Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31 (tennis and The Last Station)

It’s the last day of January.  I took off work while it’s still daylight.  I should have had enough time for a couple of miles of cross-country skiing; after all I am living in Michigan.  But what did I do?  I hit tennis balls with my daughter.  And I’m not talking about making the familiar 30 mile drive to a big city where she takes tennis lessons in an inside tennis center, but at the courts at the local high school.  Yep, that’s right, it was 52 degrees  (11 degrees Celsius for my non-USA friends).  I played in shorts and a long sleeve sweatshirt.  Of course, we didn’t have a net (the nets have been removed for winter) but we did have the courts to ourselves.  After dark, I took the pooch for a walk around town.  When I came back home, I watched for the second time The Last Station.

If you haven’t seen the The Last Station I recommend it.  The movie is based on the final year of Tolstoy life as seen through his last secretary, Valentin Bulgakov.  Valentin goes to live at Tolstoy’s family home, where he witnesses the struggle between Chekhov to Tolstoy’s wife Sophia’s battle over the rights to Tolstoy’s work.  He also sees the bitterness and the love between Tolstoy and his wife.  At one point, the author is frustrated with his wife’s complaining and says, “You don’t need a husband, you need a Greek chorus.”  Chekhov, who dislikes Sophia, tells Tolstoy’s wife, “If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out…  or gone to America.”  Even though there is tension, you do get the sense that Tolstoy and his wife are in love even if they can’t live together peacefully and the elderly man finally decides he has flee.  Tolstoy leaves on a train until his health fails and he is taken into by the station master at a remote station and given a place to die.  The small town in inundated with reporters wanting to know what’s happening to the world famous author.  During this time, Chekhov and one of Tolstoy’s daughters conspire to keep Sophia away from her husband.  They are successful until the very end when the daughter relents and allows her mother to see him one final time. 
In addition to the drama around Tolstoy, Valentin also has some drama of his own.  As a Tolstoian, he is trying to live the ideal life based on the ascetic principals of his boss, yet he finds himself having an affair with Masha, a young Tolstorian.   In a way, you get the sense that what Valentin and Masha are experiencing in their love mirrored the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife when they were younger.

The movie deals with how we create idols out of our heroes.  Around Tolstoy are a group of disciples trying to live as he has taught.  At best, Tolstoy is amused by this and his wife is repulsed by it.  Tolstoy takes a liking to his new secretary, confiding in him that he’s not a very good Tolstorian himself.  In another scene, one in which Chekhov is present along with a lot of reporters, Tolstoy kills a mosquito.  Chekhov denounces this, saying that it doesn’t look good for him to kill anything.  Tolstoy counters, telling Masha that Chekhov is a better Tolstorian than he is.  At the end of the movie, Valentin confronts Chekhov, charging that he is creating an icon out of Tolstoy and that the image is going to look more like Chekhov than Tolstoy. 

The scenery in the movie is lovely.  The birch forest reminded me of being in Russia this summer (even though much of the movie was filmed in Germany).  Of course, the train scenes were also pleasing to my eyes!  This is a good movie that shows how the perceived lives of our heroes often differ from the reality.  It also shows how people attempt to control others for their own gain.  This is a good movie.  It’s romantic, but with a twist.   

Friday, January 27, 2012

Drifting into Darien

Yesterday, I was in a nearby city and a sporty black car driven by a woman passed me.  I didn’t pay much attention till I saw her personalized license plate.  It read, “MEN LIE.”  There’s got to be a story behind that!   I know I haven't been writing as much lately as in the past.  I just haven't felt like it.  I suppose I could complain about the weather and how the skiing stinks this winter or make fun of the Republican primary debates that are about to replace the NBA playsoffs as a metaphor for eternal, but everyone is joking about that.  (Maybe that's what her license plate was about, the debates, but I doubt that.)  So instead, I'll post another book review... 

Janisse Ray, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River  (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 237 pages, a map and a few photos

The Altamaha River is one of the most unspoiled rivers in America, and Janisse Ray has lived most of her life near its banks.  As an infant she was baptized (accidentally) on her first river trip when her father’s homemade boat sunk.   In this book, she sets out to explore the river with her husband and a group dedicated to preserving it.  In the first half of the book tells the story of their trip down the river as she recalls its history and explaining its natural setting.   The group feels a kinship with river men who built log rafts out of longleaf pines and floated them down the river in ages past.   Along the way they pass Ragpoint, where raft men used to tie a rag onto a tree for good luck, a tradition that continues to this day.  They float past some of the largest cypress left standing, trees that have been spared the logger’s saw.   In addition to the narrative, the first part of the book contains a numbers of lists that include one of what they are carrying along with lists of birds seen and trees observed.

 The second half of the book consists of a series of personal essays in which the author explores various aspects of the river.  These essays include a night fishing trip with a politician and a guide, a trip to the Bartram Botanical Gardens in Philadelphia where she investigates a  “lost” species that had been found along the river.  And then there is a humorous story about a trip with botanist to an area within the river’s watershed and the language gap that existed.  She produces a rant directed at the United States Forest Service for their “liberal” definition as to what constitutes a forest.  She tells of threats to the river from the discharge of a paper mill, the nitrogen that runs from farmer’s fields, and the problems with clear-cutting.  She makes a case that a river is only as healthy as the forest through which it flows.
These quotes come from the final chapter of her book:

What I needed was to watch the amber water sliding past the ivory sandbars under a high blue sky.  I needed the peace of wildness.
We go to lay our burdens down, to refuel ourselves, to fill our eyes with beauty, to enter the unchanging, to experience metaphorical time.   We go to be transformed.  (211)

This is the third book I’ve read by Janisse Ray.  My favorite is still the Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, in which she tells about growing up with the longleaf pines and issues a call for their protection.  I, too, grew up under longleafs, a few hundred miles to the north and share her concern for these majestic trees.  Check out this other review of mine on a book about longleaf pines.  I also liked Ray's second book, Wild Card Quilt.  This is a good book, but in my opinion it doesn't rise to the level of the other two books of hers I've read.  I like her narrative along the river as I have always wanted to do a similar trip down the Cape Fear and write a narrative that links its history (including that of my ancestors) with its natural history. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"How, Then, Shall We Live?" and other stuff

I've made it back from my trip. It was a shock to the system to leave temperatures in the upper 70s and to have the pilot welcome me home to a balmy 14 degrees and then having to drive on snow-covered roads. Coming back, there was also an "incident" with the plane as one of the deicers had failed to close properly and we were delayed 30 minutes or so in Atlanta. Landing on a snowy runway, it was good they got it fixed. I am going to have to spend some time this weekend catching up with folks blogs, but before that, I'm going to enjoy this snow and today's sun and do a little skiing. Below is a review of a recent book.

Wayne Muller, How, Then, Shall We Live?  Four Simple Questions that Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 289 pages.

Wayne Muller is an ordained minister (he doesn’t give a denomination), a psychotherapist and the founder of “Bread for the Journey,” a ministry in Northern New Mexico.  In this book he addresses four basic questions: “Who Am I? What do I love?  How shall I live knowing that I will die?  What is my gift to the family of the earth?”  Muller draws upon his experiences in working with people (especially the poor, those with AIDS, and those in his clinical practice) and a vast knowledge of Christian, Jewish, Chinese, Buddhist and Native American spirituality.   Each section of the book provides numerous stories and quotes as well as exercises to help the reader come to his or her own answer to the question.   Early in the book, he tells a story from the Buddha in which he equates a story with a raft.  It’s not to be carried as baggage, but to be used to help you get to the other side of a river.  Like with a raft, once the lesson is learned, a story is to be let go.  (36-7)

Each section has numerous stories that vary in length from half a page to a few pages.  Although the stories focus on the same topic, they don’t necessarily flow together.   This allows the book to be read as a devotional, a few pages at a time.   The strength of the book is in the diversity of stories from around the world.  If any areas are underrepresented, it would be Islamic and Hindu authors (although he does quote the Sufi poet Rumi and a Hindu holy man).  This book is a storehouse of knowledge.  For Christians that may have a problem with so many references to non-Christian sources, I would remind them of the doctrine of “Common Grace.”  Muller doesn’t offer clichés as answers to his questions.  Instead, he encourages us to struggle with the questions ourselves.   This is the second book by Muller I’ve read. The first was Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest.  I recommend them both.

“Within the sorrow, there is grace.  When we come close to those things that break us down, we touch those things that also break us open.  And in breaking open, we uncover our true nature.”  (26)

“For many of us, the hardest thing to accept is the way our life has gone.   We didn’t have the family we hoped for…  I have to accept that I will be who I am and make some peace with it. It is a little sad, and yet I also feel some relief.”  (62)

“Our own true nature is not something extraordinary; in fact, it is quite ordinary, an inevitable proportion of our daily life.”  (64)

“The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but rather of subtraction.”  (99)

“When you use all your strength to fight your death, you are losing all the energy you have left to live.” (167)

“We mistakenly believe that if we accept our deaths, we will begin to die.   Curiously, the reverse is true: When we accept we are already dying we are set free to live.” (168)
“Love, serve, and remember”  -Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba (197)

“To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”  -Tao Te Ching (209)

“When our days are complicated and fast, things get lost.  All too often it can be precious things that get lost—a sunset, a walk, a gentle word, an opportunity to be kind…” (211)

“Gratefulness arises naturally from this fertile balance of honoring both our sorrow and our joy.  We name our sorrows so that we can bring care and attention to our wounds, so that we may heal.  At the same time we give thanks for the innumerable gifts and blessings bestowed upon us daily, lest we forget how rich we are.”  (221)

“Gratefulness slows time.”  -222

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”  -Lao Tzu (224)

“Your lamp was lit from another lamp.  All God wants is your gratitude for that.” –Rumi (227)

“’Love,’ wrote Jean Vanier, ‘doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things.  It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.’” (239)

“Real joy is to be found in the balance between giving and taking.  Like breathing, we must both inhale and exhale.”  (266)

“As the bee takes the essence of the flower and flies without destroying its beauty and perfume, so wander in this life.”  -The Buddha (273)

Our work with ourselves can be an invaluable gift to those who are in need of strong and faithful company.” (274)

When I was doing a google search to find a photo of the book to include here, I came across the photo at the bottom of this page. (Just do a google search for "how, then, shall we live?"   I assure you, even though he doesn't give us direct answers to his questions, I don't think this is what Muller had in mind when he wrote the book.  (Please note, this photo isn't mine and is copied from a blog that I think must have copied it-along with a lot of other photos.  If it is your photo and you want it removed, just let me know and I'll do it.  After all, you got a gun!).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sunday afternoon Skiing, Double-nickels, and an aborted take-off

Old Michigan Central Railroad bed

It has been a weird winter.   Actually, it hasn’t been very winter-like as we have not had much cold weather.  Finally, this past weekend, we had enough snow to ski so Sunday, after church, I headed out with a couple of friends and we skied the Paul Henry Trail along the old Michigan Central Railroad bed from Irving to Middleville.  It’s a nice trip that I’ve made many times before (on a bike and in a canoe).  After two days of snow, it was a beautiful day with the sun bright although low in the sky.  In Middleville, we rested at Champs Bar and Grill, where I enjoyed a pint of Newcastle and half a dozen spicy chicken wings. 

Thornapple River
On Monday, it warmed up and the snow began to melt.  I also turned double-nickels.  Unfortunately, my birthday was hectic as I had to get stuff done before heading out Tuesday for a conference.  I’ll be in Orlando till Friday.  The flight down was a little exciting (and long) as the plane had to abort a take-off on the runway.  The pilot said an alarm had gone off in the cockpit and the plane had to go back to be checked by maintenance.  We sat on the plane for two hours, but to Delta’s credit they did everything to make it pleasant, giving us extra nuts and drinks while we waited and the flight attendant even did a dance.  While we waited, they also re-booked those of us who had connecting flights. 
Thornapple River

Friday, January 13, 2012

Deep River

I have been very busy since getting back from vacation and haven’t been around much.  We’ve been having weird weather.  Yesterday it was nearly 50 degrees, today we had four or five inches of snow. While traveling on train, I finished listening to Deep River.

Shausaku Endo, Deep River, 1993 (I listened to the unabridged audio version)

I am still trying to get my mind around this novel.  Endo begins with brief biographies of several Japanese tourists who are heading to India to visit Buddhist holy sites.  Osamu Isobe is a businessman who realizes, as his wife dies from cancer, that he loves her and had mistreated her.  Before her death, she makes him promise he’ll look for her reincarnated in someone else.  Mitsuke has suffered from a broken marriage, a promiscuous life and the horrors of having seduced Otsu, a student in college who was planning on entering the Catholic priesthood.  She is curious about India because she learns that Otsu is now living there and she hopes she can learn to love.  Kiguchi was a Japanese soldier in Burma, who wants to honor those who died in war.  During the war, he was kept alive by a friend who had a terrible secret; he’d eaten the flesh of another soldier in order to stay alive and to keep Kiguchi alive.  These three characters, along with Otsu, are in my opinion the most prominent within the story.  However, there are a number of other characters that adds to (and complicates) the story.  There is Numada who wants to find a particular bird and some honeymooners, with the husband only after photos and the wife wishing they’d gone to Europe. 

The key to the story is Otsu, who has studied for the priesthood in both Japan and Europe.  Otsu struggles with the Western concept of God and has battled with the church.  In desperation, he leaves the church and takes on the life of an Untouchable, compassionately helping those who have come to Ganges to die.  He is a gentle soul, through whom Endo critiques both Western theology and Japanese spirituality.  Otsu sees God everywhere, especially in those he helps.  He thinks the church’s great heresy is how it, as an institute, sees itself as owning the “true God,” and suggests that God is so big that he’s outside of any particular religion.  He also suggests that Jesus would be where he was, serving those who are most in need.

Although I have theological issues with the universalism Endo puts forward through Otsu, I found Otsu to be a believable character who struggles to live as a disciple of his Savior.  Otsu certainly “takes up his cross” as he enters the lives of the Untouchables.  I very much agree with Endo’s insistence through Otsu that God is free from human constraints.  In addition to dealing with the nature of God, Endo incarnational and sacramental theology is seen through in the story of Kiguchi, whose eating of dead soldier’s flesh.  However, the sacramental links are not as well developed as Endo’s nature of God.  .

This book has given me much to ponder, but I am cautious to recommend it to others.  Had he limited the main characters, Endo could have keep the book more focused.  I really enjoyed hearing the Japanese side of the suffering in the war (through Kigunchi), however I found the insertion to be somewhat forced.  Also being thrown in the mix is the tour to India occurs at the time Indira Gandhi’s assassination by Sikhs, which seems to overly complicate things.  However, Endo, a Japanese Catholic Christian (who died in 1996), seems to want to show the good and the bad of religions (Catholic Christianity, Buddhism, Sikh and Hindu.  Endo is best known for his novel Silence which is about Jesuit missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to Japan in the 16th Century.     

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Coming Home on the Southwest Chief

Eastern New Mexico

I know this is a long post, but its was a long train ride (~1850 miles)

The air is crisp and Orion has dropped into the western sky as we make our way into the Flagstaff train station.  The waiting room is nearly filled with passengers and baggage awaiting the eastbound arrival of the Southwest Chief.  It’s 5:15 AM and we’re fifteen minutes before the train is supposed to arrive.  I’ve parked the rental car in the city lot across the tracks, place the keys in the drop box and take a seat on the old wood benches.  The train is running fifteen minutes late.  Outside one of Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains of containers race through town, on its way to Los Angeles and then to a ship to where ever.  A few minutes later another train approaches from the west, heading east, with containers that probably originated somewhere in Asia, most-likely China.  At 5:41, the time the train was to have departed Flagstaff, but we learn it’ll be another twenty minutes before it arrives.  At six, everyone begins collecting their luggage.  The station agent instructs those in coaches to head to the right and those with sleeper car accommodations to go left.  We make our way to the 430 car where an attendant takes our tickets, helps us aboard and directs us to our assigned berths. .   “The diner opens in 20 minutes,” we’re informed.   At 6:10, the engineer blows his horn, signaling that it’s time to go.  A few seconds later, the train begins to move into the darkness of the Southwest.  In my compartment, I stare out into the dark sky as we leave the city.  I nod off for a few seconds, but it’s hard to get back to sleep, so mostly I look out the window.  To the southeast the sky is just a bit lighter and fewer of the stars can be seen.  Slowly a thin red line is seen on the horizon and it gradually grows into a band of red.  I can begin to make out the shape of what few trees grow in this country, the utility poles and lines of fence posts.  As it becomes lighter, I notice I can tell the difference between the types of brush.  

A little before 7 AM, I head to the dining car for breakfast.  The train pulls into Winslow, stopping only for a minute to let off and pick up passengers.  I’ve been through this town several times and have yet to see “a girl in a flatbed Ford.”  The waitress, a young Hispanic woman with a bright smile, brings coffee and informs us of the day’s special.  I decide to have the omelet made with three eggs, spinach, onions and tomatoes with a side of grits and cinnamon raisin toast.  It’s a filling breakfast and the chef liberally sprinkled oregano on the omelet, giving it a nice spicy taste.  While at breakfast, the sun breaks the horizon and its rays immediately light up the desert floor.  Along the interstate, silver trailers pulled by semis reflect the light.  Fence posts and utility poles cast long shadows.  As the sun rises, the shadows are reeled in.  We pass numerous freight trains, mostly hauling containers, but there’s one with piggy back trailers, and unit train of coal cars, another with closed hoppers hauling grain and another of tankers, hauling chemicals.    
Service stop in Albuquerque

Before I realize it, the train has cut through the Petrified Forest National Park and is running along the Pesrco River as it makes its way to the New Mexico border.  Although Interstate 40 parallels this section of track, it was originally Route 66, the highway made famous by Steinbeck in his Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  When I was in school in Pittsburgh, I met a retired dentist who told me about his family’s trip out west in 1923.  The man was in his 80s at the time I knew him, but was only about ten when his dad, who was a physician, decided to take off the entire summer.  He packed up the family in a large car he described as looking like something off the Beverly Hillbillies set.  As this was before road trips were popular and motels and service stations dotted the landscape; the family had to provide for themselves.  They mostly camped at night and cooked their own food (carrying tents and a stove).  He said that from the time they left Kansas City until they arrived in Los Angeles, the only paved roads were in towns.  They had to serve as their own mechanics, too, often fixing half-dozen or so flats a day. As they boiled under the hot sun of the Southwest, they complained to their dad as to why they were driving while others were zooming past their car, riding comfortably in the sleek trains along the Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Route.

The train I’m on was the descendant of the Santa Fe Super Chief, which was introduced in the 1930s.  At its time, the Super Chief was luxury on rail, featuring all Pullman sleeper cars powered by diesel engines.  This was the train of Hollywood Stars and would later give the framework for the movie “Silver Streak,” which although it used a different name, followed the Santa Fe’s route between LA and Chicago and featured the comic antics of the young Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

We reach Gallup at 9 AM.  From the sounds of the announcement, it sounds like the train crew is having problems with folks getting off the train to smoke and holding up operations.  Gallup is just a quick stop to drop off and pick up passengers, but many have jumped onto the platform where they can legally smoke.  The conductor wants to make up time and he tells people to only get off the train at scheduled stops.  Since Amtrak went non-smoking twenty-some years ago, they have encouraged people who need to puff to take advantage of longer stops where they service the train.  The next such stop is Albuquerque.

After Gallup, we climb.  The wheels of the train squeak in the curves as they scrape against the side of the rails.  To our north is a mesa that rises several hundred feet, the red Navajo sandstone is rich in the morning sun.  To our south are lava fields, with the broken black rock only rising maybe fifty feet.  Occasionally, in valley of sage is an ancient cottonwood, its huge trunk sprouting hundreds of scrawny limbs that twist every-which-way.   This is Native American country.  There are traditional southwest adobe housings along with many trailer and manufactured homes.  Also, along what was once Route 66, are the ruins of motels and restaurants and trinket shops.   For a hundred miles or so out of Gallup, the tracks parallel Interstate 40, alternating between being just north or south of the freeway.   About fifty miles out of Albuquerque, the tracks drop to the southeast, before heading north along the upper waters of the Rio Grande.  For the next three hundred miles, the tracks head north, paralleling Interstate 25.  

During the morning, my daughter works with her violin and a keyboard on her ipad to figure out the notes to a favorite song.  I spend my time writing in my journal, looking out the window and reading Janisse Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River.  No one is in a hurry.

Northern New Mexico (notice the lounge car window reflections)

We arrive in Albuquerque on-time, having made up nearly thirty minutes.  Albuquerque is a long stop, nearly forty minutes, as the conductors and engineers change (the car attendants and dining car attendants remain the same the entire trip) and the train’s locomotives are fueled while the water tanks in the passenger cars  are filled.   During the stop here, I get out and walk up and down the tracks.  On the edge of the tracks are Native American vendors selling jewelry and woven rugs and hats.  We leave Albuquerque at 12:10, right on time.  As we leave the city, the tracks take us through back yards that all seem to contain a wood-fired adobe beehive oven (something I’d always wanted).  The houses all have satellite dishes.  Some are traditional southwest looking homes, but many are not.  

Our reservation for lunch in the dining car is at 12:30 PM.  The nice thing about a sleeper is that all meals are included, which means I eat more than I should.  I have a veggie burger, made out of black beans.  It’s pretty good.  Included are chips, ice tea and desert.  I have a cup of raspberry sorbet. 

The Lamy station is the transfer point for those whose destination is Santa Fe.  Ironically, although the famous town became the name of a railroad, the main line never made it to Santa Fe.  The mountains were too steep to put the tracks into the town, so the town of Lamy was built.  A short-line still branch off the mainline here, but those passengers desiring to get to Santa Fe, there is a bus.  The train snakes through steep cuts in the pale orange sandstone as we leave Lamy.  At times, the walls are so close to the tracks that if a window was open, one could reach out and touch the rock.  Our progress is slow as the grade is steep as we move into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing up the Glorieta Mesa.  According to the timetable, it’ll take us nearly two hours to cover the 65 miles between Lamy and Las Vegas.  The snow is also deeper, pinion and gamble oaks are now mixed in with the juniper.  The late summer blooms on the rabbit brush is now brown. 
Once we reach the Glorieta sidings, the track isn’t quite as steep and the train picks up speed.  The westbound Southwest Chief passes us; it’ll be in LA tomorrow morning.   I head to the lounge/observation car where I spend the afternoon, looking at the scenery (here I can see both sides of the tracks) while writing and talking to fellow passengers.  We parallel Interstate 25; when the tracks are level we make good time and when they are steep, we slow down.     Here, on top of the mesa, there are fewer cuts into the rocks and as the train snakes, we can see the engines up front and the coach cars on the back end.

Las Vegas, New Mexico isn’t as glitzy as its named counterpart in Nevada.  But it’s an older town along the Santa Fe Trail.  Next to the typical mission style train station Castendada, an old hotel and “Harvey House.”  In the days before dining cars, the trains would stop here and the folks at the “Harvey House” were assigned the task of feeding the entire train as quickly as possible in order that they could get back on the road.  Leaving Las Vegas at 3:15, the tracks carry us along high plateau, mostly grasslands with the occasional windmill and ranch house.   The sun is now dropping in the southwestern sky as the magic hour approaches.  In the winter, the sun seems to hang on a little longer and everything is bathed in soft light.  The brown grass turns golden.  Yesterday, at this time, we were driving across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, through the polygamous towns of Hillsdale and Colorado City as we were heading to Flagstaff to catch the train.  Canaan Mountain, in its various bands of colored sandstone, was beautiful in the low light.   Today’s landscape isn’t quite as dramatic but it’s still beautiful as the sun casts warm hues across the plateau.  The sun finally gives up and drops behind the mountains a few minutes before we arrive in Raton.

Northern New Mexico
Raton is a longer stop and I get off the train and walk up and down the platform.  It’s colder, now that the sun has set and we’re in higher elevation.  In the summer, thousands of Boy Scouts get off here in order to visit the Philmont Scout Ranch, for a week or two of hiking in the Desert Mountains of the Southwest.  I’m told that having a large scout group on the train can be a trying experience for the rest of the travelers, but we don’t have to worry about it as its winter.  I’ve taken this route once before, during the summer of 1993, but since I had a sleeper, I was spared the experience as the scouts onboard were all in coach.   When we leave Raton, we’re on some of the steepest track in the country.  We’re five cars behind the locomotives, yet can hear them groan as they work hard to pull us up the grade.  At times it seems we’re going no faster than I can walk.  The track is so steep that a marble dropped on the floor would race to the back of the car.  It takes nearly an hour to go from Raton, New Mexico to Trinidad, Colorado, a distance of only 24 miles.  At the summit, the tracks are at 7588 feet, the highest point along the Santa Fe line.  We rush through the Raton Tunnel and then begin our descent.  But even the downhill is steep and curvy and the engineer maintains a slow descent.  Its pitch dark by the time we reach Trinidad.  

Our dinner reservations are at 6 PM and since we don’t have enough for a full table, we are seated with a solo traveler who introduces himself as “Dave, a hillbilly from West Virginia.”  He’s quite a talker, telling about working in the coal mines as a kid and then leaving the state and doing various jobs around the country including working behind the scenes in the movies.  He’d gotten on in Santa Fe and is heading back to his home country where he’s planning on retiring.   For dinner, I have a chipotle beef tip with apricot sauce, roasted vegetables, rice and a salad.  I’m not a big beef person, unless the meat has been spiced up some.  This was delicious!  After dinner, the train stopped in La Junita, Colorado.   We’re fifteen minutes early.  Since the engineers and conductors change here; we have nearly a 30 minute break.  But it’s cold, 14 degrees, so after walking the length of the train a few times, I seek the shelter of the car, where our attendant is busy putting down the beds.  I’d talked to him earlier today.  He’s been an attendant for Amtrak for 35 years.  He started working with them during the summer, when he was a grad student working on a photojournalism degree.  He stayed with it, taking on average three six-day trips a month (a trip from LA to Chicago with a layover day and then back to LA is considered a 6 day trip).
Old Burlington Route Steamer in Galesburg, IL

 Through this section, I have a good data signal and spend the next hour updating my facebook page and reading and commenting on blogs.   We stop briefly in Lamar, to let off and receive passengers.  As we leave, I put away my laptop and pull the covers over me.  Outside, it’s cold and snowy.  The stars are bright and Orion and his dog seem to be just outside my window.  We pass a number of grain elevators and enter the Central Time Zone.  It’s now 10:30 PM and I call it a night.

I sleep well, waking up only once, at 5:15 AM.  We’re at Topeka, then.   The station is on the other side of the train, and from my window I look out at a rather sizable rail yard.  Freight trains are being assembled.  The lights are so much that I can barely see the stars, but I pick out what I think are the two bright stars that make up the arrow in the archer’s bow, but then realize I shouldn’t be seeing that constellation this time of the year and that it must be Cygnus the Swan.  As we begin to move out, I fall back asleep.  At 7 AM, the announcer comes on and says we’re in Kansas City, a fifteen minute stop. I pull on a gym suit and walk outside for fresh air.  When the engine whistles and the conductor calls “all aboard,” I jump back onboard and go to the diner for breakfast.  This morning I take it easy, enjoying a bowl of steel cut oatmeal along with some fruit and toast and, of course, coffee.   We’re seated with a woman from Royal Oak, Michigan, who has been visiting family in Kansas.  She’ll be on the same train we’ll take out of Chicago, although she’ll have two and a half more hours of travel, arriving at her station at midnight (if the train is on time).    As we eat, we cross the Missouri River.  A unit train of grain hoppers passes us, heading west.  There is no snow here in the Midwest, just brown fields and bare trees.  The tracks cut through the northwest corner of Missouri and the southeast corner of Iowa, as we race along through farmland and wooded areas and the occasional town.  Broom sledge, brown and dry, line the tracks thought much of this section.   We stop in La Plata, Missouri.  This is a small station and we have to make two stops, one to let off the sleeping car passengers and again to let off those riding in the coaches on the back end of the train.  Over half of the passengers appear to be Amish in their traditional dress.

As we approach Fort Madison, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, we pass the factory where they make the large electrical windmills.  Hundreds of blades are stored around the buildings and some of them are on secured to flat rail cars, awaiting shipment.  Fort Madison is a “smoke stop” and I get off to get some fresh air (there seems to be only one smoker in our car and he walks far away from the train to light up).  I walk around a bit, but we are only stopped for a few minutes before the engineer blows the whistle and the “all aboard” call is made.  It’s okay because they have already called the 11:45 AM dining reservations (it’s only 11:15).  We’re about 10 minutes behind schedule, but all bets are on that we’ll make that back up as we race into Chicago.  In the dining car, as we pull out of the station, the tracks parallel the Mississippi River.  A paddle-wheeled riverboat is tied up at the docks and I pose to get a shot when we go by, but just before we get there a pair of orange, black and yellow Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotives on the next track blocks my view.  It’s a unit of cars filled with automobiles.  Soon, the tracks make a right hand bend and we’re on the trestle over the Mississippi and into Illinois, the final state of our journey.  This is farm country.  The dirt is black and the fields of corn and soybeans are fallow in the winter.  Along the edges of the fields are farm houses and barns.

For lunch, I have the chef’s special.  I am not normally a big macaroni and cheese fan, but his mac and cheese includes cauliflower, corn, garlic and chipotle sauce.  It was good and has a spicy bite to it.  The meal is especially filling since it includes a salad and a dinner roll.  When we leave, we say goodbye to the dining staff as they’ve treated us well this trip. 
Illinois farm

Our first stop in Illinois is Galesburg, a railroad town.  Tracks merge here before heading into Chicago.  At the station, many of the Amish get off the train along with a few other passengers.  Next to the station is the Galesburg Rail Museum.  Someday I need to make a stop here.  On display is a Burlington Route steamer with a couple of Pullman cars.  There have been a number of old steam locomotives on display in the various towns we’ve traveled through.  In this part, they’re always the over-sized Burlington Route or CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) steamers designed for fast transportation across the plains.  On the other side of Kansas City, they’re Atkinson, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotives, most of which are smaller and better on the curves.  Riding through this country of farms and small cities, we see the backyard of America, filled with clothes lines and swing sets.  Many of the streets that run out from the tracks have wooden two-storied box-shaped homes and are lined with trees.  But it doesn’t quite look right as there is no snow on the ground, which is usual for January.

We pull into Chicago’s Union Station on time, at 3 PM.  We’ve covered 1699 miles in 33 hours, having traveled through deserts and mountain, through reservations and many small towns and a few larger cities, crossed the great rivers and the rich farmland of America’s heartland! 

With a three hour layover, we head to the Great Room.  It’s still decorated for Christmas.  We camp out on the wooden bench seats.  As I finish reading Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien, a police officer stops to ask what I’m reading.  I try to explain the book and he asks if it’s like the book they made into a movie with Brad Pitts about two boys and their father a Lutheran minister in Montana.  “You mean, A River Runs Through It?” I ask.  “That’s it,” he says.  I correct him saying that the day wasn’t Lutheran but Presbyterian and explain the differences between the books.  Although I am enjoying Ray’s writing, it’s nothing like MacLean’s masterpiece.   I tell him a bit about Ray and her writing about nature in the South.  He acknowledges the number of great southern writers and notes the rising number of southern crime fiction authors.  I admit I haven’t read much in that genre unless Carl Haaisen’s writing could be classified in the genre.  I’m surprised that he knows Haaisen, and he asks if I’ve read Thomas Cook.  I haven’t and he tells me about a crime fiction book Cook wrote that’s sent in Birmingham, during the days of Bull O’Conner.   As we talk, he seems to know a lot about Cook and the setting and I ask if he knows Cook and he admits that he’s talked to him a number of times, saying that he plays in the crime fiction genre.  When I ask if he’s published anything, he acknowledges that he’s shopping a novel, but has a non-fiction book in print titled Just the Facts: True Tales of Cops and Criminals.  

At five, an hour before departure, we head into the crowded waiting room.  I talk a bit with an Amish man who’s just travelled here from central Pennsylvania to see a couple families off to Mexico.   At 5:30, the make the first call for the Wolverine, the train that’ll take us to Kalamazoo and home.   We board, climbing up iced-over stairs.  The train is crowded.  We start slowly, going through the maze of tracks south of Chicago, before circling around the south shore of Lake Michigan.  It’s a short trip, just two and a half hours (plus another hour due to the change of time zones). At Niles, I call my friends where I’d left my truck.  They tell me they’ll be there at the station.   It’ll be nice to be home as I hear it’s been snowing.  At 9:30, right on time, the train stops in Kalamazoo and we carefully make our way down the icy steps.  After a thirty minute drive, our trip will be over.