Sunday, 1 January 2012
Bobby the cute biotech scientist drives me to the train station in Palm Springs which isn’t really in Palm Springs but set among the wind farms on its wilder northern edge. Amtrak says to check in at least 30 minutes early but not only is there no place to do this at the unstaffed station, there’s simply no one else around either. It’s just a platform and the rails turning copper in the late afternoon sun.
Two coyotes chase across the edge of the desert and deserted parking lot.
Thanks to a 1-800 automated information service we soon discover the Sunset Limited is already running 20 minutes late which means we’ve effectively an hour to kill but it passes very easily and actually we get to know each other better for it.
There’s a lot of freight. A LOT of freight trains, maybe seven or eight in the time we’re waiting, each with four big diesels hauling about a half-mile of wagons most of which are carrying a double deck quota of containers. Among the Mitsui, China Ocean, Tianjin and similar transpacific cargo companies are several units branded with the Tropicana juice name, suggesting that if they can haul it through deserts in steel containers it’s so chock full of preservative you probably don’t need to put it in the fridge. For years.
The passenger train arrives without fanfare and whilst there are only two or three people boarding here – I’m the only one up the sleeper end, it’s unhurried and a conductor points me towards roomette 11 in coach 230. There I meet steward Yvonne, one of those topheavy black women for whom stretch polyester uniforms were not really designed but she has the broadest of smiles and settles me into the little cabin explaining the light and air controls, and organizes me a reservation for dinner.
Now this isn’t the Orient Express and the tablecloths are paper but the cutlery’s real and there are fresh flowers on the tables. The menu is short but surprisingly varied – besides the American burgerish staples are crabmeat enchiladas, arctic char resting on a bed of orzo pasta and my choice, a tender and delicious piece of chipotle beef with baked potato (baked a while back it has to be said) and fresh vegetables. The ‘no added sugar’ cheesecake may have its peach topping slopped over it as from a bucket but it tastes as good as restaurant fare.
The dining car operates ‘open seating’ which means singles like me are encouraged to share tables for four which is fine. My companions opposite are a white woman from LA in her late twenties chaperoning a pretty but initially sullen six year old girl of a distinctly Amerindian cast. With her dark almond eyes and glossy hair she's a Disney Pocahontas who will grow up to be a stunner but at the moment she needs some coaxing to eat and sit properly. She warms up eventually – actually she eats a huge hot dog, some salad and half her mom’s chicken – and I learn that her name’s Esmeralda and they are traveling together to Tuscon so she can meet, for the first time, her father.
This is almost a Jerry Springer moment as I dare to ask why she hasn’t met him before now – and mom’s gaze is completely level as she tells me they split soon after the daughter was born and he “wasn’t ready till now, but now he’s in a much better place” which the cynical side of my brain interprets as ‘out of prison’.
We’re due into Tucson shortly before 2am and he’s meeting the train, in what promises to be the kind of middle of the night childhood trauma the extended analysis of which should in later years buy her therapist a Porsche.
Our merry foursome is completed by an unshaven gentleman who has arrived for dinner in a powder blue surgical scrub top with almost matching boxer shorts possibly not intended for street wear. He prefers train travel ‘for health reasons’ and ‘because of all that security stuff at airports’ so I mentally X-ray him for weapons (not much concealed in those shorts: definitely no loaded weapon but he may be packing a small slingshot with very loose elastic).
He’s conversationally acute as he describes his itinerary from Los Angeles to some burg beyond Portland, Maine, via a seven hour layover across New Year’s eve in San Antonio and another of five hours overnight in Chicago. He is traveling in a seat, not a sleeper, and won’t arrive home until January 4th having spent five consecutive nights on trains or in station waiting rooms. He is certifiably insane.
Shortly after dinner we skip forward a time zone and at 10pm it seems justifiable to make up the bed in the roomette. I thought at first the upper berth was a proper mattress and the lower one formed of sliding the two seats together but concealed in the upper fold-down is a complete set of mattress, sheets and blankets which make the lower option even more cushy. I like that word, it’s American but I don’t apologise for using it.
It’s certainly relaxing as I watch on my laptop the Christmas special of Downton Abbey whilst we barrel through the starlit mesas of Arizona in a surreal movie collision of the 3.10 to Yuma with the 4.50 from Paddington. I have to catch the conclusion in the morning and Matthew proposes to Mary in the snow with my eyes both squinting from the rising sun and, go on I admit it, misty. I seem to have got in touch with my emotions in the last couple of days.
Sensitive to the needs of passengers not to be disturbed till morning, the train conductor elaborated the rules for coach passengers disembarking before dawn: a coded series of coloured dockets is placed over their seats so they can be selectively awakened just before arrival. It’s all very well managed and I’m barely aware of the stops in the night, except perhaps surfacing momentarily at Tucson to silently wish Esmeralda luck for her first meeting with her daddy.
The rocking motion of the train is both restful and potentially conducive to masturbation but I resist. Got to save something for New Year’s Eve.