It’s February 27, 2020, and you’re on your way home to Sacramento after three days in L.A.
Your sister had flown out to California for business, and you joined her, sharing a room at the hip-ish Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, working on your novel during the day and enjoying your sister’s company in the evenings. It’s the only time in your lives you’ve spent a few days together without parents, spouses, or children.
Now you’re settling in for one of your favorite activities: a long solo train ride. The Coast Starlight takes 14 hours from L.A. Union Station to the Sacramento Valley Station, and ordinarily this would be your notion of a perfect day.
But you don’t seem at ease. It’s as if you already sense that the world is about to change for you and for everyone on this train.
It was visible in the anxious energy with which you waited on the platform at Union Station in L.A. and your obvious relief when you boarded and saw that no one was seated next to you. It’s evident now as you anoint all the surfaces around you, including, oddly, your own bags, with a disinfectant wipe. It’s in the frequency with which you apply Purell to your hands, which honestly need moisturizer more than hand sanitizer. And in the way your eyebrows draw together in worry every time you hear that person in the back of the car who keeps coughing.
You’ve been following the news, and already you suspect that you’ll need to back out of the big writers thing in San Antonio next weekend. And the spring trip to meet your son in Japan. You’re wondering, a little, about your friends’ wedding in New York City in late May. You’re not worried, not yet, about the summer teaching gig in Ohio. Or the writers residency in Alaska in the fall. I mean, that’s ages from now.
You love long-distance rail trips. You started this trip on the San Joaquins, Amtrak’s inland north-south route, wending your way south through misty almond orchards. Three years ago you traveled from Vladivostok to Paris by train, and your ideal vacation would be to do that again. Next weekend you’re supposed to fly to San Antonio but take the train back—the Texas Eagle to L.A. then this same Coast Starlight back to Sac. And you’ve been looking into getting to Ohio by rail as well—the Zephyr to Chicago, then the Capitol Limited to Cleveland, a trip of 60 hours.
But something tells you that you had better savor this trip.
So you do. You snag a seat in the dome car and gaze in grateful wonder at the Pacific Ocean, drinking in the view as if for the last time. You splurge on both lunch and dinner in the dining car, where you’re seated with congenial and interesting strangers. You have no idea how frightening other people will become in just a few short weeks. But you have an inkling already that this is the last unfettered, in-person encounter you’ll have with strangers for a long time, and you love it. You lunch with a cool jewelry-making mom with purple hair traveling to Portland with her adorable loquacious teenager. You have dinner with a Malagasy-French man who speaks very little English and, as luck would have it, a Sonoma-based children’s book agent with excellent French.
You don’t want the trip to end. Because when you get home, you’re going to say to your husband, “I think we need to stop going to restaurants.” The next day you’ll cancel your San Antonio plans. Then your Japan plans. In two weeks, you’ll be at the airport, first, to drop off the young actor you’d been hosting for a local theater production, his show canceled after the first night of previews. Later the same day, to pick up the son whose semester abroad in Japan has been canceled. You e-mail regrets about the wedding in New York, and your friends reply to say it’s all right, they’re gonna have to postpone.
Over and over in the months ahead you’ll think, and often say aloud when you talk to your sister, “Thank God we had that time in L.A.”
Somehow you sense all of this coming, and you don’t want to leave the train.
Dear Lady on Coast Starlight #14, you have no idea what’s coming. Half a million Americans dead, and many more grieving and chronically ill. But not till after you leave the train.
And that’s not all. The police will continue to murder Black people, only this time mass uprisings, long overdue, will follow. Wildfires will devour nearly four and a half million acres of California. An armed insurrection will breach the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of the presidential election. All this will come to pass. But not till you leave the train.
It’s nearly midnight, and Sacramento is the next stop. You’ll step out into a world that’s noticeably changed in just the four days you were away. But for now, you can enjoy the lights of the capital as you rumble over the old iron-truss bridge that crosses the river. Greet the dark ribbon of the water below. Nod to the vehicles heedlessly zipping by above you on I-5. And lean into the window as you watch for a favorite landmark of yours, the old brick railyard buildings north of the tracks at the Sacramento Valley Station.
Right now, it’s okay. Right now, you’re still on the train.