Bike Nielsen 2019: Prologue

This trip will be from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to Portland, Oregon, United States.

With every revolution of the heavy steel wheels on the rails, the scales fell from Berta’s fingertips in a pile on our Amtrak roomette carpet. Twenty-four months of workplace keyboard accretions flaked and crumbled to the floor. Within a few hours, Berta’s pink fleshy fingers emerged and found a new keyboard, a vacation keyboard, and the typing starting again, this time with vigor.

At that point in our journey, the train was on time. We actually had to wait for another train to leave the station at San Luis Obispo in order for us to arrive exactly on time. This was unsettling. The law of Amtrak averages is going to clap like a thunderbolt on our schedule. Pow! All it takes is one farm implement within 20 feet of the tracks and the timetable will be trashed. But so far, so good!

We had a Goldilocks dining experience on the train this trip. Our companions at our first meal didn’t believe in give and take in a conversation, so they were definitely “too hard”. If the husband ever wants to document his ancestry, we could type up a comprehensive manuscript. For a while, Berta rehearsed a question in her mind that demonstrated a common interest, but eventually decided that he didn’t need encouragement. After we finished our lunch and dessert, we took the earliest opportunity to bolt for the door. At our next meal, we were glad to discover that our dinner conversation was going to be good—this couple was friendly, quick to laugh, and full of chit chat. The guy works in a professional baseball stadium, how fun! We all glossed over the one potentially political comment, seeming to be in agreement and not wanting to overstep. A sign of the times. The husband was a joker. He had a twinkle in his eye and liked telling stories. His interest in sports was a good starting point for a lunch conversation. We enjoyed that mealtime and didn’t have to make a break to escape it; however, we were yet to meet our favorite people on the train. In the morning our table mates were “just right”! The two ladies were not travelling together; however, there was such easy laughter in the first few moments that Berta had to ask. “No,” one said, “I don’t even know your name—what is your name?” she asked the other. We all shared our names and then the obligatories about train travel or any kind of travel for that matter. Where are you from, where are you going, have you been on a train before, have you been on this train before? About that time, the surly server (the surver?) came by and issued her first scolding. After she left, our one new friend said dramatically “I thought I was on vacation”. All of us laughed while John and Berta tried to mentally archive the saying for future jocularity—we hope our lips weren’t moving. We are trying to decide which scolding preceded the comment, there have been so many perceived gross violations of Amtrak protocol. There was: failing to sit side-by-side at the dining table, not completing the dining slip right,  having your foot over the imaginary line into the aisle, not knowing what you want to eat, not remembering the potato options, not doing anything fast enough, and the worst of all offences, entering the dining car without the express approval of the steward. Since these two ladies were new to the train, we warned them about that part. You can’t just barge into the dining car and sit down, we told them. You must stand in the doorway, even if that means that some in your party need to stand in the scary loud vestibule between cars, astride the jostling metal plates and in clear and present danger of closing doors. The person in the lead of the dining group holds up enough fingers to represent his people and raises his eyebrows inquisitively while hoping to catch the eye of an Amtrak employee whose employment-related vision problems prevent recognition of hand signals or needy looks. Finally, after several attempts, the waving is acknowledged and entry is granted. You gratefully enter the dining car, waiting for the next opportunity for scolding.

The broken public address system in our car saved us from hearing announcements from the café car. These interruptions happen with epic frequency on Amtrak. The person in the café car takes breaks at the times of day when a person would want to eat. The announcement is often way too peppy. It has to include several “once again folks” and repeated reiteration. “Once again folks, for the 85th time, this is the information that you ignored the first time”. We haven’t heard these announcements on this trip because the speakers in our car are not working. All we hear is a random crackly syllable and a lot of mumbling. Of course, some of the café information gets through. When they tell you there is no smoking or vaping on the train, invariably the one audible word is “smoke” leaving us to wonder if it was surrounded by “do not” and “anywhere on the train”, or by lots of screaming and “help me”. We will never know. If we had $1.99 worth of tools from Harbor Freight, we could fix the sound before we get to Eugene, but we didn’t bring the voltmeter and also it would be very unpopular to cut the power at the panel on this baby. The broken PA caused us to be blissfully unaware of our deviation from the train schedule. Did we mention earlier that this train was on time? To be honest, we don’t even have a schedule, so we don’t really know when we are supposed to arrive anywhere. But suddenly today, the speakers awakened with a cough and a sputter and we learned that we were approximately one hour late. Our car attendant said it was the earliest the train has been late in a long time. He had a good sense of humor, but really one should not joke about travel schedules. 

Lucky for us, we were getting off the train in Portland before five in the afternoon, so a delay wasn’t a big problem. One of the ladies we met at breakfast was going to make a transfer to a train headed East. As we exited the train, we looked for her because she sounded unsure of travelling by herself. We had planned to show her to the lounge in the station and maybe even walk her outside to the rose garden. But our late arrival meant that instead of a hour-long layover, she now had Army sergeant orders barking at her to jump from our moving train as it entered the station, tuck and roll, slither under the razor wire, and vault into the open baggage car doors as her connecting train rolled out of the station. Forty-nine years of marriage did not prepare her for that. However, we think everything turned out alright. It seemed like there were many people there to help the passengers transfer, and the trains were right next to each other. So, while we didn’t see her, at least she wasn’t turning circles on the platform, and she wasn’t inside the station. We hope that she is looking out at the beautiful scenery now, long past her big transfer, and visiting friends in Montana.