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Chasing Ghosts on the Train

Maybe, by chance, I’d get to see old man Al again.  It’s been a year and change since the last time I jumped on the train, but the rails are his home, so you never know.  I boarded Amtrak train 6, the California Zephyr, in Emeryville, California, en route to Denver, Colorado.  It’s a 32 hour jaunt through some of the most pristine areas of the West.  I grabbed seat 53, as I had done the year before and what we agreed to, got my area settled, and waited.

It was in January of 2010 when we first met.  I had found seat 53, got all settled, and was looking out the window when an old man walked slowly down the aisle.  I knew we’d get along from the start.  A gray, wool cap found its home on his head, thick, black-rimmed glasses gave him a bit of vision, we were both wearing black and blue flannels, and worn boots were upon his feet.  An old leather suitcase was his only companion.  He then stood by the seat in front of me, squinted to read the number, and then sat down by the window, in seat 49.

“How are you doing, Sir?  My name is Nels,” I told the man as I reached out my hand.
“Today is a great day.  Nice to meet you, Nels, my name is Al,” he said with an aged voice as we shook hands.

We hit it off right away, talking about family, about where we’d been, about where we’re going, and about our times on trains.  Al was an 82 year-old man who felt most at home on the rails, so he made it his home.  His wife had recently passed away, so he sold his house and most of his possessions, and boarded the train.  His father had been a conductor, and he felt a complete sense of peace and tranquility rolling down the tracks.  I knew what he meant.  He had all he needed inside his old leather suitcase.  He opened it and showed me a couple sets of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, electric shaving cologne, and a cheap bottle of Tequila.  He had a lot of family and friends along the route, so he’d ride until he needed a break, would get off for a while, and then hop on again.

“It never gets old, Nels, at least not for me.  I see something new every time,” Al told me as we made our way through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, passing the mountain towns of Colfax and Truckee in California, “There is such beauty on this route, and my wife’s beauty shines through in all I see.  That helps me out.  My eyes are fading, but I know it’s there.  It’ll always be with me.”  Those words will forever be with me.

He walked with purpose, due to his failing eyes.  Every time he’d come back from getting some water or a bathroom break I’d have to stop him and direct him into the seat in front of me. 

“Seat 49 is in front of me, Al,” I would say as I directed him back.
“I’m testing you, Nels.  You passed with flying colors,” he said with a smirk.

As we put California behind us, the sun began to fade beneath the horizon, and the moon shone full, as we prepared to race across the Nevada desert.  I could tell Al was getting pretty tired.  He got as comfortable as one can get in those train seats, and then I heard the unclip of his suitcase.  The bottle was untwisted, I heard a couple gulps, and then saw a shiny bottle on the top of his seat.

“Take a couple pulls, Nels, it’ll help you sleep,” Al instructed as he handed me the bottle.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him Tequila was an upper, but took a couple swigs for Al’s sake and said, “Thanks for sharing, Al.”

“Everyone should be given a bottle to sleep in these seats,” he said as he put the bottle away and put his head on his make-shift pillow of a sweatshirt.

The full moon in the blackened backdrop made for some incredible views.  Specs of civilization were sprinkled orange in the darkness, and the moon seemed to be a spotlight on the barren desert.  As I watched a Coyote’s shadow bound to somewhere else, I heard Al shuffling around in his seat.  Sure enough, I again heard the unclip of his suitcase, heard the gulps, and saw the bottle atop his seat.

“Nels, here, this should do the trick for the rest of the night.  G’night,” he said as I took my share, gave it back, and he put it back into his suitcase for the night.  He was soon back to sleep.

We awoke in Green River, Utah, a bit sore from the uncomfortable night’s sleep.  Just like my Grandfather always did, Al wanted to take me to breakfast.  I sat down at a table in the observation car and Al went downstairs to get us some food.  I smirked as he came up, sat down, and put two Cokes and two bananas on the table.

“If this breakfast has gotten me this far, Nels, I’m sure it can do the same for you,” he said with a smile as he peeled his banana and opened his Coke.  I laughed as I thanked him.

We then spent the day watching the beauty of the Rocky Mountains pass by our train windows.  Al pointed out Colorado’s Gore, Byer and Glenwood Canyons, and I showed him the place where I camp, along a river in Radium, and pointed to the mountain where I used to work in the town of Winter Park.

As we descended the mountain I knew my stop was soon, and that Al was staying on heading east toward Chicago.

“I’ll be sure to find you again, Al,” I promised him as I was about to get off the train.
“I’m sure you will, and you’ll know where to find me.  I’ll be in seat 49, and I’ll be sure to look for you in 53,” he said as we shook hands.
“You take care of yourself, Al.  It was a great ride,” I said as I was about to walk down the stairs.
“You can’t beat a day on the rails,” he said as he waved a goodbye.

Yesterday, I sat and waited in seat 53, and hoped to see Al walk down the aisle and take his place in seat 49, but it remained vacant the entire ride. 

Before I got off the train in Denver I took out my pad, tore a piece of paper out of it, and put a note in the safety instructions in seat 49.  It reads:

Al,

I missed you on the train.  I took my spot in seat 53, and I was glad no one took your seat in 49.  I looked out the window, and you were right, what I saw was different.  I snuck some booze on to help me sleep in the uncomfortable seats, had a Coke and a banana for breakfast, saw the beauty of the scenery, and remembered what you taught me as we weaved in and out of the canyons in Colorado.

I haven’t forgotten my promise to find you on here, for I will, and hope to sometime sooner, than later.  I hope the world is sunshine and smiles while you ride the train. 

I had a great two days riding the rails, but sure did miss you.

Your friend,

Nels