I cannot remember exactly when I fell in love with traveling. It may have been when my father taught me that taking a different road each time we went somewhere was a thrilling adventure. It might have been when our family went on a Western US road trip to visit all of the western National parks. A group of my friends took Amtrak from Oakland, CA to Chicago the year after we graduated from high school and came home talking about how much fun it would be to work on the trains all summer while we were in college. I believed then that the idea of traveling across the US week after week would be thrilling, even if I did have to work. As it ended up, I was the only one who ever applied for the job.
When remembering those days (a long time ago), I cannot help but think of the Crew Base manager who conducted my final interview. His name was Walter Johnson and I remember him as being rather intimidating. I was a 19 year old college student who simply wanted to travel across the United States all summer. It was a Union job but I was too naïve to know that. The application asked how much money I wanted to make and I answered slightly above the minimum wage, which was $2.65 at the time. He actually laughed at me! It was 1978 in Oakland, CA… and the ‘railroad era’ still reigned; this meant that it was racially divided (but beginning to change) and a man’s world. I will never forget what Walter said to me as he brought me into his office the final time: “You are young, white, and a woman. I suspect you will get eaten alive out here but I can’t find one good reason not to hire you!”
I was too excited with daydreams of traversing the great US and snapping photographs of everything there was to see to let his words sink in very much. I was going to work for Amtrak all summer and travel! Little did I know that I would be working in Dining Cars that still had wood pellet stoves and air-conditioning dependent on steam lines or that there was only one dining car per haul regardless how many passenger cars were attached and during high peak times, that meant serving food consistently from 6 am to midnight. I didn’t know that the crew quarters were co-ed and first come/first serve so that I would get stuck climbing into the top bunk with the loudest and largest guy on the crew, sleeping below. I didn’t realize that without seniority that I would sit at the Crew Base day after day hoping to find a add-on spot or fill in for a regular crew member. Much of that summer, my only travel was on the I-101 traveling between my apartment and the Crew Base.
Eventually, I made my mark and paid my dues and then…. Small parts of my fantasies manifested. I filled a billet for a regular position on the California Zepher going from Oakland to Chicago every 7 days. I was able to see light snow on the plains of emerald green grasses just outside Laramie, Wyoming in early June. I was able to watch the salt glisten under a full moon around the edges of the Great Salt Lake as the train crossed through the center of the lake at midnight. I was able to watch the sun rise over the city of Denver as the train came out of the mountains at dawn. I laid over in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day when they tint the river green and watched the great parade. Likewise, during another layover in Chi-town (we called it)… I walked down Michigan Ave in the early evening just as it began to snow; watching each snowflake glisten in the city lights – it was magical.
While my father laid the foundation for my love of travel, it was my opportunity to experience travel via my time with Amtrak that cemented my love of back roads and lesser known treasures. For this, I want to express my deep appreciation to Walter Johnson – where ever he is – for the opportunity to enter that world. I not only learned a lot, traveled all over the US, but developed a deep appreciation for all that is beautiful! As opportunities present themselves… it is the road trip that I prefer, the one that allows you to ‘take it all in’ and enjoy the beauty.
What or who has inspired you to travel? Create your own virtual pin map, drop a pin, and say “thanks”.