Thursday, 16 July 2009

Travelog: Beginnings

Hello at last! I had hoped to post constantly, but we had no internet connection, so I've had to queue it all up. I'm now in Kansas City and have found wifi (I'm still on the train, but there's an AP somewhere within range). Here it is, timestamped in local time.

Landed at LAX around about on schedule, 12:30pm local time. From then until 6:40pm we had a few things to do: open a Bank of America account, get onto an internet connection and post to our blogs, sort out telephony, and make our way to Union Station.

The first stop, then, was the bank. Since we had no map (Traal failed to suspend at one point during the flight, and so had to be bombed hard, losing all my loaded tabs), all we could do was guess and go on memory. Went some way, then walked into the first place of business we saw (a car rental place) and inquired. Easy enough; and at the same time, gathered evidence against the assertion that Americans are rude and unhelpful.

Opening the account was fairly painless but took rather longer than we expected, largely because of requirements that we hadn't thought of - for instance, $75 initial deposit, for which we needed to withdraw some Australian dollar funds - but we were served by an extremely helpful and friendly gentleman; his exact position in the bank was not made obvious, but he seemed to be, if not the actual bank manager, definitely a manager of some sort ("new accounts manager" maybe?). His office was right next to the customer areas, giving him the perfect opportunity to be available to serve.

Next stop: Starbucks, a block further north, for hoped-for power and wireless internet. They were out of hot chocolate somehow, so I had an apple-cinnamon variant instead, which was... interesting. Still, we got wifi - although I don't think it was an official Starbucks offering - and power, so we could plan our next moves.

What we planned was to sort out telephony in a hurry, and then take a bus to Union Station. I'll let Midga describe the telephony issues, because it was his phone that had them... and I'll move straight on to the bus trip. If you ever come through LA, do your best to avoid riding the buses. Seriously. They have seats with no padding at all - worse than the worst Melbourne buses by a notable margin - and it's a long trip to the station. Also, our driver was somewhat appalling, although I was assured by a fellow passenger that missing stops that people have tung for is not normal. The driver seemed good friends with the horn. I was not sorry to disembark.

Union Station, and we pick up all our Amtrak tickets (booked via the web). This is the simplest way to do things, and also it's the only way to get hold of tickets for at least one leg, where we can't pick them up at the origin station. This works well.

I'm typing this up from the train (although there's no wifi so I can't post it), where we are partly settled into an extremely compact twinnette sleeper compartment. There'll be room for us both, but not a lot else. There is one power point, so Traal's on power; the compartment isn't lockable, though, so he's coming to dinner with us. He still thinks it's half past noon, but I'll inform him of the vagaries of local time once we reach EST.

The journey has well and truly started.

It's now half past midnight local time - that is to say, California time, because I'm not sure if we've crossed a time border yet. No wifi on the train, but fortunately there's power, so I have a fully active Traal with no internet connection. I dozed off at 9pm local time, woke up at midnight, and decided to take Traal down to the lounge/observation car for a while. There's not a lot to see; the only lights are in the extreme distance, and maybe would be of interest to someone who knows the area, but that someone ain't a'goin' ta be me. A party of three is playing cards at the end of the carriage... I wander over. Turns out they're playing Cheat! I would fain have joined them at the beginning of the next round, but there was no next round, there was no next upkeep.

We've just gone through a tunnel. I know only because the tone changed - it sounded as though a jet had gone overhead, only not quite - and because peering out into the blackness showed back a vaguely grey image instead of black with distant pinpoints.

Every now and then we cross a massive Constructed Container Block Constructed train - double-decked containers (how do you deck someone twice? Whatevah). As one passed, our table companion remarked that they sometimes exceed 100 cars; and on that particular one, I counted 95 cars. We passed probably half a dozen of these services just during dinner... this is some ENORMOUS traffic. If we had that in Australia, we could afford some serious track and motive power investment... unfortunately we won't get that sort of traffic UNTIL we do some serious track and motive power investment. Ah well. I guess we're stuck with the trains we have.

5AM California time. I'm back in the lounge car; there's now a bit of a false dawn, leaving me wondering what the nonsense about the darkest hour being just before dawn means... unless it's just that it's always darkest just before it begins to get lighter, which would be a statement suited to a Dufflepud. It's extremely difficult to try to gauge the speed we're eating miles at - the track doesn't talk to us at all. That could be partly because we're on the upper level, but mostly it's well-maintained track. However, Michael judged our speed to be about sixty, and based on the trees outside the window, I'd be inclined to put it no higher; this is quite a bit slower than a spark.

The lounge car seems to be the place for coach class passengers to sleep. Hardly the most comfortable arrangements, but it's a good bit cheaper than the sleeper accom that we took. (On the other hand, sleeper passengers have all meals included in the price of the ticket. That's pretty good going! The meals are all priced at $16-$25, desserts at $2-$5, etc, etc; if you're in Coach, you have to pay the bill at the end of the meal, but in Sleeper, you just record your car and room number.)

I've no idea where we are (although an examination of timetables might tell us), but there's only two tracks here. We've come to a halt, and I'm guessing that something's going to flash past us before we move on. There we go. A train just zipped past (another pass service this time, double decker, silver cars - looked like the cars that are streamlined to fit with single deck cars too, as opposed to what we're on which is obviously designed to be a full-height block train), and now we're moving again. Very gentle start; not sure why.

We've just arrived at Flagstaff Station. (Funny... it's not underground.) It's a picturesque country town, like we have back home. If it were in Victoria, I'd say it was a gold rush town - the era of architecture and such seems to hint at it. I don't think we're still in California, though, and I've no idea where else in the US they had gold rushes in the same era we did. There's a few wireless networks around, but nothing that I can connect to. Oh well. (Ah. It seems we might be in Arizona. Was there an Arizona gold rush?)

It's still pre-dawn, the sun hasn't lifted its head over the horizon, but there's plenty of light. We're trotting along lazily, as though there's all the time in the world and plenty of scenery to take in. And what is the scenery? Sprawling country towns, looking very typical of country towns back home, with some personally-owned businesses and some big chains, and a lot of the big chains are international ones (Shell petrol stations, Subway, KFC, etc). And as the Captain said, "Trees - lakes - mountains - seen one, you've seen them all". In fact, the most "different" part of America here is the bit that's coming with us - this full-length double-deck train, running so perfectly smoothly.

Another train of double stacked containers just passed us, this time on our left - that is, we're on the right track now. Peculiar. Incidentally, another oddment of these freighters: There's a lot of slack space between the containers. I can see the entire back of one container before the next one comes in. I've no idea why that might be, but it can't be good for streamlining. The main point of note about it is that it looks as though the train's finished already, and then it's not. We're now stopped while a freighter lazily strolls past, and I can see a lot of gear between coupling and container - in fact, these are well wagons, so I should compare with our own wells. So double stacking doesn't quite give you twice the capacity - it gives you slightly less, if you measure container slots per kilometer of train.

(It seems that trains run on the right same as cars do, so the peculiarity is that we had trains passing on the left during dinner.)

Ah! Sol has lifted his glorious orb. It's truly dawn now, at 5:37 California time (we're in Arizona, which is on the same timezone). Dawn would possibly have been a little earlier than that but there were mountains in the way; the end of the mountains revealed the sun a little above the horizon.

5:56AM. We're now travelling through the Arizona desert. A native Californian chats about the enormous amount of freight moving around (and not just on the trains, they have heaps of 18-wheelers on the roads too) and remarks that they (Cali) feed the world but don't feed their own people - food comes from Mexico. Not just from another state (as is encouraged by the weird sales taxes), but from another country. Seems the US transport industry is one of the absolutely recession-proof ones - if there's this much stuff being carted during economic downtimes (4-5 trains with maybe 200 containers each, just while we were having dinner), it's either recession-ignorant, or an absolute boom the rest of the time. I've not kept track of how many trains have zipped past, but there've been quite a few (some were pass though), and I can see some trucks on the road in the distance too. Ahh, the coffee lady (Shirley) has come on duty - at 6:02, and the announcement last night was that the lounge coffee bar would open at 6AM. The lower section of the lounge car progressively filled with people eager for their morning coffee... there was a "line" (aka queue) of people sitting in random places around the car. Hmm. Since it's now past 6AM, breakfast will probably be being served. I'm going to mooch on up for some.

7:20AM. Breakfast wasn't ready at 6:00, so I went back to the sleeper for a bit and came back for breakfast with Michael. We were tabled with a couple who had visited Australia three times, so we were able to chat about travel through deserts - we've been riding through the Arizona desert, which for once is actually green, rather than its usual burnt brown (which would have looked very familiar to us). As regards timezones, it's rather messy; California is on PDT, but Arizona is on MST - which is the same time - because they don't usually go DST (although I gather there's complications that mean they might sometimes...). Once we hit New Mexico, we change our clocks, even though NM and AZ are both on "mountain time" - because NM observes DST. We'll reach Alberquerque NM at about noon, and sit there for a while; it would seem that the train is going to head north after that, which means we turn left. Whew, looks like we'll get to the right destination.

Noon. We arrive in Alberquerque. Michael and I spend some time getting a few good photos and videos of turning left. After a somewhat late departure, lunch is served, during which we take some rather rough and tight turns, so Michael gets some decent shots of the train itself turning left (we were heading east from LA to Alberquerque, and then began to head northward to reach Chicago). I'm now sitting in the lounge car, and I'm going to add a keyword to all the Looney Tuneses where Bugs makes a reference to the left turn.

Dinner was excellent - I had the trout again - and then M headed back to the compartment while I parked in the lounge to hack Looney Tunes and get editing facilities (double-click the row). Back to M to demonstrate it and play some. I end up crashing out till 6:30AM local time (9:30PM Melbourne time).

We have telephones now, but nobody knows our numbers but us. As soon as we get an internet connection, I'm going to mail Kate and Jodi with my number. I can't find either of theirs, or I'd ring them. However, I do know that we'll be hitting Chicago during decent hours, so I expect at least one of them will be online. Obviously, once I get one non-internet connection, I can piggyback to others. (My guess is I'll find Jodi online, and ask her to ask Kate to ring.) Jodi has a skype-in number, but I have no idea what it is, because it's always been more sensible for me to just skype her. I've just done a thorough search of my skype history (back as far as the last install) for the word "phone", and not come up with a phone number for her. Ditto 1, but I didn't expect to find one there (there's phone numbers for people at AusThresh, but not US or UK).

There's not really a lot for me to do here at the moment. Without an internet connection, all I can do is pile an awful lot of words onto one blog post, to be dumped onto the web as soon as I get online - which probably means at Chicago - and it'll take you nearly as long to read it all as it took me to write it. Ahh well, at least you'll get up-to-date news (written at the moment it happened), even though it's not constant updates, like I intended for it to be. Once we hit England, of course, it'll be easy - we'll have an internet connection every night, every time we return to the HoR. Hopefully, daily updates and instant reviews of shows!

Finally I get this posted. We're leaving this internet connection behind in about a quarter of an hour, but I'll talk to you again soon!

No comments: