The thing about reminiscing is that it is what old people do. And since I’m 72 and can hardly worry about such things, it is what I do too. Get used to it, I’m telling myself. And furthermore, let us acknowledge that it was what Proust did, and he wasn’t even that old. He had no qualms about taking trips down memory lane. He wanted to know what memory lane was made of, how it was paved, engineered and marked. Go Marcel, I say.
What I also say is that one of the most contented moments I can recall from my now-it-can-be-called long life, occurred aboard the Coast Starlight one morning in about 1998. It was winter. It was morning. Meaning, I had gotten myself up, dressed, ascended the metal stairs and made my way to the dining car. Where I sat, ordered breakfast and watched winter sail by. At that time of day the northbound Starlight is, or was, in the vicinity of Mount Shasta. At this moment, the mountain was somewhere behind us, and all around us was one unifying experience. Snow.
And this is why it is worthwhile reminiscing, that is to say, replaying and reconsidering life experience. Snow. To a kid in the desert, it represented something unusual, in fact, extraordinary. Certainly, it was an oddity. But more, it was transformative. In fact, it was a sort of wealth. A largesse bestowed upon the land. Briefly, infrequently ours. In thinking about it, I wonder what was enriched. Here the speculations are just that. For all the relative economic affluence of childhood, my general feeling about our family was one of unconsciously felt poverty. I lived largely in a fantasy world as a kid, which may be a very typical experience. And the general trend of such fantasies had to do with family improvement. The parents’ bitterness going away. Peace and happiness descending upon the land.
When this whiteness descended upon the land, the desert, the general effect was close enough. Snow also covered the foothills, softening the contours of the geography, making the relatively level plain of our mountain pass not all that distinguishable from the heights above it. In addition, snow was water. It would melt, join forces with the earth, and produce green grass, which would persist in a thin layer for weeks, maybe months. Water meant life. So did snow.
Snow also meant no school. Parents home all day, and also cast into an entirely different wintry state of mind. The kind of anomalous day when my father, brother and I rolled snow into balls and stacked them into snowmen. Or threw them at each other. Either way, an utterly playful, nonproductive and atypically joyous pursuit. Good thing, snow.
And almost 50 years later aboard the Coast Starlight, the morning view revealed the high plains of extreme northern California. A flat, empty land, entirely white. It was the sort of area that very few people visited. There is simply little there to attract the casual visitor. This empty land, one might say. Some lava tubes attract visitors to a national monument far to the east. And 75, or maybe 100 miles to the east, the town of Susanville sits on the border with Nevada. A mythic place, historically home to cattle ranching. I know of no one who has ever been there.
In short, I felt like a sort of explorer. Yes, I was disabled and going places was difficult. But I was also going places where few people could be bothered to go. And the land was soft and white. And I was being served breakfast. And at that moment in Amtrak’s tragic life, breakfast was good. And why did this matter? Why does one want nourishment while the white empty wilds sail by? Because one wants nurturing. Caring. Somehow, I dismissed the arduous nature of my trip aboard the train. Only minimal efforts had been made at accommodating the disabled, and all of those downstairs on the level below the dome lounge and the dining car. So up here, I was part of the action. And the action was this, snow.
The dining car was almost empty in January. That was why the waiter took a moment to gaze out the window and tell me what was happening. The little town we breezed through at almost 80 mph, a place unimaginably isolated, hours from anything, such as a hospital, this town had one claim to fame. It had the tallest flagpole in California. And there it was, old glory flapping in the morning’s gray skies. Why here? Why at all? Because that’s what you do when you are in the middle of what anyone would call nowhere, you have a kind of freedom. You even have the freedom to leave California, if you wish, for the border was only one minute away. And then California was over, and Oregon was starting, and ahead were more incredible things. For 45 minutes later, the train having stopped in the town of Klamath Falls, we were speeding by a vast lake, enormous by California standards. Klamath Lake. I had never even heard of it. And now, dammit, I was witness.