Sunday, March 2, 2008

Canyons, Curveballs and Cornfields


Amtrak’s Train #4, the daily Southwest Chief, departs Los Angeles Union Station on time at 6:45 p.m., beginning a two-day, 2,200 mile journey to Chicago. I’ll be leaving the train at Kansas City, however, to watch the Boston Red Sox in a three-game series with the Kansas City Royals. It’s my annual summer indulgence of train travel and baseball.
As soon as the conductor collects tickets, it’s straight to the dining car for dinner. By the time I get back to Bedroom 2 in Sleeping Car 31, the bed is made up and waiting. San Bernardino is behind us, Barstow is just ahead, and all of Arizona slides quietly by during the night.
Dawn finds the Southwest Chief crossing a New Mexico desert. We’re in the land of mesas now, some off in the distance, others in our path and causing the train to slow as it twists and turns through canyons separating these massive obstacles. Many have Jeep-sized boulders scattered up and down their flanks.

Just after a leisurely breakfast in the dining car, the Chief eases to a stop at Gallup, New Mexico. The town’s main street – at least the one seen from the train – is a collection of small buildings of stucco or adobe topped with large signs, most promoting Indian jewelry and crafts. One offers a startling opportunity for one-stop shopping: “GUNS & LIQUOR.”

Today the landscape east of Gallup is a desert in name only for there has clearly been a lot of rain recently. The wild grasses are green, there are large pools of standing water, and the usually dry stream beds that crisscross the landscape are running with brown water. The train sweeps around a long graceful curve and passes a dozen horses, including two spindly-legged foals, who look up for a moment, then resume their grazing.

Lamy, New Mexico, is the station stop for Santa Fe, the state’s capital, and a dozen or so people get off. Santa Fe is quaint and interesting and very old, dating back to the Spanish explorers who settled here in 1607, more than a decade before the pilgrims stepped off onto Plymouth Rock.

Leaving Lamy, the train climbs up through Apache Pass, a narrow, twisting cut in the mountains with steep red-rock sides. Once through, we’re again crossing grassland, home to several small herds of pronghorn antelope. Off and on for the next several hours, a rutty dirt path runs alongside the tracks – the original Santa Fe Trail.
Near Trinidad, Colorado, four men on horseback are coaxing a dozen steers into the back of a large semi-trailer truck. They stop for a moment to watch the train pass and one lifts his dusty cowboy hat rather grandly in response to waves from passengers in the lounge car.


The Southwest Chief pulls into the Kansas City station on time the next morning. It’s only 7:30, but it’s already hot when I step off the train: well over 100 degrees without the hint of a breeze.

I’ve picked a hotel that’s within walking distance of Kauffman Stadium and it’s full of Red Sox fans decked out in Boston caps and T-shirts. Checking in just before me is a father and his young son who have come all the way from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see their team. Three nights later, after the last-place Royals have somehow managed to win all three games, I encounter the two of them again in the hotel parking lot. The dad is trying to console his son. “I know you’re disappointed,” he says to the boy, “but you might as well get used to it.” Every serious Red Sox fan knows what he means.

My train-baseball odyssey resumes the next morning with a five-hour ride to Galesburg, Illinois, once again aboard the Southwest Chief. East of Kansas City is corn country, endless rows of man-high stalks running off to the horizon. The train is really moving now, over 80 miles an hour, flashing through a small town every ten minutes or so. Most are just clusters of a few weathered buildings, but the defining feature of each little community is the water tower, a huge tank perched on 100-foot-high legs and emblazoned with the name of the town it serves: Marceline, La Plata, Wyaconda, Argyle. Where there’s corn there are birds: black and white magpies, ducks, swallows, and a swarm of small dark-feathered starlings darting in and out through the exposed rafters of an abandoned barn. And settled comfortably in some soft green grass not 50 feet from the tracks, a flock of Canada geese ignore the train as it thunders by. Fort Madison is the Southwest Chief’s last port-of-call before leaving Iowa and crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. From here it’s another hour to Galesburg, where I’ll stop for tonight. There’s a lot of history in these parts. Abe Lincoln and Steven Douglas held one of their debates on a street corner right here in Galesburg. A plaque in the sidewalk marks the spot. Monmouth College is located in the neighboring town of the same name. Monmouth is also the birthplace of Wyatt Earp and the house where he was born is still here. As a matter of fact, there are still a lot of Earps living in Monmouth, including one named Wyatt. Mass murderer Richard Speck was from here, too, but the natives tend to skip over that.

My next stop lies some 140 miles back to the west: Dyersville, Iowa, the site of that famous baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield in the film Field of Dreams. Dyersville is well off Amtrak’s beaten path, so today’s transport is a rental car.

Even from a distance, with a dozen acres of corn in between, fans of the movie will instantly recognize the white two-story farmhouse. The swing on the front porch is still there and so are the rickety bleachers on the first base side of the diamond. The baseball field itself is in great shape: grass mowed and the infield smooth and level. A dozen or so youngsters are waiting patiently to swing at balls tossed by a middle-aged man wearing a Cleveland Indians jersey.

Don Lansing still owns the place and maintains the field himself, with the cost of upkeep covered by proceeds from sales at a small souvenir stand. He estimates that some 800,000 people have made the pilgrimage here since the movie came out 17 years ago, with 60,000 coming last year alone. Amazingly, there isn’t a speck of trash anywhere. “Everyone just respects the place,” Lansing says, “like it’s their own little piece of heaven.”
Burlington, Iowa, is 165 miles due south of Dyersville on the western bank of the Mississippi. This is where I’ll meet the California Zephyr, Amtrak’s train # 5, for the two-night trip back to the west coast. It’s due at 5:15 p.m., but is held up just outside the Burlington depot while an eastbound coal train trundles past
Coal, not oil, is black gold for America’s freight railroads. They haul unimaginable quantities of the stuff, mostly from mines in Wyoming and Colorado. The country’s appetite for coal is insatiable. In fact, there are power plants east of here that consume all the coal provided by a fully-loaded 110-car train every single day of the year.

Tonight in the dining car the table is shared with two sisters, both teachers from New York City enjoying their first cross-country train ride. Proving the theory that everybody has at least one interesting story to tell, it turns out that their father was the chief electrician at the old Polo Grounds in New York, home of the New York Giants baseball team until it moved to San Francisco. The older sister says her father installed some special wiring behind the center field bleachers which he thought could have been used for a signaling system to tell Giant batters what pitches were coming. Conspiracy theorists have suspected that nefarious plot ever since the Giants won the National League pennant in 1951 with a dramatic last-inning home run by Bobby Thompson, although Thompson and others in a position to know have always denied it.

Within minutes of leaving Denver the next morning, the Zephyr begins a slow, steady climb into the Rocky Mountains. Off to the right are the Flatirons, huge slabs of rock, mountains in their own right, that literally lean up against the Rockies.

It’s 275 rail miles from Denver to Grand Junction on Colorado’s Western Slope and along the way we pass though 43 tunnels. The longest, at 6.2 miles, is the Moffat Tunnel, boring through the mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet. It’s the highest point of the Zephyr’s route and, when we emerge at the far end, we’ve crossed under the Continental Divide. Back on the Denver side of the tunnel, all the water flows east to the Mississippi River, eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. From this point forward, water flows west toward the Pacific Ocean.

After brief stops in Winter Park and Granby, the train begins following the Colorado River, which will be off to the left for the next 100 miles or so. All along the way it’s dotted with people floating in a variety of watercraft ranging from elaborate inflatable imitations of double-hulled canoes to simple inner tubes. Many of the rafters cheerfully observe a time-honored tradition: they moon the train as it passes.

A mid-afternoon stop is Glenwood Springs where the gunfighter Doc Holiday came hoping his lung disease would benefit from the natural minerals of the springs. It didn’t and he’s buried here. This is a refueling stop for our twin locomotives and, although passengers are invited to step off the train to stretch their legs, the conductor warns everyone several times over the P.A. system against straying too far from the platform.

An hour later, with the Zephyr underway again, a man in his 40s tells the conductor he thinks his wife was left behind in Glenwood Springs. Sure enough, she’s paged several times with no response. With
Grand Junction still some 80 miles ahead, the husband is ping-ponging back and forth between real distress over his wife’s predicament and near-rage at her carelessness. The conductor shrugs. “It happens all the time,” he says.

I hit the jackpot for dinner companions tonight: a personable young film animator whose parents emigrated to Australia from Malta and a Japanese doctor doing research on organ donations in Boston. He, of course, has become a Red Sox fan and we happily exchange high-fives across the table. But the laws of probability are really stretched by the fourth person at our table: Keith Lewin, a 40-year resident of Kailua before moving to Las Vegas five years ago. Conversation flows all through dinner and it’s well past dark by the time everyone heads off to their respective bedrooms.

It’s still hot and dry the next morning, but no longer desolate. In fact, the vegetation is green and wild flowers – yellow and purple and white – are growing in profusion. There’s a lot more wildlife, too: jack rabbits, antelope, crows, more magpies, vultures soaring overhead and, floating placidly on a small lake, white pelicans. From his perch on top of a fence post, a large golden eagle glares at us as we pass. Cattle by the hundreds are grazing with heads buried almost out of sight in the tall lush grass.

By late morning, it’s all changed. The Humboldt River is alongside now, meandering westward through what has once again become hot, dry country. How hot and how dry? Well, a few miles from Reno, Nevada, the river simply gives up. It slows down, spreads out and quietly disappears into the desert.

After leaving Reno, the Zephyr crosses into California and begins climbing into the Sierra Nevada mountains. This is where the Donner Party – some 90 men, women and children – arrived from Indiana in 1846. It was late in the year, but they nevertheless attempted to cross the Sierras and were trapped by heavy snows. By the time a rescue team reached them, more than half of the party had died. This stretch of the Zephyr’s route, overlooking the American River Gorge at an elevation of some 7,200 feet, is appropriately called Donner Pass.

Less than three hours later, the train has descended all the way to sea level and by late afternoon the California Zephyr reaches its final stop at Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco.

There’s nothing like that first glimpse of these islands on a flight home from the mainland, but it was
a good trip: four nights on the train, some amazing scenery, three major league baseball games, and plenty of interesting conversation.

And yet, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, something else was the highlight. It was that magical baseball field surrounded by an Iowa cornfield.

No comments: