Railroading North America

23/ 24-26 Los Angeles

23-26-1sac-plat-upto-dsc06698-usemeDAYS 23 -26
Los Angeles, California
Tuesday-Friday, November 11-14, 2008

I am in danger of an organizational meltdown. Luggage, coats, shirts and pants need to be emptied of contents, and those contents need to be re-organized. I have fallen far behind in writing. Worse, I have notes and reminders scrawled on hotel note pads, stuffed in jackets and zippered pockets willy-nilly.

I have planned to take a rail trip of a day two while in Los Angeles — to San Diego, and perhaps out to stations surrounding Los Angeles, like Glendale. It won’t happen.

Once here, meetings creep into my days pushing out the railroading. I should have seen it coming.

I have a friend who writes novels. We wrote some things together awhile back and keep in touch. When she hears I am researching trains she is excited — her next book will be set on a train.

“We must talk,” she says. “On Wednesday I’m teaching a class how to write sex scenes. This is right up your alley.” And hers. She once did research by working the 1-900 porn lines in the west valley for a day.

“Will there be handouts?” I ask.



I sit in a far corner of the class thumbing Gray Un-illustrated pages of handouts. I had hoped for something more pornographic.

The class plods through hesays/shesays, shefeels/hefeels dialogue and clinical reasons why couples couple. This is cardboard. I jot a note to myself. “It’s a wonder sex ever works at all.”
I plot my escape.

As I ease to my feet, my friend casually serves this up, “Abigail requested this lecture.”

I see.

Abigail is the attractive woman sitting primly just across from me. We have been eying one another.

Abigail is not cardboard.

Keeping communal bathrooms clean on trains must be difficult, but I do not get the idea Amtrak makes much effort. Unlike VIA Rail Canada, more than one of Amtrak train has had toilets that have been vile

The Adirondack from New York to Montreal was my first Amtrak disaster. This is relatively short run, but the passengers first turned one car restroom into a sty, then flooded another blocking entrance to the food car.

In Canada all of the VIA Rail Canada’s First Class compartments have their own bathrooms, but Amtrak loves communal bathrooms you can share with your neighbors. The result is not pretty, although Amtrak did have occasional successes:

The apex of clean bathrooms was on Seattle to Los Angeles train ride. I was on a lower level with no others on that floor. Those bathrooms remained clean from lack of use.

But on the run from Seattle to Chicago, the bathrooms in my entire sleeping car all stopped working, as did the toilets in the adjoining “Transition car” that train crew uses as a dormitory. Eventually the smell was so overpowering in the hallway, my sleeping compartment compatriots either fled or stayed sealed inside their compartments.

I figured they’d fix them somewhere down the line. Wrong. At repeated station stops no one made an effort to fix toilets so they simply got worse.

Our car attendant’s proactive act was to post signs on the toilets reading “DO NOT USE” and vanish.


Savvy travelers used the bathrooms in stations when the train stops. They weren’t too great either.

In Los Angeles I often stay at Los Angeles International Airport. From my room I watch planes turn into the LAX pattern eighty miles away at San Bernardino. Sometimes I count as many as 25 or 30 airplane lights in the sky. It is mesmerizing.

On the train in Canada there had been lights too …

23-26-3port-sta-ext-dsc06645-usemeIt had been after midnight and I had settled in to contemplate in the darkened dome car way west of Toronto. I counted on it being empty; it was. I was getting kicked backandforth like crazy.

The train was running flat out as fast as it could, creaking thiswayandthat and pounded fiercely by the winds of the plains. There was nothingness and darkness everywhere.

Gradually, I became aware that tiny pinpricks of light had begun dancing on the outside of the car, little strobe lights without pattern. I looked for the source, but there were no houses, no streetlights, no civilization at all. Yet there they were — thousands, millions really, of pinpricks of light dancing everywhichway. Then I remembered. These are old friends. I have not seen them in a long time. I have missed them.

I have seen all of them only once before — in the blackness of the Pacific Ocean — on my war to war — decades ago … I have never forgotten them. They, me, you, all of us, are part of a gorgeous cosmic dance.

I watched the lights in the blackness of the sky until the dawn came, and then, they were all gone. Justlikethat.

And then I wondered: Are they a sub-conscious reason why I have come so far north?

Was it to see the Stars again, as we can never see them anymore?

On my last night in Los Angeles I have dinner with screenwriter friends and wind up sitting on sidewalk steps in front of a friend’s house. After awhile, I start talking about a man and a dog I had seen out a window of The Canadian west of Toronto.

I have been unable to shake the image.

The train had been plugging slowly past an outcropping of rocks and, way up there, in the middle of nowhere was this man and his dog. The man seemed neither affluent nor hobo. His heavy work clothes showed wear. His face suggested a hard life. We moved by him at a crawl. Something intrigued me, but…

The man took no interest in the train, or the dog.

I watched. The dog danced backandforth, trying badly to get the man’s attention, but the man seemed to care nothing for the dog — it could be the dog only thought he belonged to the man or that the dog wanted to belong to somebody. I couldn’t tell. The man did not shoo the dog away, but he did not embrace him, either.

He just ignored him.

So, after moments, the dog slunk away, and looked like he would keep going. But, then he apparently decided he wouldn’t give up on the man.

This time the dog edged closer, then closer still. When he was close, the dog set his head down in the man’s lap and did not move. Then he looked up at the man, and the man looked down at the dog, and the man looked away.

But, after a moment, the man found the dog’s head and began stroking the dog over and over and over.

Then, only then, the dog wag/wag/wagged his tail like crazy and, in that moment, they were gone.

(Photographs: ramp from Sacramento station to the platform with The Coast Starlight on right, November 10, 2008, 6:10 a.m.; two Amtrak crew have a quiet moment together during a smoke break in Oregon, November 9, 2008; exterior, the magnificent Portland, OR, Amtrak station, November 9, 2008; the movie theater car on the Coast Starlight, morning, November 10, 2008)


Distance today: 0
Distance Total: 7,516 miles / 9,981 kilometers


1 Comment »

  1. Dog. Man. Word.


    Sing it loud, brother.

    Comment by Daniel Charles Thomas — March 25, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

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