C’mon, baby, do the locomotion

It’s an experience that is generous with both comfort and nostalgia, that of taking the train home for Christmas.

To be accurate, it’s the BUS/train to Fresno, a trip that takes eight and a half hours and gets in at 5:30 p.m. To travel by train the entire way would take more like 12 hours. So to knock off a hefty chunk of road time, I get on the Amtrak bus.

Which is, as it turns out, just fine. No complaints whatsoever. It helps that the bus is about half-full. It helps a lot. That means everyone who wants to can command his or her own entire bench seat, which, I come to realize, is the bus version of first class.

We pull out of the downtown Reno Amtrak station a few minutes late and charge directly into a nice little squall of rain and snow. Predictably, we have to chain up at Donner Lake. No big deal; the driver knows what he is doing, and we are chained and rolling within 15 minutes. A solid performance from an old pro, delivered under semi-nasty conditions, and I am suitably impressed.

I take a slurp from my nearly cold coffee, unwrap another peanut butter cup and get back to my excellent choice for a bus-ride read, Brian Wilson’s autobiography, titled I Really Hated My Dad’s Guts. The bus, it’s turning out, is cooler than expected.

I finally get on an actual TRAIN in Stockton, so over half the trip is by bus. But again, no complaints. I have good snacks, the kind that fit well in a jacket pocket, and the bus has a very contemporary unisex bathroom.

Stockton to Fresno is 130 miles, two and a half hours by train. The San Joaquin Valley Flyer pulls in about a half-hour late, which doesn’t seem to be a big thing. It’s casual. One axiom about train travel still holds true: If you’re in a hurry, don’t take the train.

I get on the last car of the train, car No. 5, as per the directions of the conductors. The train is nearly full. It would appear that Sept. 11 has created a windfall for Amtrak. I settle into my seat, literally ready to roll. While waiting for motion, I can’t help but notice that the leg room, head room and reading room are all superior to those features offered by first-class seating on jets. On the train, spacious comfort is standard and pretty darn inexpensive.

As I get settled, we begin to move. Within a couple of minutes, we’re klickety-klacking down the valley. That klickety-klack is a warm, soothing rhythm from yesteryear, one that sounds and feels terrific. The gentle swaying of each train car follows its own steady, hypnotic beat. No wonder so many of my fellow passengers are conked out and drooling on their shirts.

This is gonna be nice.

Next week: In search of Amtrak beer and chili.