A very long train journey

Davis, California to Portland, Oregon, Sunday 22 January 2012

Breathtaking. That feels to be the only word adequate to describe the journey from Davis to Portland. From the delays, to the examples of parenting, to the evidence of poverty, to the scenery: breathtaking.

It’s a little after three in the afternoon, Pacific Standard Time, and I’ve been on this train since 05:15. We’re somewhere north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The train should have rolled into Davis at 01:28, but a fallen tree that caused extensive damage to the track meant an initial delay of almost four hours. With no clear indication as to when the track would be cleared and repaired, I had little option than to wait at the station, sharing the company of the very sweet station staff, the most voyeuristic television programme imaginable, and a man whose snoring made the window panes reverberate.

We’re passing through a blizzard right now; the swirling snow is obscuring a pine forrest laden with several inches of snow. It might be an entrance to Narnia. The climate and the terrain is deathly inhospitable, but the effect is majestic.

I can’t be certain which was worse: the gentleman’s snoring or the television programme that tracked individuals suspected of infidelity, presented the evidence to their cuckolded other halves, and then encouraged a confrontation. Why anyone would willingly subject themselves to public humiliation to such a degree is beyond me. I can only hope that the viewership is restricted to stranded travellers waiting for severely delayed trains in the early hours of the morning. As for the snoring; it was phenomenal. I doubt that you would be able to share a house with this man, let alone a bed, without suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. It was the perfect embodiment of cartoon snoring.

Everything has just turned to white. Everything. There is nothing to see save for a blanket of white extending to the horizon. The occasional fence post is peeking above the parapet of snow, and a line of telegraph poles has bisected the landscape, but that’s it.

The seats in coach class are a far cry from First Great Western’s finest. They are more comparable with business class airline seats. No, they don’t recline fully, but the leg room is extensive and together with the leg rest extension and a selection of pillows, it makes for a comfortable cocoon. Breakfast in the dining car was served on proper china with stainless steel cutlery and linen napkins. My scrambled eggs were cooked to order and my coffee mug was refilled three times. I’m sure that the MD of First Great Western would toss himself from the roof of this train if he knew that I paid $92 for this ticket, and that was expensive because it was a weekend. If I had been able to travel midweek, it would have been somewhere between $56 and $72.

At breakfast I was seated opposite a Mennonite lady who was travelling to Albany to take care of her elderly mother who is undergoing surgery tomorrow. I was sorely tempted to ask her about the Mennonite church, but my fear that she might attempt to proselytise overwhelmed my curiosity. I remain ignorant of the Mennonite church, but I know that Nancy has two sons who live in San Diego and her brother’s recent dental surgery has precluded him from taking care of their mother.

There’s a ridge banking steeply to the near-side of the train. A valley is dropping away sharply on the off-side. We’re intrepidly snaking a narrow precipice, a sliver of silver through the snow white and tree green.

I was the only person who boarded the train at Davis, but at Sacramento, a hoard was waiting. As soon as I heard the screeches of ‘Damien, get back here!’ a shudder slid down my back and I raised a small prayer that they wouldn’t be anywhere near me. No such luck. Damien, Chris, and Alyssa were seated next to me. Three year old Damien has spent almost the entirety of the journey being scolded, chastised, and castigated by his mother. It would be easy to assume that he is the devil-child, but really, he’s just a bored little boy having to endure a 16 hour train journey with parents who are ill-prepared and seem to lack some basic parenting skills.

Other than a Nintendo DS, he has nothing else to occupy him. There are no storybooks, no colouring books, no games, and no puzzles in evidence. Every time that he shuffles in his seat, his mother threatens to spank him. Whenever he raises his voice, she tells him to shut up. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to her that perhaps taking him for a walk up and down the train would help to release some of his extensive energy; or that if she were to explain that his raised voice disturbs everyone in their vicinity, instead of just demanding he be quiet, he might sit more quietly.

He’s a sweet kid who has just learned how to make clip-clopping noises with his tongue, but I’m not sure that I can hold out much hope for him.

A lake is just about discernible through the mist on the off-side. The icy water and the cloak of grey damp are merging into an eerie tableau.

The area north of Sacramento is fruit-growing territory. My arboreal knowledge is insufficient to identify the forlorn and denuded trees, regimented in their orchards that stretch across the flatlands, right the way to the horizon, but I would suppose that there are plums, apples, cherries, apricots, and peaches. I’m certain that I saw some walnuts, too. In spring it must be a glorious medley of blossoms and summer must feel lush and verdant, but right now, it feels almost hopeless.

That sense of hopelessness is inescapable when combined with the evidence of back-breaking poverty along the track. The sense of desperation that I felt when, aged six, I first experienced the high-rise tower blocks that border the train line into Kings Cross, around Highbury, is not something that I shall ever forget. All I could mouth was: ‘Mummy, do people really live like this?’ Twenty-six years later, and it’s virtually the same statement made about a situation that’s infinitely worse.

We passed by trailer parks where even the speed of the train and the distance between us could do nothing to prevent the sense of your spirit being sucked out of you. There were dilapidated and isolated houses, crumbling amidst rusting cars and trucks and piles of junk that you know are home to people scratching a living and struggling to make ends meet. And then there are the rows of bivouacs dotted along the trackside, slung with drying clothes and the evidence of campfires; the vestiges of the last resort.

This is a whole different dimension of poverty and an entirely new sense of desperation.

I’m in Narnia again, with snow-covered trees and icy, streams rushing downhill.

Chris and Alyssa are struggling for money, badly. They’re hoping that this move across country will bring about a change in their fortunes, and work. Their financial situation is that constrained that they’ve been discussing what, if anything, they can afford from the dining car for supper. The gentleman sitting a row ahead of them has just given them a $20 bill. He said that he didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but that they should get themselves some dinner and hopefully it would help.

Peering down into the valley, there are swirls of cloud sitting above the trees whilst snow capped peaks rise on the other side.

If you can envisage the scenery from an epic American pioneering story, desolate and bleak but perhaps tinged with hope, this journey has captivated it. Yellow-earthed plains have slid carelessly over the horizon; we’ve emerged from tunnels to gaze across the sweep of Lake Shasta; the vast, icy Sacramento River has been spanned by gravity-defying bridges; occasional cattle and shaggy-maned horses have dotted the landscape; and plunging valleys have been banked by soaring, snow-capped mountains.

Dusk. It’s easier to see the reflection of the train carriage in the window than what lies beyond it.

Despite the delay, this is everything that rail travel should be. It’s been breathtaking.

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