November 15, 2008

Vol. 10 — The California Zephyr @ Reno, NV


I’m having a late breakfast in the lounge car after spending an hour or so chatting with my seat neighbor Marco. He told me he’s been working for the past 7 months at a gold mine in Elko, NV and heading back to see his wife and (by my count) 6 kids, as he does every two weeks. He’s a treasure trove of knowledge about mining, paving, welding, landscaping, concrete and surely a lot more, but that’s already a lot for a single hour. He’s a driver of those gigantic loaders, the ones that look like dump trucks scaled up to preposterous size… whose independently driven wheels are each taller than a normal dump truck, and can shuffle around 100 tons of ore (or other, smaller trucks, as Marco learned to his surprise, and related in turn to me). He tells me he loves life too much to venture into the underground shafts, but will happily work any job that lets him see the sun and make enough money to support his family.

Meeting people is half the joy of the train I think (well, maybe a third of it… the creature comforts of legroom and the scenic lounge are worth an awful lot, as is the scenery). I had dinner (a decent though overpriced affair, save for the company) with a couple from outside of Little Rock — whose daughter had gone to Vanderbilt as an undergrad in 1999, while I was still there, and who stayed for medical school — and a young woman originally from Alaska, who was on her way out to visit family in Omaha. A few seats behind mine I talked with a woman from Sacramento who recently lost her job and moved to Vermont on a promise of work, and while between jobs is taking her opportunity — much as myself — to sightsee and visit her family back in California.

I met a pastor’s wife from Golden, CO who was bringing a sizable group of teens and tweens to a youth conference on the other side of the mountains, and an elderly couple who told me they ride the train up from Denver and then back the next day, just for the view, every so often.

Most people on the trains have been nothing but friendly and the sort of casualness and openness of the environment make conversation happen organically. To purposefully and deliberately beat a dead horse, in every single way besides efficiency, the train is superior to air travel.

I hope I got a few good photos this morning of sunrise over the low hills in northern Nevada. Before long, the light revealed a pretty bleak desert landscape, miles of not much besides scrub brush and dirt between hills that not so very long ago drew so many people west during the gold rush. Some, Marco proves, continue to produce wealth for some and jobs for others, and some that had ceased being profitable long ago have apparently been reopened to take advantage of the surge in gold prices over the past couple of years. Still, it’s not a place I think I’d like to live.

There are little towns, or settlements anyway — some consisting of less than 5 structures and a single incongruous tree — along Interstate 80 (which we parallel most of the time), incontrovertible evidence of the variety of human experience and interest, that people would choose to live in such a place. Marco, who has spent most of his life in Nevada, found the depictions he saw of New York City on television shocking, the density and rapidity of life there, the avenues of midtown Manhattan filled with men and women in suits (the latter of which he told me with a hearty laugh was the sexiest thing on the nightly news), and the complete absence of children. I hadn’t thought of that before… a New York built from the images you can see on the news is an even stranger place than New York already is.

I’ve been typing now for long enough that we’ve passed out of Nevada and into California, into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and soon to head over and through them. Suddenly there are trees again, mostly evergreens, and it makes me realize that rich or poor, I could never live in a place without trees. When I’m without them, I feel an anxiousness, a fear that should my world go completely bad, I might end up poor and in a place like that, with nothing to do, and little to hope for. In other words, I get depressed. Here, I just feel different, and wonder if it’s because it feels like home in at least some small way. I think, despite the fact that most modern families live in their own sort of diaspora, everyone takes the place they grew up along with them, and is comforted when they find themselves in similar surroundings.