Amtrak is always a gamble. Some trips are smooth; other trips, no matter how prepared you are or what you planned, turn out to be something wholly other. This post is a mediocre comparison of my Amtrak trip for Thanksgiving and my arrival and departure from Bangkok.
My train ride to visit my parents for Thanksgiving was perhaps the smoothest I have ever had – all the passengers showed up, and so the bus to Bakersfield left five minutes early. I had no seatmate; somehow I usually attract manspreaders or chatty Kathys, so this was a welcome reprieve. Last trip, simultaneously everyone decided to eat their Subway sandwiches, which filled the bus with that unmistakably unique odor of the sandwich chain. This time, peace. No loud music, no traffic, smooth sailing to Bakersfield. Empty train without any delays or prolonged stops. I showed up in my hometown exactly when the train schedule said I would.
The return trip, however, starts with an angry woman cursing at the underpaid train station clerk (that woman was not me. I was the woman behind Angry Woman in line). Since it is an early, crowded train, the tone s subdued, still waking up in the weak November light. I experience the meaning of the expression, “the unwashed masses,” as this car has the unmistakable smell of musty, sleepy bodies.
The train fills; loud phone conversations, crinkling plastic bags, and tinny headphones creates an unpleasant din. Four hours to Los Angeles and home. I feet slightly ill, my stomach unable to keep pace with the irregular jolting stops. We stop for 15 minutes without announcement in Corcoran, minutes from the station. And wait. Not unusual for Amtrak. “There’s a delay,” the conductor announces. They still have human conductors, not robots, as I initially hope. Robot train conductors would not make their first appearances on the San Joaquin 717 train, I reason. Definitely Japan.
The masses grow restless. The wifi has gone out, so we are clearly moments from a civil uprising. Just kidding. No wifi – how could we tweet about it? Folks from Corcoran argue with the conductors, asking to be let off the train. They can’t, we are too high off the ground, the conductors retort. Maybe they are robots. But I feel robots would come up with a much better solution than just say no.
Another hour passes. “We can’t move. An ammonia truck overturned and ammonia is spilling out of the truck. We have to back the train up. We are considering alternative transit options. The fire department must wait for the ammonia to completely drain before they are able to clear the area. We are sorry for the delay. We have some options folks, but it’s looking like we will bring the buses up from Bakersfield.”
I begin dramatically texting friends and snap a photo of the llama watching the train with extreme blasé. Llamas aren’t that weird in the Central Valley. Breadbasket of America. Llamabasket of America. Why don’t we eat llama?
The train conductor is working up a sweat as she paces the cars, her radio cracking with distant, stressed voices.
I do the math. Two hours for the ammonia to completely drain before they can clear the tracks = a lot of Windex evaporating into the air. I take a deep breath. Have they shut off the airflow? THEY HAVE. It is warming up, the air grows pungent with greasy food purchased from the meal car. The buses could make it here and back in less than two hours.
The conductors announce their apologies and offer free snack packs from the cafe car. A PLOY, distracting us from the fact that they are not sending the buses and we will wait it out. Devious, Amtrak. Wily. The snack pack has a fig bar so I am surprisingly ok with the deception.
A local man rides by on a horse. He must be just as curious about the ammonia spill. I hope ammonia dissipates quickly in the open air, because he and the horse he rode in on might have some problems. Unless they are both robots. We already have robot horses, so I reason the odds are good that he in fact has a robot horse and thus is immune to the ammonia vapors. Have some of the vapors made their way into my cabin?
The train lurches as the conductor makes an announcement with obvious relief. “We’re moving again, folks, sorry about the delay.”
Sorry? We’ve been in Corcoran exactly 3 hours longer than anyone has ever wanted to be in Corcoran, on the map only because it has a state prison. The train brakes squeal as we slow near the overturned truck, allowing every Amtrak passenger a long look at the source of our dismay.
I arrive in Los Angeles 4 hours after the intended arrival, as we hit traffic I had so optimistically hoped an earlier bus ticket would avoid. This trip did not go as planned.
Getting to Bangkok was pretty smooth, all things considered. I went fully funded, packed, having said my goodbyes, having closed well with various leadership and job roles. Wrapped up tidy. Ready for the next thing.
Returning from Bangkok was an unplanned departure with random items hastily thrown in a duffel (why did I think I needed both my swimsuits… in March?), eyes puffy from crying, exhausted from the day’s events. No robots that I am aware of. Didn’t go as planned. Came out of nowhere and landed in Los Angeles dazed and shocked.
Then again, when does anything in life really go as we plan it?