Link to Amtrak.com

I Get a Kick Outta Train Number 6

New Friends and Fuzzy Slippers on the California Zephyr

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A volunteer with the California State Railroad Museum narrates historical and sightseeing side notes over the loudspeaker system. He's on board from Sacramento to Reno. He tells us that Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil was left at a scenic overlook above the North Fork of the American River. "They went back for him when they realized he wasn't on board," our railroad buff reports.

Rosemary Blanch takes a mental postcard of Nevada during a family breakfast in the dining car.

I miss the railroad museum volunteer's bit about the tunnel we've just been through. I'm caught in my own thoughts of dark, spooky tunnels with their mystery on the other side: Where are we? What are we going to see? What life scene will we interrupt?

In the sightseer lounge, I overhear a couple explaining to their neighbors that they're celebrating an anniversary. The car smells vaguely like steam-cleaned carpet. "I don't know where we are," slurs a Paris Hiltonesque blonde emerging from the downstairs café with a dreadlocked guy in a backwards cap, unbuttoned plaid shirt, and neck bandanna. I look more closely as they teeter in my direction. The young man has a Black & Mild cigar poked through a hole in his ear — one of those modern primitive piercings the size of a Roman coin. Pine tree after pine tree passes the windows. "Dad, when are we gonna go faster?" a little boy pesters. "When I was a little kid, we used to travel by train all the time, and it was so exciting," says the woman celebrating an anniversary.

I think, What's with all the dreadlocks?

I overhear someone else explaining that a group of passengers are en route to Colorado for the annual Rainbow Gathering, where folks with a "strong orientation to take care of the Earth" get together in the National Forests yearly "to pray for peace on this planet."

In the dark, the train squeaky-creeks through Emigrant Gap, where pioneers' wagons traveled on their way to settle California. Rain pecks at the night-blackened windows.

7:02 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, June 28

Railfan Nina Waite in her "spot" in the lounge car, weaving lanyards and looking for roaming antelope.

"I kind of like being forced to slow down," says Carolyn Ellis to me in the dining car at breakfast, Day 2. Her husband, a natural history travel guide, jots a note on a folded piece of paper. Michael is compiling a list of birds he's spotted from the train.

Nina Waite, a self-proclaimed railfan from Los Altos, Calif., has ridden every Amtrak route "except three or four." She gazes out the sightseer lounge's almost-to-the-floor and just-beyond-the-curve-of-ceiling windows. Beside her, a tote bag holds drinks, snacks, reading, and crafty projects. In her lap, steady and relaxed hands braid colorful plastic strands into lanyards.

I hand Nina my business card. "Beman?" she quizzes me, her brows knitting. Her fingers cease to weave the lanyards she'll share at a Philmont Scout Ranch leadership workshop in New Mexico. That is, after she visits family in Baltimore.

"You don't know Ginger Beman, do you?" she asks. Turns out Nina and my sister-in-law worked together at Los Altos High School. Our interview morphs into the kind of gabfest you have while sipping iced tea on your neighbor's front porch.

10:29 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, June 28

I catch up with the dreadlocked guy with the Black & Mild cigar in his ear and his buddy. Black & Mild now wears shaggy lavender bedroom slippers as well.

Racing the clouds through Utah.

"There are, like, 15 of us going to the Gathering, and none of us knew each other," reports 22-year-old Jon, sporting a blond, cropped haircut, a star tattoo on his neck below his right ear, and a red "Cinelli" T-shirt. Jon did, in fact, already know Lui, who will be 18 in a week. Neither have attended a Rainbow Gathering before, but they're both psyched. "We don't know where it is," says Lui, smiling. "And we don't know when we'll get there," Jon adds.

Rainbow Gatherings originated around 1976, they tell me (actually 1972, according to the Rainbow Family of Living Light Unofficial Home Page). The first one was in Colorado, and it has moved every year thereafter. There are regional, national and international events. This one, which I later learn was in Routt National Forest, near Clark, Colorado, is supposed to be a twofer, combining the national and international Gatherings.

"It's estimated that 60,000 people will be there," marvels Jon, adding that rumors indicate "something really special's gonna happen there."

The "totally communal" weeklong festival encourages participation in every aspect of the event, including setup, clean-up, cooking, hauling water, and so on. The guys are willing to do whatever they need to pitch in. In addition, they've brought things to barter or give away. "I heard socks, candy bars, and tailored cigarettes," says Jon. Hence, Lui's shaggy footwear and the Black & Mild riding his left lobe. [continued...]

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