the storm
as it rumbled on. Pieces of rainbows appeared in the clouds. We made the
Kansas border at about a quarter past 9, and then zig-zagged through Independence.
Some road construction briefly stopped us at Malvern Lake. When we got
to Topeka, I found us a fast-food place for some lunch. The middle son's
girlfriend was disgusted by the grease on his burger. "It's juice," he
corrected. "It's grease!" she said. "It's delicious juice," he insisted.
We crossed the Nebraska border right at 2 PM. At a quarter to 4, and 396 miles from Broken Arrow, we arrived at my sister-in-law's house in Papillion. I took a short nap, and then a quick shower. We changed clothes and went over to the soon-to-be newlywed's new house. It was big, with a full basement and a large back yard. Their cats liked it. That's where we had the rehearsal dinner, which was barbecue sandwiches. The guys all decided to crash there for the night, so we went back to my sister-in-law's. I was exhausted, but I still needed to go get my Amtrak tickets. I was going to go looking for the station myself, but my sister-in-law offered to drive me. We found it deep in a not-so-swanky part of downtown Omaha.
Part of the plan was to hang strings of white Christmas lights in front of the windows, so that they'd look like stars. The strings of icicle lights came with suction-cup hooks to hang them off the glass. The cup, however, didn't suck– that is, they wouldn't stick at all. I tried a loop of fishing line, but anything hung off that just slid to the middle. All the window frames were made from well-crafted maple, so I didn't want to stick thumbtacks in them and make holes. The only protrusions to hang anything from were the stubby window pane inserts, which only worked if gravity pulled straight down. Then I had an idea to use framing nails, not driven into the wood, but wedged between the pieces of wood, thus not damaging the wood at all. That worked. The guys cut florist's wire and untangles strings of lights while I hung them up over the windows. Far below, I could see the park's wild turkeys walking around, looking for food. In no time at all, say, three hours, we were done. By that time, I really needed a shower and to change for the wedding. It was about a 15-minute drive back to the house. When we got there, the door was locked. We drove all the way back to the nature center, got the house keys, then drove all the way to the house again. I showered as quickly as I could, because we had to be back at the nature center by 5:30. I dried off in a hurry and got out my suit– but my dress shirt was gone! The only other shirt I had was an ugly green plaid shirt, but I had no choice but to wear it with the suit. We hurried to make it to the wedding at 5:30-- except, it seems 5:30 was when they were going to start taking pictures. All the women were sequestered back with the bride, so I had to wait for them to find my dress shirt– except, it wasn't mine. The shirt they gave me had an 18-inch neck and hung off my body like a deflated zeppelin. I put the plaid shirt back on. By that time, there was no avoiding the photographer any longer, so I just went out looking like a moron who didn't know how to dress himself. After family pictures, I got the outdoor lights turned on, and after everyone was seated the service began. It was a pretty wedding, and the happy couple seemed very happy. That made it all worthwhile. It was just about the prettiest wedding I'd ever seen.
After the dinner, the cutting of the cake, the first dance, the tossing of the garter and bouquet, and the throwing of the rice (really birdseed), it was time to start packing up. The DJ played the last song, and I turned on the lights, signaling it was time for everyone to leave. It took us an hour and a half to get everything cleaned up and put away. It turned out my youngest was wearing my dress shirt the whole time. We dropped off the tuck, then went back to the house. I changed out of my good pants and climbed into bed. It didn't take me long at all to fall asleep.
The next day, Sunday, August 27th, all the family except for me went back to Oklahoma. That afternoon, we all had lunch at a place called the Upstream, a restaurant in the riverfront area of Omaha that was also a microbrewery– you could sit and watch their different beers being made. I had the fish & chips. I double-checked my packs, and made my last preparations. One of my camping pillows was missing, so my sister-in-law loaned me an old throw pillow.
|Since I would have to carry everything I brought, I had
to cut my supplies down to the bare essentials. I had one army surplus
Alice backback, one duffel bag, and one small drawstring bag to bring everything
I would need for a week.
Partial Packing List:
One of the tenets of Burning Man is radical self-reliance. A person must take personal responsibility for himself on the playa. I couldn't count on any help with my stuff. I had to plan on carrying everything I brought. Therefore, I could only pack what I could carry. Packing like that forces you to make your baggage as light as possible, to choose only what you absolutely need. Taking both a plate and a bowl, for example, seemed excessive, so I packed the bowl; it was the smaller of the two. The goggles, hat and bandanna were essential for living in a desert for a week. Baby wipes were for cleaning up without having use precious water. The notebook was pocket-sized. The bag o'gifts... I hoped would be well-received.
Some clothes I wouldn't have to worry about packing-- because I'd be wearing them. Other items I didn't worry about taking on the train, because I figured I could buy them once I got to Reno. That was the Phileas Fogg method of traveling: pack light, and buy what you need while you're on the road. A biker friend of mine had an alternate version: pack your most ragged clothes, and then leave them behind when they get dirty. That didn't sound too much in the spirit of "leave no trace." Food and water was another issue-- one that would be resolved with the kindness of others.
|That evening, my sister-in-law gave me another ride to
the Amtrak station in downtown Omaha. Outside, it was raining like
crazy. The gas stations in Omaha listed "plus" gasoline as cheaper than
regular unleaded. She explained the plus was Ethanol, very popular
in Nebraska. The rain let up by the time I unloaded my bags. The station
was remarkably like a small bus station, with hard plastic chairs set in
rows. Posters advertising Amtrak's sleeping cars were on the walls. A TV
on the wall was showing the Emmy awards. My train was supposed to arrive
at 10:19. I was pulling on my backpack when the conductor announced a 20-minute
delay. At 10:50, it began to rain again. Watching down the tracks, I saw
when the red lights came on at a crossing about a block away. Moments later,
the California Zephyr appeared. The conductor walked down beyond the platform
and took off his hat to salute the engineers in the inbound Zephyr, his
tribute illuminated in the golden drizzle as the train pulled into the
station. About 20 people, including me, got on board, mostly middle-aged
folks with a handful of people under 40, including a tidy Mormon family
of six. I stowed my Alice pack in the shelves on the lower deck and went
upstairs. There was a young, blonde woman who talked on her cellphone the
whole time we were waiting for the train. When we boarded, she looked very
confused. "I'm supposed to be in a sleeper car," she said. "I'm supposed
to meet somebody in a sleeper car." I last saw her, cellphone in hand,
heading forward to the next car with her luggage trailing behind her. I
found a window seat on the south side of the train. There were enough seats
on the coach that everyone got two seats to themselves.
At 11:30, the train began moving. My window rolled past
dark, boarded-up buildings –ghosts of another era. Downtown streets were
vacant that time of night, watched over by the emotionless glowing eyes
of streetlamps. The train was oddly quiet as we rolled along through neighborhoods
and sleepy, rainy streets. A lady came by handing out pillows from a big
sack to passengers. One woman asked for one, "unless you run out." The
lady waved that off with a smile, insisting there were plenty of pillows
to go around. Each pillow had a soft, disposable cover. The conductor kept
insisting we would be "on time to Denver." A lady behind me started eating
what sounded and smelled like caramel corn. As we moved through the city,
life stirred in wet parking lots: trucks lining up for midnight runs and
morning deliveries. We picked up speed as we left Omaha. I could hear the
moan of the whistle as dark trees, houses and parks sped by. I wondered
what they must look like in the light of day, and how they touched the
lives of the people that lived there. To the west, clouds lurked low to
the ground, revealed by the pinpricks of a thousand streetlamps. We passed
a freight train headed east on a parallel track– dim squares of light from
our windows sped across the cars before it disappeared into the night behind
Cornfields the size of small towns rolled past. The corn stalks were tall, but not quite yet ready for picking. Blue sky appeared. We went through a dusty little farming town. Signs on buildings were in English and Spanish. At 7:25, we rolled to a stop in Ft. Morgan. We were in Colorado. We were also on Mountain Time, which meant it was 6:25 local time. We only stopped for a couple of minutes, to pick up one passenger, and then we were on our way. I sent people text messages about where I was, but so much of the train route was out of service. I turned my cellphone off for most of my trip. The rising sun turned everything golden. Sleepy cows lounged in feed lots. Others tried to graze on the sparse prairie. Still no mountains. I opened up my supply of beef jerky and had breakfast. The Zephyr slowed to a crawl along some crop land. Finally, an eastbound freight zoomed by as we meandered through a dusty farming community. Once the freight was past, we picked up speed again. Off to the left, a descending passenger jet paced us before heading off to the west. That, and a passing suburb, told me we were closing in on a big city. One housing addition advertised: "Single-family homes from the 200's!" Suburbs surrounded us. A guy on a cellphone across the aisle estimated we were about a half-hour out of Denver. Another jet passed overhead, headed northwest. A friend sent me Gerlach weather for the week: 96 that day, then 80's and 90's the rest of the week.
Suddenly, off to the right, shadowy mountains appeared in the distance. Clouds crowned the peaks. Denver spread out around the mountain's base. Shiela, the conductor lady, announced the dining car was open. They were taking table reservations. The snack bar opened up right after that. We pulled into the Denver station at 8:42, Omaha time. I got out and walked around the platform of the Denver station. The conductors repeated that everyone should stay close to the train, so that nobody would be left behind when we pulled out. Back on board, I moved to a seat that didn't squeak. Two guys and a girl, all with what sound like British accents, got on board at Denver and took seats behind me. They were loaded down with camping equipment, carrying backpacks on the backs and chests. As soon as we pulled out of the station (about 9:25 Omaha time), they were all fast asleep. I went forward to the observation car. Windows in the roof offered great views all around. Seats were positioned so that you could face out towards the view. The snack bar was on the lower deck of the observation car. I got some chips and a soda ($3.50). There were a pair of couples ahead of me, having cereal for breakfast but planning lunch reservations in the dining car. "We're gonna enjoy ourselves!" one lady said. Relaxing back in my seat, my feet propped up, enjoying my chips and soda pop on ice, I felt very rich and upper-class. Before drinking my Pepsi I allowed it to "breathe."
It took about two hours to get to Winter Park from Denver. There were wildflowers everywhere. The hills were carpeted with tall, straight trees. The train followed the Fraser River down into Fraser Canyon, which had some amazing views. Here, the river alongside the train ran westward, all the way to the Pacific. We saw deep canyon walls with lush foliage and dramatic rock formations. A few trees looked like they were already turning for the winter. A golf course suddenly appeared on the far side of the river, fountains of water spraying from the sprinklers. We arrived at Granby, "the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park." The train only stopped for a couple of minutes so that a few people could get off. The conductor said we'd be passing through some special canyons ahead, canyons with no roads in or out; the only way to see them was by train. Horses grazed in an emerald green field. Downstream, the river widened, and the mountains opened up into a wide, green valley. I saw two men fly fishing in a shallow stream. The train slipped alongside the river, with little or no noise inside the cars.
My watch said 5 AM, Omaha time, when I woke up. The windows
were black with night. Everyone else in the car was sound asleep. I went
to the restroom, then lied back down in my seat. The slowing of the train
woke me up again. Outside, amber streetlamps glowed over an empty station
platform. Were we in Elko? I went back to sleep... My watch said
8:15, Omaha time, when I woke up Tuesday, August 29th, which was
really 6:15 Pacific Time: we were in Nevada, but where exactly, I had no
idea. I'd slept for about seven hours– wow. There were some mountains to
the south. The Humboldt Range? I got a cup of hot tea from the snack bar
($1.75) and lounged in the observation car. Not too many people wanted
to observe the harsh plains of eastern Nevada that time of morning, but
I enjoyed myself. The rugged land and stark mountains scrolled by leisurely.
Maybe too leisurely. The train was only going about 40 MPH or so.
I thought we'd be flying down the rails once we got out of the mountains.
Trucks tripple-stacked with trailers were zooming past us on an adjacent
highway– Interstate 80? I saw an exit sign for a place called Argenta.