Amtrak Resident: Tiffany Quay Tyson
Amtrak Residency: Round Trip and Still Writing
On the final morning of my Amtrak Residency, I woke in a panic at the very dark hour of 5:30 a.m. A man was speaking so clearly, I thought he was in my room. He wasn’t. He was in the hallway outside my room and he talked about how soon we’d get to Denver, what it was like to ride on the train, how he’d enjoyed his shower, what he hoped to eat for breakfast. While I’m usually happy to be privy to good eavesdropping, it was a bit early for so much chitchat. Still, in some ways I shared his enthusiasm. L. Frank Baum wrote a sure true thing when he penned that mantra for Dorothy: There’s no place like home.
After I pushed past Mister Chatterbox to brush my teeth and grab a cup of coffee, I realized I was glad to be up early. It would be my last chance to stare out the window and watch a city come into view. This time it would be my city. Most mornings on the journey, I’d pulled out my laptop and spent some time writing before getting breakfast or interacting with the passengers. It’s my habit at home to write first thing in the morning. It’s when my creative mind is freshest. On the last morning, though, I left my laptop in my bag and sipped coffee while watching the stars and a few electric lights streak past in the pre-dawn sky. Soon enough I could make out the silhouettes of trees and houses and industrial buildings as we sped toward our 7:15 a.m. arrival in Denver.
Denver is my home and it was where I’d started my journey eight days earlier on the California Zephyr, the same train I was riding now. I rode the Zephyr from Denver’s Union Station through the Colorado Rockies and through Utah and Nevada before getting off the train a day-and-a-half later in Emeryville, California. If you’re going to take a train for scenery, I recommend the Zephyr. I wrote on this first leg of the trip, but I kept getting distracted by the stunning views. It’s fall, of course, and the evergreens served as a backdrop to the burgundy, burnt orange, and gold of the leafy trees. In Nevada, we saw wild mustangs running across the hills. Sometimes, all we’d see was the slate blue rock of the mountainside passing terrifyingly close to the windows. It was thrilling.
Emeryville is just across the bay from San Francisco, and that’s where I spent a night off the train. I love San Francisco and I was glad to put on my running clothes and stretch my legs the next morning. I wasn’t sad to leave the city behind the next night, though. After a day of climbing steep hills and exploring bookstores, I was ready for some downtime. I climbed on the Coast Starlight at 10 p.m. and went straight to sleep. I woke up to a pink Oregon sunrise that I barely captured on my camera.
When you ride in a sleeper or roomette car on the trains (residents get a roomette), your meals are included. This is worth mentioning, because it’s not like someone sets out cold cereal and dry pastry and tells you to serve yourself. No, it’s a full-on three meals a day with service in the dining car. And the food is pretty darn good. I’m a breakfast eater, so I ate the morning meal whenever I was on the train. I alternated between the eggs (bacon or sausage? grits or potatoes? biscuit or croissant?) or the continental breakfast with steel-cut oatmeal served with honey, golden raisins, and yogurt. There is a blessed abundance of coffee on the trains. There’s a help-yourself coffee station in each sleeper car and I never got up so early that I had to wait for coffee. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the measure of good service. Some days I skipped lunch. I’m not in the habit of eating three big meals at home, but when I ventured into the dining car at noon I was happy to see the spinach salad on the menu. It was just the thing for getting some nutrition without feeling overstuffed. Dinner is the big meal, with choices ranging from steak and baked potato (very good) to chicken and turkey entrees to vegetarian options to an excellent burger (on the menu at lunch, as well). Everything comes with an optional side salad and dessert if you want it. I highly recommend the bread pudding if it’s on offer. I was skeptical as I’m something of a bread pudding snob, but the very nice dining car attendant talked me into it and it was well worth having. What I’m saying is, you definitely won’t go hungry on the train.
The Coast Starlight was my shortest train leg and I disembarked at Portland for a brief visit. I was fortunate to be there while the Portland Saturday Market was in full swing. I took a run by the waterfront and ate lunch at the Pine Street Market. Soon enough I was back on the rails. This time, I boarded the Empire Builder en route to Chicago. This was the longest leg of my journey—two full nights and a good portion of three days on the train. It was during this leg that I really got the hang of things. I bought earplugs. I have no trouble getting to sleep, but I’m easily wakened by strange noises and trains are full of strange noises. People are up and walking around at all hours. There’s the whistle of passing trains and constant clacking of wheels on the tracks. On this train I had the good fortune to have Stephanie as my sleeping car attendant. Stephanie is tiny in stature, but she has a big personality. She loves Barbara Streisand. She’s an avid Cubs fan, something we all learned as we were traveling on the evening of the championship game against the Dodgers. She is funny and good humored and hard working. It was nothing for her to lift a heavy suitcase over her head and swing it onto a luggage rack. More importantly, however, she immediately offered me two blankets. The rooms come with two blankets because they are designed to sleep two, but unless you’re pulling down the mattress and linens, you might never see the second blanket. During both previous nights on the train, I’d woken up at two or three in the morning, shivering and unable to get warm. I turned my room heat to its highest setting, but it wasn’t enough. The blankets are thin and not quite long enough to wrap around your feet at night. Stephanie immediately pulled both blankets down for me and told me she would do everything in her power to keep our car warm through the night. She succeeded.
Well-rested and fresh and with nowhere to go but the observation car or the dining car, I tucked into my writing with vigor. I’m currently working on a ghostwriting project, but I’m always fiddling with my own fiction. For the first time in years, I started working on a short story. It’s set on a train, of course. We’ll see where it goes, but I was glad for the inspiration to start something new.
I said my goodbyes to Stephanie in Chicago (Go Cubs!) and spent an uneventful and short layover in the windy city. I was back on the California Zephyr by mid-afternoon and heading home to Denver.
The whole point of this journey, this Amtrak Residency, was to write. I hoped for inspiration and I hoped a change of scenery would shake up my writing. I am not one of those writers who procrastinate or make excuses about writing. I sit down wherever I am, at home in my office or at a coffee shop or on a train, and I write. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it’s a struggle. That was true on the train as well, but I did find the train conducive to long stretches of creativity. On most of the trains I took, there was no wi-fi and there were long periods of time with no cell service. Basically, it was write or read or nap or stare at the scenery. None of these are bad options.
Fall is my favorite season and I was fortunate to travel in the thick of it. I’m a sucker for trees that turn colors and brisk air, but I soon realized the train offered up something even better in these days leading up to a contentious election. It offered a break from cable news and shouting pundits and dueling narratives. The only narratives I had to worry about were the ones in my head, the ones I wanted to put on the page. The clack of the tracks, the passing train whistles, the voices of people in the hallway in the early morning, the conversations with strangers in the dining car; these were noises but not distractions. There’s a difference.
So while I’m glad to be home now with my husband and my dog and my cat and my own bed and my own shower and my own beautiful neighborhood, the days I spent on the train will stick with me for a very long time. I suspect the train will continue to crawl into my writing.
I hope so.