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I Get a Kick Outta Train Number 6

New Friends and Fuzzy Slippers on the California Zephyr

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"I love the train," says Jon. "It's the only way to travel. I hate to fly. I hate buses. Plus, people get you drunk every time." I learn that the Paris Hilton lookalike bought everyone drinks last night. Jon's been all across the country on trains. He remembers riding from Chicago to Davis, California, once with no money. "I was so hungry, and this guy hooked me up with $40 worth of pizza."

Salt Lake City fuel contractor Ronald Osborne fills Zephyr's tanks.

Later in the day, I catch snippets of their conversation back up in the lounge. "Dude, do you realize that the Gathering is on the Continental Divide?"

As we approach Salt Lake City, I bump into Leticia, the petite French woman, and we lunch with an Omaha-bound couple.

"We can't take oxygen on planes anymore," says Clara Mohatt. She and her husband Frank are staying in a sleeper car in what they call an "oxygen room." Frank has recently begun to use a supplemental oxygen machine. "So we need the train," says Clara. The Mohatts, who live in Arkansas, drove to Omaha a month ago, boarded a train to Sacramento, visited family, then boarded another train to Seattle, where they visited one of their sons, took a cruise to Alaska, then reversed the whole process.

June 28, Grand Junction, Colorado

Arriving in Grand Junction, we passengers descend like bees to blossom on the depot and fruit stand. I buy a postcard stamp and a striped train cap, which I show off to my next-door sleeping car neighbors, Ian and Tom Besemer.

The fruit stand at the Grand Junction, Colorado, station draws passengers like moths to flame. Photo: Thomas Besemer

"I liked when we were going through the Sierras, the pine trees, the red dirt. I like the movement of the train, waving back and forth," 10-year-old Ian tells me after breakfast. He estimates he's been on Amtrak trains about 20 times. "My first trip was when I was 6 months old. I don't remember it, but we were going from Los Angeles to San Jose." Ian's railfan father, Tom, with whom he is traveling, volunteers at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, where Ian gets to work as a car attendant on Thomas the Tank Engine.

"My favorite way to travel is by train," says Ian. "It's more relaxing." Between train trips, the 10-year-old browses Amtrak's website for the best routes. "I'm my dad's little travel agent," he says. "I figured out this whole trip. I chose the 27th (of June) so we could get there (to Michigan) Saturday."

Ian informs me about the different train whistles we hear on the train.

"I learned about whistles at the museum," says the soon-to-be 5th grader. "In school, when we get to train lessons, like in social studies, I'm the one who knows about that. Even my teacher thought they burned coal when the first engine came out. But they didn't," he corrects. "They burned wood."

June 29

East of Lincoln, Nebraska

Speaking of wood and whistles, I remember the Southern Pacific whistle that Elliott in the dining car described two days — and two time zones — back. His is a wooden whistle that sounds like a train engine's. "One guy made 'em," says Elliott. "We used to call him 'The Whistle Guy.'"

Leverta Elliott began his own train career in 1973 as a cook with the Southern Pacific Railroad. He's been with Amtrak now for 32 years. "I like traveling," he says. "I've seen lots of people in my life, and a lot of people don't get that chance. I've seen thousands of people — from Pearl Bailey to F. Lee Bailey to John Madden."

I tell him how the train makes me feel, how the movement reminds me of listening to jazz. "I'm used to it now," he says. "When I first started, it took me three days to get my body back right after a six-day trip."

While I'm in Chicago he suggests I go to Buddy Guy's Legends Blues Club on Wabash Avenue. I note it and triple underline Buddy Guy and Blues.

I'm looking forward to Chicago. I've never been there before. I'm looking forward to strolling the Magnificent Mile, riding the L, and eating in Greek Town. But first I dance my way back to the lounge car and stare out its enormous windows, watching the moving strip of cornfields, telephone poles, and rusty trucks transformed into a flowing postcard.