Reading, Romance, and Riding the Rails

Linda Watanabe McFerrinA Book Passage by Rail: Reading, Romance, and Riding the Rails
by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

"Have you read any science fiction by Connie Willis? Bellwether? Fire Watch? Weird Women, Wired Women? "

We are seated in a dining car aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr, my dinner companions and I, in the best seats in the house. Between mouthfuls of salmon and chicken and sips of charnonnay, we're talking about books.

I'm on a month-long, 7000-mile, cross-country adventure that will take me through 25 states talking stories and reading from the
Hand of Buddha, the short story collection I've written about women who find unusual ways to handle the chaos that's entered their lives.

At first I thought I would fly across country to New York City, where my tour would begin. But, when I unfolded the map in Amtrak's travel planner, my flight plan flew right out the window.

On the Amtrak America map, four arterial lines —one blue and three red —run in roughly parallel streams across the continent. The blue route is Via Rail Canada. In the US, Empire Builder is the name of the northernmost route. It traverses Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and so on, all the way to the east coast. The southern routes consist of two lines with equally magical names: California Zephyr and Southwest Chief.

The Southwest Chief, as the name implies, runs through the southwestern part of the nation. The California Zephyr cuts a path across the middle of the country, running through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois where it links up with the Lakeshore Limited for a bouncy ride along the southern shores of three of the Great Lakes and then on to Boston or New York. I chose the Zephyr. Booking late, I'd have a sleeper for only one night in three. I decided that it wouldn't matter. On the morning of the first day of October, I boarded the train in Emeryville to begin my cross-country adventure.

"No, I haven't read Connie Willis," I apologized to Yolanda. A Rochester attorney, Yolanda, along with her son Morgan, was returning home from a California family reunion. "The last science fiction I read was years ago," I added. "These days I read mainly travel."

I suggested a few books to read at that point so she wouldn't think I was bluffing. Yolanda's reading record was daunting. She'd read six books already on her round-trip rail journey and confessed to an at-home consumption rate of nearly a book a day. I catalogued some of the science fiction writers whose work I admire, since Yolanda was fond of the genre, adding a plug for the one book I'd been reading that was not about travel. It was great to be talking books with new friends, and in the couple of days I'd been on the train, this wasn't the first book chat I'd had.

It made sense. A good book and a good journey have plenty in common. Both pick you up in one place and deposit you eventually in another, and it's the getting there that's important. A good book is something you can settle into and savor. So is a rail journey. I was eager to sit back and really enjoy the experience.

Many of my fellow passengers, I discovered, were experts in this. Familiar with trains, they were reading big books. Paced for the long haul, they took minor delays in stride. Not so with me, I'm afraid. To me, the transition from fast lane to slow train was not such a natural thing.

I'd begun the trip with great expectations. First, there were all the wonderful names for the trains I'd be taking: Empire Builder, Silver Star, Texas Eagle, Heartland Flyer. They conjured excitement, romance, high adventure. I'd traveled by train in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but rarely in the US. Some of my rail trips were disasters, some were funny, some exquisite, some enlightening. Writers and trains go together, I'd reasoned, thinking, of course, of the authors I love who wrote about trains with great style: Agatha Christie, Yukio Mishima, Paul Theroux, to name just a few. Rail journeys make powerful stories. Full of expectation and geared way too high, I had trouble relaxing on the Zephyr's ascent up into the Sierra. In Truckee, at around 7040 feet, all my pens exploded. I should have read that as a sign.

Fidgety, not knowing quite what to do with myself, and not looking forward to sleeping in my seat, I fretted through most of Nevada. I couldn't adapt to the slow pace of our passage. It was as though I were holding my breath, waiting to run out of track, for the scene to dramatically change.

I don't know quite when the transition occurred. Maybe in the alpen glow of the Rockies a day and a half into the journey. It was the same feeling I get when my ears pop on a swift aerial descent. Suddenly my preconceptions and preoccupations simply vanished. I relaxed, settled into the moment, and in response, the moment around me exploded.

While the trucker in the coach seat behind mine was watching some young mother's baby, we talked about walking across the US. How long would it take? Two years, maybe. How many pairs of hiking boots would you go through? I mentioned
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Ed agreed that such a walk would be an adventure. We speculated once more on timing.

With the super-trained radar of a six-year-old, Stephanie, one of the kids who was racing back and forth down the aisle, plopped down next to me, her coloring book in hand. She announced that she could read, then invited me to help her color Cinderella's gown. Within minutes we were joined by her rail buddies: five-year-old Da'J and his baby sister Ronne. Then big brother, Laquan, came to visit as well. At nine-years-old, he'd been traveling most of his life while his mother, a single parent with a family of four, settled and resettled trying to find a place to call home.

Next I chatted for a while with Joanne from Galesburg, a John Grisham and Sue Grafton fan, and Benny who was reading from Gar Wilson's Phoenix Force series. The books weren't necessarily my kind of read, but by then I'd slowed down enough to realize that the landscape held stories, too.

On clotheslines, laundry in pinks and azures; old cars, hoods and trunks up, window-deep in high grass; roads that disappeared over hilly horizons — I felt like we were gliding past small town vignettes, real life mysteries, and great American novels.

Ed got off the train in Denver vacating his coach seat. The compartment was far from crowded. That night as I prepared to sink into another uneven sleep, a couple slid into the seats just behind me, in the row in which Ed had been seated. She was telling him about being down on her luck. She was talking about all her travels. "You're adventurous," he observed. They were both very young. They had only just met in the lounge car.

"Let's cuddle" he dared. Then, for a while, there was silence.

"I love the train," the girl whispered huskily.

"I love the train," he echoed.

We were nearing a town, and the engineer rode the whistle, long and slow. I wondered as I began to slip into sleep, how many people were listening out there, as it sang its story into the darkness.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a Bay Area poet, novelist, and travel writer. She is the author of
Namako: Sea Cucumber, and a short story collection, Hand of Buddha, published by Coffee House. She is the editor of the Hot Flashes series and Best Places Northern California. She is also the founder of Left Coast Writers. To find out more about Linda, visit

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