A Three-Hour Tour
by Lesley Reece
My family lives in Portland, so I usually take the train down at Christmas. This year, on the trip South, I boarded right on time with no problem, even getting a window seat. The tracks run along the edge of Puget Sound, so I had a gorgeous view to contemplate as I rode, listening to Mozart's Requiem on my Walkman and knitting a black scarf. The four hours went by so quickly I was almost sorry to get off the train.
I should have known such a great trip down would mean trouble on the way back. The day after Christmas, there was freezing rain, and the local news said hundreds of people had lost power east of Portland. Whe I got to Union Station, the first thing I heard was the PA telling me my train was going to be delayed an hour, leaving at four instead of three. I pestered a porter until he brought me a luggage cart, then pulled out The Thurber Carnival and settled down on a bench to wait.
An hour later, there was no sign of the train. An elderly Scandinavian woman next to me offered, in thick Teutonic tones, to watch my things for me while I went to inquire about the holdup, though I hadn't been considering that until she spoke. The clerk told me the tracks around The Dalles were covered with ice and downed trees from the storm. The train wouldn't be there until five.
I headed back to my seat and spent half an hour in conversation with my benchmate. She told me it was okay that I wasn't married; she hadn't gotten married until she was thirty-five and everything had turned out fine. Oh good, I thought, I have two more years. Eventually she fell asleep, and I went back to "A Couple of Hamburgers," my favorite Thurber story.
At five, the PA announced it would be another hour, and my new friend got up and called her son to come get her. She'd go home tomorrow, she said. She was replaced by a depressed fifteen-year-old who'd just had his vintage Fender Mustang guitar stolen. His father, he said, had gone to high school with the late Kurt Cobain. I felt a hundred years old.
At six, the announcer told us the train was just across the Willamette, but it couldn't cross the bridge. There was another train in the way, and its engine was fried. We'd have to wait another hour, maybe two.
A woman nearby leapt to her feet. "Why is there no backup procedure?" she shouted. "We don't have to take this!" I was tempted to cry out "Where is Il Duce when you need him?" but I knew that wouldn't help, so I dug out my Walkman, selected a Brandenburg Concerto, and went back to knitting. I could still sort of hear her, but she quieted down after about fifteen minutes.
The train finally arrived around eight, and left at eight-thirty. Amtrak felt so bad that they made us all a free meal with the supplies they had left in the dining car. Things were looking up until about ten miles north of Tacoma, when the train suddenly stopped. I looked out the window, but quickly jerked back when I saw huge blue flashes uncomfortably near the car. A tree, weighed down with freezing rain, had fallen onto the tracks, taking several power lines with it.
I'd waited all that time like a good little passenger; was I now going to be electrocuted for my trouble? I weighed this experience against a 1990 trip where I got stuck all night in the downtown LA bus station, sitting between a hysterical Mexican family and a woman with terrible teeth who kept telling me "they" wanted her in Bakersfield. I decided my current dilemma was marginally better, but only because everyone else was asleep.
The train made it to Seattle around seven, a mere twelve hours late, only to find another snowstorm. The buses had stopped running. Luckily, an insane cabdriver -- who told me he'd learned to drive in the Himalayas -- picked me up and fishtailed me home.
My train was the last arrival for a week. Maybe next year I'll fly. With enough delays, I'll be able to finish that sweater I've been thinking about.
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