The last four presidential administrations poured money into highways and air travel, while starving passenger rail travel for funding. Indeed, the Bush administration made no bones about wanting to kill off passenger rail travel in the United States — not surprising when you realize that the Bush administration was run by oil company interests, and rail travel is the most fuel-efficient form of travel we have right now. So I was not surprised when the conductor announced that the dining car had to be shut down, but that they would get us sandwiches in Denver.
We had half an hour in Denver while they serviced the train, so I got out to stretch my legs. I wound up talking with Simon, and when the engineer blew the whistle and we trooped up to get our sandwiches, I followed Simon to the observation car to eat. Almost all the seats were taken, but there was only one person sitting at one of the tables.”Mind if we sit here?” we asked. He did not.
We introduced ourselves. He was Will, a high school student on the way to Salt Lake City with his family. He had a copy of The Two Towers, and we all got to talking about Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. The train was rolling along and we sat there eating lunch and talking about other fantasy series we had read — Narnia, Harry Potter — and comparing them. From fantasy the conversation turned to education, and then to Australia (Simon was from Australia), and a whole host of other subjects.
Suddenly we realized that we were climbing up a steep slope via a series of switchbacks. We could look ahead and see the locomotive, look back and see the last car, and look down and see the last switchback we had just come up. We were going around the famous Big Ten Curve, ascending the Front Range of the Rockies. At some point, Will’s brother Wes joined us, and joined the conversation. When we passed by the most spectacular views, the conversation consisted of pointing out the beauties of the scenery through which we were passing; when we were in one of the many tunnels on the route, the conversation returned to more mundane matters.
After the Big Ten Curve, people started leaving the observation car. But the scenery kept getting better. We passed under the Continental Divide through the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, and into Glenwood Canyon, with thousand-foot canyon walls rising almost vertically on either side. We craned our necks back, and pointed out particularly marvelous rock formations to each other. And all this time, the conversation continued: two middle-aged men, and two young men in their late teens, carrying on an extended conversation that ranged from the trivial to the profound. Simon told us how he lost his leg, as a physician volunteering in Afghanistan in 2004 and Will told us about his artistic ambitions. We talked about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary society. We talked about other trips we had taken, or trips that we dreamed about taking. It turned out that Simon had never smelled sagebrush. Will, Wes, and I tried to describe the smell — an impossible task — and finally at one of the stops where they let us out to stretch our legs, I found some sagebrush, broke off a branch, and gave it to Simon.
At last it grew dark, and we saw the new moon rising over barely-visible buttes and mesas. Finally, at ten thirty, I said I had better get some sleep. We were due in to Salt Lake at three in the morning, and I needed to take a nap so I could be marginally functional when we arrived. Will and Wes said they were going to stay up until they arrived in Salt Lake. Simon, although he was continuing on to Emeryville, California, said he thought he’d go to bed, too. We shook hands all around, and went our separate ways.