How One Stranger and an Amtrak Bathroom Taught Me the True Spirit of Christmas
Planes always seem like time-travel to me. Those aluminum-skinned time machines make me feel weird, strangely dislocated, as if I were ripped from the world and then plopped down in some bizarre and unfamiliar environment like the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Terminals are unnatural places for humans. I used to love them back when people were allowed to wait for loved ones at the arrivals gate. Watching teary-eyed reunions always gave my heart wings.
But nowadays, it’s just anxious and impatient travelers, irritated adults, uncomfortable teens and bored children staring at screens. Everyone is looking out for themselves instead of scanning the crowd for the first sight of a loved one. Most folks don’t look very happy in airports. When it was time for me to make plans to travel across country from California to Florida for the holidays, I said fuck that and gave my money to Amtrak. Trains still possess a sense of romance.
I bought a ticket for The California Zephyr. The tourist-friendly train would take me east from California, across the snowy Sierra Mountains and desolate northern Nevada, after that we’d make a run past the Great Salt Lake Basin, wend our way through the Rockies, and rumble across the Heartland, until we reached the Windy City. From there I’d switch trains, and take The City of New Orleans south, roughly following the meandering path of the mighty Mississippi river down to where it meets the gulf at that infamous point of termination, New Orleans. The majority of my family was gathering in Pensacola, Florida for the holidays. It’s a few hours drive from New Orleans in the far western end of the panhandle. Someone would meet me at the station.
As I dragged my baggage onto the train, I felt like Neil Armstrong. Only I wasn’t taking one giant leap for mankind, I was stepping into my own personal adventure. I was seizing hold of my American birthright; I was grasping for the chance to enjoy freedom, to embrace the rumbling sway of constant motion. My selfish goal was to lay eyes on the American landscape, but I didn’t want to drive by myself cross-country in the winter. That’s a fool’s errand. On the road, you’re at the mercy of weather patterns, which are both unpredictable and dangerous. Plus, the highways are swollen with…