On Track and Off Kilter

@ 2012 Tami Casias

You know you have to get out when you find yourself ironing rather than writing. So when I needed to travel to my daughter’s home in Nebraska at the same time that I had writing projects due, I started looking at my options.

Puddle jumping across the Midwest on economy flights shows off the patchwork of US agricultural diversity in sections rimmed by property lines and lengths of sprinkler systems. But flying east, into the future, often brings a quick end to daylight, and you’re left trying to get comfortable in a seat too small, eating sodium-stuffed snacks while watching your feet swell.

Driving east from California follows high-desert Highway 80, so bland and repetitive it’s like running in a Flintstone’s cartoon. Your feet may be moving, but the only things getting anywhere are the tumbleweeds that repeatedly lap by. You’re left closing the blinds on the RV to avoid a glare on the television and replaying the Indiana Jones trilogy while everyone but the driver enjoys freshly blended margaritas and a game of ‘May I?’

So I boarded a US train for the first time since I’d worked as a hostess on the Skunk Train in Mendocino County during high school. I’d have just the rocking pull, my laptop and time for my characters to tell me how the story ends. Best case scenario I’d have a wonderful trip and get a lot accomplished. Worst case, there was a bar car.

The train followed basically the same route I’d already driven, so I didn’t expect to be distracted by the scenery. This was my first miscalculation.

Traveling at times only yards away from the usual roadway was discombobulating—like looking at the usual, but while standing on your head. I was used to the many malls and shopping centers that dot 80 through Sacramento. But from the back, they looked like refugee camps with everything from scattered mattresses to tent villages pressed against the back of cinder block walls.

This rear view improved immensely as the train climbed into the Sierras and I recognized the backside of my regular restaurant stop in Auburn, just out the east window. As I turned to the west, I could see that the small town actually sat at the edge of a tree-filled valley. All these years, driving only yards away from this scene and not knowing. I had a backstage pass to beautiful.

Six hours after leaving Martinez, we passed the Reno station. The cars quieted and I decided to take my work to dinner. I would love sitting through a long meal in a noisy setting, letting all the background talk fade into a pleasant buzz as I wrote, only I hadn’t counted on dining car etiquette.

I arrived at my seating reservation with my laptop ready, to be told “We seat family style.” I was paired up with another single and a couple to fill out the table of four.  Absolutely no room left on the table for a laptop, let alone a pad of paper. So I resigned myself to enjoying the setting of cloth napkins and fresh freesias. I’d eat quickly then get back to work. What I was missing in writing time I was getting in character development.

I understood the concept of island time, but on a transcontinental train hurrying turned out to be ridiculous and impossible. No one has anywhere else to go. Dinner is to be savored and lingered over. It took at least an hour.

Using what was, I’m sure, great wisdom, Amtrak scheduled the route so the train left Reno near sunset and powered through desolate Northern Nevada in the dark of night.

The ear plugs deep in my backpack saved me from a night near a crying baby, and after some productive pages, I fell asleep somewhere outside Salt Lake City. I woke early, excited to have another full day onboard. I enjoyed a breakfast of fresh oatmeal and fruit, then carried my things to the observation car and put in a good four hours before I found myself staring out the window more than at the monitor.

2butteThe train roughly followed Highway 70 along the Colorado River, south of my usual route. Passing high-desert shrubs we criss-crossed the water as we slowly climbed the Rockies. On the north side were tall dusty buttes and rock formations, while on the south the rushing waterway was framed with greenery and spotted with multi-colored tents as men and women enjoyed fishing in the last of the clear weather before the first snows. It was fun to see campers waving to the train as if they knew someone onboard. Even the occasional wave from the waxing moon of a heavyset camper was met with quiet giggles and harrumphs from the passengers. I gave the afternoon to the glistening water and the camaraderie of fellow passengers.

2riverDaylight ended as we reached Denver. Though technically in Colorado, many local mountain men refer to the large city and everything else east of the Rockies as Kansas, due to the flat, distant horizon.

I settled in for a few hours of writing when one of the women passed around two pounds of cheese and began unpacking piles of quilt fabric, patterns and scissors onto her chair. “If you’re bored, I brought a lot to cut,” she offered. I declined, chatted for a few moments on the number of unfinished sewing projects I already had at home, then when another woman engaged her on Q versus R-sized feet for embroidery machines, I slipped my ear plugs in and hunkered down.

Later, when I’d packed everything up, hoping for a nap before reaching Lincoln at 3:30 a.m. I heard the first woman ask, “Would anyone like any udder cream? I have it in my fanny pack.”

So instead of going to sleep, I began to think of a new book — about a woman who travels back and forth across the country by train creating quilts based on the people she meets along the way. Maybe this will be me.

I think I’ll take the Southern route next time…perhaps a trip to New Orleans.

tcasiasTami Casias wrote local news for years while raising four children. Nowadays, writing fiction for young adults while sitting in coffee shops has taken the place of city council meetings. She uses her degree in Journalism to research new ideas for stories. Tami lives with her husband and Yorkshire terrier, Bruiser, in Sonoma, California.