Picking up where I left off, K and I experience four days in Portland generally having a wonderful time. Shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking without much in the way of hassles. Of course, it’s hard to tell because just about anything “bad” has to measure up to the living hell we just experienced on the train before we get upset. We more or less blank out the horrible fact that we have more to come and live for the now. We laugh at our recent misadventure as if it were some tale told to frighten children, never mind that this experience would make the boogeyman hesitate, and it was as real as a kick in the teeth.

Having been to Japan, and traveled on the bullet and regular trains both overnight and day-trip, I found the Amtrak experience a shock. In Japan the trains run smoothly, are well maintained, and the experience is average at a minimum and very often pleasant. I wasn’t expecting the same level of quality as in Japan, but the appalling experience K and I got made me confused when I thought about it during our vacation. Does not compute. System failure. System failure.

We thought about ditching the train and buying tickets on a flight, which is what the folks recommended, but the prices for such short notice just weren’t possible on our budget, or so I rationalized. So how bad could it be, right? Well, in retrospect I think we were out of our tiny little minds and should not have been allowed back on that train. The shock of the three day hell ride warm-up had rendered us incapable of making rational decisions. It’s only money.

So, vacation is over, time to go back on the train. This time, we tell ourselves, it will be different. We are ready to kick butt and take names. We bought ourselves some card and board games for the trip, a cache of water and snacks, and a can-do attitude. We know it’s going to be bad, so it won’t be as bad if we go in with clenched fists and a furrow of concentration.

Epic fail.

All the usual nonsense is there as before. The gorge is as scenic as it was before, and this time we get to see some of the scenery we missed on the way in because it was early morning. The card and board games hold up a little to the racket, but not as much as we’d hoped. The fun just isn’t there to be had, regardless of the activity, because your brain never gets a break from the stress that becomes panic and fear. We’re starting to fall into the old reliable habits of sit, stare, nap, talk, when the intercom buzzes with the conductor’s voice and makes a pronouncement.

Apparently, there’s been a train derailment on the track up ahead of us. As of now, trains using this track are being stopped at either end. The passengers are being put into buses and shipped to the other end of the derailment to board another train. Oh, great. At first it’s absurdly funny, but then we start facepalming ourselves. We should have flown home. Welcome back to hell. The train stops at some nowhere terminal with about eight or nine buses waiting to transport the suckers who paid for this trip. We grab our luggage and cart it into the bus, where we grab seats and try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.

The attendants help an enormously overweight woman with bad legs onto the two seats in front of us. She’s in incalculable pain and tears are streaming down her face. The chairs creak when she is seated, and something plastic breaks. The smell of coach enters the bus as several passengers with bad hygiene enter and take seats. The air system of the bus doesn’t work. Neither does the toilet, but that’s a surprise awaiting us half way into the journey through time and space in search of new ways to experience hell. Oh yeah, dinner is canceled. And our snack and water cache is in the outside lower cargo hold of the bus.

The journey takes nine hours, through Idaho and into Montana. So much for seeing Glacier Park again. The windows open only a crack. The woman in front of us spends the entire trip either crying softly to herself in agony or sleeping with a loud, heavy breath. At one point she has to go to the bathroom, an epic effort accomplished with the help of the attendants and several brave passengers. This is when the toilet gives out beyond any shadow of a doubt, and a steady sewer smell wafts into the bus whenever someone goes to empty their bladder because they can’t hold it anymore. K and I can’t sleep, we can only stare into space and wait for it to end.  There is no smell.  I do not hear the sounds of suffering.  Fluffy clouds.

The bus is noticeably more stable a travel experience than the train. No jolts or swerves or clickity clack doom bang booms. But the bus drivers are driving like maniacs, putting the pedal to the metal such that we are passing cars and trucks like the bus in the movie Speed. K and I worry the bus is going to crash and flip around, and we’re going to be crushed by the overweight woman as the bus catches fire. Since the sun started to set right about the time the train stopped to kick us off, there’s nothing to see.  There’s nothing like the wholesome experience of travel by bus.

After what seems like an eternity of stink and boredom, we reach the small town where the derailment took place. There are tons of work lights everywhere around the wreck. We drive by, and it looks like a cargo train derailed. The tank cars are strewn all throughout the track’s immediate area in bent and half-buried hulks of metal wreckage. The tops of the tanks have burst, spilling out grain in huge piles. We get the scoop from one of the attendants. The train driver was going 75 mph in a 45 mph zone, and jumped the track. I blink, because I recognize this town as one we passed through during the night on the way to Portland. I suppose the reason we didn’t derail is because we slowed down to stop at the station. Nice to know!

The bus ride is not over yet. We stop in a huge parking lot behind a series of strip mall eateries. Amtrak has decided to feed us all with a massive Subway sandwich eat-a-thon. K and I watch in shock and horror as people exit the bus and mull around like a bunch of wild animals. A group of attendants carry an enormous cardboard box from the store over to the center of the mob, drop it, and back away. Within seconds people swarm around the box and pull away whatever turkey or ham sub sandwich they can get their hands on. It’s like feeding time at the zoo. The image burns into my brain as if this were the apocalypse and we’ve just entered the Road Warrior dark future where survival is measured by how fast you reach the Subway sandwich box.

K and I each manage to get a sandwich after the immediate feeding frenzy passes, about ten minutes later. For Subway, this is pretty substandard fare, but it absorbs the stomach acid, and lowers the stress level. Here we are, in a middle-of-nowhere Montana town, at night, being bussed across the land like convicts in what can only be considered good value for the dollar. If this were a rare occurrence, I could take some solace in knowing that it was just the roll of the dice on the random encounter table. But the way in which the attendants and conductor handle themselves, I get the impression that this is normal operating procedure. The experience itself is horrible, but the way in which the basics are handled (passenger management, transportation, food) is efficient and matter-of-fact. These people know what they are doing. It’s a losing battle, but they are soldiers in hell, and they will make it through with these civilians no matter what the cost. Maybe they should be running the Iraq war, I don’t know.

We hop in the bus again, and the journey continues. If we’d had a thought, we’d have gone to the bathroom in one of the convenience stores or fast food joints. But now it’s too late. Nothing but a clogged toilet for relief now! Good thing we had some cokes before we left. By the time we reach the next stop down the line, our bladders are in emergency power mode. We disembark and hit the relief valves in the station. Our bus driver was speeding so hard we reached the station ahead of everyone else, and because of the way the road goes, only one bus can unload at a time. Thank goodness we didn’t have to go native, because that’s what would have happened if there had been a line.

The new train isn’t ready because apparently the previous passengers were only just evacuated, and the attendants of the previous train left everything a mess for the current crew to pick up on. The attendant for our new car volunteers us to help him set up the rooms of the car. We reluctantly agree, one because it means we can stow our baggage first, and two because it means we can get on the train before anyone else. We help the guy take out old bedding and towels and install new ones. Oh, did you think you were on vacation? In an alternate universe where nothing is what it seems? We do this for about an hour, then the guy goes off to make a report. He leaves us with his portable DVD player and DVD selection as a reward for our service. As I get ready for my turn to shower before the hordes descend, I go into the baggage compartment to grab some new clothes. I notice that the toilet on the second level is dripping into the baggage compartment and leaking right on our luggage! Wow.

We empty out our suitcases and move them to another compartment with a grumble. Luckily we caught the leak in time, before it penetrated the casing, but it’s still gross beyond belief. The other passengers start boarding the train, and I direct the ones in our immediate area away from the contaminated storage compartment. The trip has officially gone from bad mojo to epic horror. K and I settle down to watch some DVD action as the train speeds up on it’s appointed night train hell ride. Luckily, the outlet works and we don’t have to drain the batteries. We watch about six episodes of Good Times before we realize a secret of kung fu on a train – watch movies. I make sure to tip the guy my last twenty when I hand the DVD back to him in the morning. And look there, old reliable coffee and juice, just when I need an emergency infusion of sanity.

Our cabin is on the bottom level of the superliner, and we keep to ourselves there as much as we can. The air doesn’t work, so we have to leave our door open to keep some sort of current going, but that means we have to hear the noise of our fellow passengers who have the same idea. I honestly have to question the sanity of people who decided to let their kids travel with them in these tiny little sardine two-fers. The choice is noise and distraction damage, or bad air and sweaty grime damage. Either way, you are taking the damage on. Sleep is still bad. Even though we don’t get quite the same sway and weave as the top end of the train, it’s still there. Instead, we are closer to the wheels, where we get harder jolts and louder clickity clack dings.

By the time we get into Chicago, we’ve missed our original train connection and have to wait until tomorrow before we can go home on the last leg of our harrowing journey. Everyone is taxied off to various hotels to spend the night on Amtrak’s dime until they can make their connection. We end up somewhere in downtown Chicago staying the night in a hotel in some tall building. It’s a tiny affair, and the building is old, probably going back to the thirties, but K and I are so exhausted we can’t think. It’s a bed, and the clickity clack fear is only an echo in my damaged brain.

I don’t know, are rest stops worse when you just keep going back to the same old torture? You never become used to the panic and fear. You recover only enough for the horror to regain its freshness.

We are broke, so we have to walk twelve blocks back to the station through town. I think I end up carrying three different pieces of luggage. I must look like a mule. We’re starved and thirsty. Wish Amtrak had bought us a coupon for a free breakfast at McDonalds right about now. We get to the station, and are accosted by a street derelict who begins pestering me with questions. “What train you on? What train you on? WHAT TRAIN YOU ON? What time you leave? What time you leave?” It’s about this time I completely lose my mind and say, “Dude, just leave me alone okay? I can’t think right now! Aaa!” The guy gets defensive and says, “Get your head together, fool!”

Aaa!  Malfunction!

We make it back to the complimentary lounge for cabin passengers and I avail myself to a breakfast of cheap bagels and coke. Thank God corporate excess got something right. We settle in and wait for the train to come in and take me away from this vacation from hell. But it ain’t over yet.

The next train arrives, and we board it. This time we get the top floor of another superliner. I’m totally sick of this. Another night at the top of the tree swaying to and fro. This time the coffee and juice is not there. The current attendant is a guy who dodges us every chance he gets after he checks our tickets. We’ve packed our stuff back into our toilet-contaminated luggage now that we’ve had a chance to dry it off. What choice do we have? We settle down and wait for something to happen, like a meal or a bathroom break. Something smells. A burnt rubber kind of smell comes through the vent. We go outside and it’s also in the car. The smell is not to the point where you gag and choke, but at the level of perfect discomfort without immediately impairing your health. The smell fades the further back in the train we go, in this case when we go to dinner.

Once again at dinner we get shortchanged in choices, and the meals have gotten more mundane, or we have lost all hope and see things as they really are now, a mess of pre-prepared food material edible enough to keep you from starvation but little else. Our table companions end up being a couple with whom we have nothing in common and ignore us after the first few cynical exploratory social exchanges. Fine with us, I want to stare at my proto steak slime with imitation potato and unrecognizable gristle. I really would have preferred K and I having our own little table together and eating in private without the intrusion of total strangers you have to put up with for forty minutes and then never see again. It’s one of the few times we could actually stretch out and sit comfortably without the sardine effect.

Night falls, and the speed begins. We stoically try the sleep game again, but the swinging and swaying, combined with the loud noise and horn blowing produces the usual panic and fear. Only this time the burnt smell makes it even more unbearable, if that can be believed. Just when you think you can’t sink any lower, hell shows you the next level. K and I go through the usual panic and fear until we collapse from exhaustion and wake up at the crack of dawn announcement from the conductor that we bite the big one and have a lot more coming to us. I think I might be hallucinating from the smell.  We decide to skip breakfast and the shower, and instead sit waiting until our time on this hellride is up. We just don’t care anymore. Right now, the only thing keeping me alive is the faint knowledge that at some point in the future timeline of what ought to be mainstream reality, K and I leave this train and recover from the never-ending terror of hell.

The smell gets worse, and I complain to the attendant, who gives me a frightened look. He says it’s “nothing” and everything will be alright. He then speaks into his walkie talkie that “the passengers are noticing.” Noticing what?  The smoke drifting past our window, of course.  K and I gape at the smoke and try to think, but nothing happens.  Brimstone, anyone?  Like fries with that jack-up?  Then the couple in the Sleeper opposite ours start freaking out. “Damn, man, there’s a fire goin’ on in that car up ahead!” The smoke and fumes are getting pretty bad now, so me and K start rummaging through our luggage for something to break the glass with. The window does not open like it does in Silver Streak, and at this point I’ve had it with Amtrak, and it’s lousy service, crummy freak-out random encounters, slip-shod maintenance, awful food, and randomly determined fearful staff. May they all burn in hell, because we’re going to bust open the window and flee this nightmare before anything more happens to us. The panic and fear are so palpable, I can feel my stomach acid wanting to pop up and say hello.

Yeah, I know, we were on the top story of a fast moving train. That’s how insane we had gotten. But then something happens. The clock strikes at dawn, the rooster crows, and the devil has to close up shop for the day. The train slows down and comes to a stop. The conductor comes over the intercom and says we have stopped for a “technical repair” and that everyone should remain where they are. Yeah, right. But then the smell disappears and so does the smoke. The passengers are broiling like chicken soup on high. Then the train starts up again, and all is well. Fifteen minutes later, we pull into Union Station and disembark. Halleluiah.

My folks are there to greet us. K and I look like rat bags. They grab our smelly, spare luggage and help us escape the land of hell and drive us home, while we relate the story of our harrowing experience in small bursts. The folks laugh like leprechauns, and I realize it really is over, the war hell ride is OVER! I can go back to work and my everyday life and not worry whether I’m going to die for hours on end in a train sardine can filled with panic.

K and I recover from the shock and the fear, but I fear the memory of it has burned a scar in our psyche from which we can never recover. I will never willingly board an Amtrak train again. I hate flying, but at least it gets you from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time, and the suffering is minimal. Most of all, it makes me sad to see such a valuable institution as the railways in America reduced to such a pathetic shadow of its former self.

A few weeks back, I saw in the news a derailment of a train in the Northwest between Seattle and Portland. All passenger service had to be redirected by bus to their connections, according to the article. I could only think of a cardboard box filled with Subway sandwiches, dropped in the middle of a starving mob of people.