Cowboys Ride the Iron Horse
At the Sacramento station we boarded the eastbound Amtrak to Reno, meeting Barb and Earl and Janie and David there. I stored my luggage, and found a set of seats in coach for the family, settling in for a second day on the rails.
"I want to go find the others," I decided. "Do you want to come?" I asked Mary.
She declined to follow me to find my friends, feeling watching over the kids was more important. Without such childcare worries I hurried off to the observation car, the place where the parties happen. The red-colored hills outside Sacramento began showing patches of white as the train climbed in altitude, and rain showers became snow flurries. A massive snowstorm had been dumping on the hills all evening, all week in fact, and the train was heading directly into the thick snowpack.
"Hey Janie, Barb," I walked to the observation car, that's the party place. I found the girls in swivel seats sitting with their feet on the windowsill watching the snowflakes.
"Where's Earl?" I asked Barb.
"He's downstairs with David, they're playing cards," she replied.
Dropping down the stairs to the snack level I found them at a booth farthest away from the snack bar, probably because they were sipping clandestine gin and tonics while they played cards.
"I thought Uncle Dale was coming, Earl," I questioned him because I didn't see the rest of the wedding party.
"He's driving up with Richard and Fred," Earl replied.
They invited me to play a game with them, but I declined and returned to Barb and Janie, see what they were doing.
The Sacramento-Reno Train is called the Party Train, bringing people from California over the hill to the Biggest Little City in The World for whorin' and gamblin'. These two had found two other ladies, and were now engaged in serious conversation.
Barb was explaining her deal, telling her new friends Mary Macgregor was singing at her wedding tomorrow night in Reno. I love Barb dearly, I've had many unique times with her, or because of her, but it was time for me to slink away before she noticed Mary Macgregor's husband was near. I knew I would become caught up in her next bright idea if I didn't disappear. That's why Mary hated Barb, the way she acted like a bad big sister, continually egging me on to find the next cool thing to do, which usually wasn't condoned by grownups. Likely it infuriated Mary that I subscribed to this nitwit fantasy as though we could all go back to being twenty years old, reliving the best of times regardless of consequences. I was torn, feeling I needed to spend time with Mary, but she justifiably kept the kids out of the party car, so she was sitting in the boring spot. She was such a good sport on that trip, trying hard to accommodate my wishes, plus she never wanted to be here to begin with, it was a favor Barb begged her to do. So I sat down next to my wife and family to act like a grown-up.
But that didn't last very long.
Suddenly the train slowed down and stopped. The lights went off. It was still and dark even though it was daytime. There was a different color coming through the windows. Unlike natural sunlight, it was white, filtered, and cast a bluish tinge. Squinching my face against the window, I could see the blue sky up at the top.
"We're in a snow tunnel!" I exclaimed. This was way too exciting to be in coach.
"I'll be right back," I promised.
I saw a conductor when I started between cars. He said a brake line ruptured. They had to shut down the electrical system. He told me not to open any windows or doors and not to use the bathrooms because the toilets need electrical power to operate.
"Okay, I'll let my friends know," I replied. I didn't recognize anyone in observation so I dropped down to the card game. The cafe was closed, which was a good thing because it was pretty chaotic down there. Earl and David were having a snow fight with others at the end. Most of the cafe car's windows were slid open. The curious thing about these snow tunnels is how close the snow bank is, probably ten inches away from the open window. It was incredible; a person simply pushed his or her hand out the window to scoop a handful of snow.
When Earl realized we were stuck close to Donner Pass he hollered out for everyone to be careful, we could be eaten.
But he wasn't done.
"I have to pee," he remembered, walking towards the stairs.
"It's off limits; the conductor told me the toilets don't work."
"Oh, I'll pee out the window," he decided, but lucky for us, we were spared the scene because the lights came back on, and the train lurched forward, arriving in Reno late afternoon.
The men gathered their belongings and stumbled off the train. The women gathered up children and other stuff the men left behind. We walked the three blocks to the cheap motel Barb reserved for us. It was single level in the form of a U-shape with the parking lot in the center. I went into the office for a key, came out, opened the door, and let my family into one of seediest places I have ever seen. Made in the 1960's it hadn't changed since, and it stunk of cigarette smoke. Mary told me not to let the kids sit on the carpet. The room was cold, I went over to turn on the wall heater, and it sounded like a jet engine revving up for flight. Because of the party train I had no problem lying down and falling to sleep. Mary was uncomfortable and fitful throughout the night.
Somehow we survived, spending a long time at breakfast before bringing the kids back to the room. Repeating the train ride babysitting ritual, Mary read a book and watched the kids while I wandered Reno with my friends. The party doubled to eight when the carload made it through when Highway 80 reopened.
The wedding went just as Barb planned, her pleasant inebriated smile apparent in the pictures and video. It was a good day for her.
Determined to do it right, she ordered a limo to the motel to pick her up after she dressed in her gown. The rest of the party, including Mary, myself, and the kids walked four blocks to the chapel.
Just like in my wedding there was some misunderstanding about who the best man was. Uncle Dale was supposed to have the title, but for some reason Richard jumped in to take his place. I had no clue about that. Mary sang a pretty song I hadn't heard; Torn Between Two Lovers was inappropriate right then. The vows were spoken aloud, the rings were exchanged, and Barb's wedding was over. My kids became bored, so Mary took them to the motel as soon as she was done singing. The men in the party went straight back to the casinos.
Now only three people were left, Earl, Barb, and myself. Barb invited me into the limo. I looked at Earl, and he didn't give a shit. The three of us drove around a while in downtown Reno. Barb and Earl were enjoying their first days of matrimony together while Mary and I were growing further apart.
Audiobook coming soon