Heading for Denver, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight was on schedule, gliding into the dark Santa Clara Valley when we came to an abrupt stop. No familiar explanation like a halt on the siding to wait for another train to pass.
Announcements apologized for the delay and thanked us for patience. Word slid through the pneumatic doors between cars, passing down the aisles. Two “trespassers” on the tracks, we heard. I learned later that railroads refer to injury and death incidents on the tracks as “rail trespass casualties.”
How are you supposed to feel when you’re on a train that has killed people? Horrified? Sad? Complicit? Angry? All of the above ran through my mind during the five hours we sat waiting.
What were those two people doing on the tracks somewhere south of Gilroy? What terrible misjudgment, mistake, blindness sent those two down such a dark path? A mystery, the only certainty their deaths.
Emergency vehicles gathered on a nearby road, lights flashing. I walked to the last car and peered out the rear window. Far behind a man walked the tracks, swinging a flashlight from side to side. I didn’t want to think what he might find.
Life goes on even when it doesn’t. People in the dining car finished their meals. People in the lounge car ordered more wine. We grew restless, impatient with the delay, hours in a dark field, hours behind schedule, hours away from our own safe places, friends, bed.
The train sat, fuming, air vents blowing, the glowing portals of its window shining out on blackness. The conductor, walking through, said the train couldn’t move until investigators gave permission. Like a plane, the train has a black box, with a video, that must be examined. The café car attendant came through handing out bottled water.
We waited in the silence, caught in winter’s shiver, the moonless night of the dark field. We sat and fidgeted and tended our phones and tried not to look at the black glass of the windows. We and the dead had come together on this train, and we had to abide with them for the time it took. But we were late, so late.
Otherwise a beautiful trip
The train to Denver leaves San Francisco in the morning and travels two days and a night to Colorado’s capital city. The long haul across California’s middle, through the Sierra, across the high deserts of Nevada and Utah, and up and over the Rockies is revelatory.
Snow piled deep in the Sierra, cottony white weighing pine branches, railroad snow plows busy. Deep in a canyon, the American River raced between snow banks. At the summit, Donner Lake was still frozen over, snow flurries dimming the light.
Past Reno, we made a long, straight run through desert scrub, lit with its own kind of beauty as the sinking sun reflected rain puddles.
Through the Rockies, the train follows the canyon pass cut by the Colorado River. I couldn’t take my eyes off the river’s changing faces, running full and muddy brown in the foothills, blue or green higher up, swift, ice-edged, still, snow covered, marked by crossing animal prints.
We passed deer standing on the frozen river, elk and antelope, wild horses, Canada geese and wild turkeys. High in the Rockies, we reached the continental divide in the middle of the six-mile Moffett Tunnel.
Denver’s lively, ornate train station brimmed with restaurants, delis and shops. We made our way through snow and slush to the Oxford Hotel a block away. I loved the hotel for its faded elegance—crackling fireplace in the lobby, Remington sculptures, a caged canary, battered oak-paneled elevators where the rugs, printed with the days of the week, were changed every day.
We spent a couple of days sightseeing, sticking to the city’s center, using the free shuttle that plies the downtown mall. The Denver Art Museum building was stunning and the collection impressive. We took a guided tour of the capitol building and climbed up to the dome for views of the city.
Denverites repeatedly told us it wasn’t usually so cold in March. Which was ironic, considering the “cyclone bomb” that walloped the city afterwards.
On the train clock-time fades away, time measured by what you see—rivulets in the brown river, sand bars and rocky crags, leafless cottonwoods, snowdrifts and flying geese. What the eye takes in, how it is experienced and recorded in the brain—every viewed thing—is like a second ticked off, an experience that can be longer or shorter than clock time. It becomes something else—eye’s time.
One good thing: Sleeping in your own bed after a time away.