Four years ago yesterday, I boarded an Amtrak train in Sacramento, California that was eventually 26 hours late arriving in Eugene, Oregon, a trip that should have lasted only 12 hours. For most of that 36 hours, we were stuck in the mountains, usually pulled into a siding, without television, radio, Internet, or cell phones, so totally isolated from the world that even the train companies themselves often forgot about us or couldn’t reach us at all. For all we knew, we were going to pull into a train station and find the earth scorched, like that Twilight Zone episode where the homely librarian stumbles out of the book vault to find the world blown to smithereens.
Often I tell this story as a Bad Trip, the war a mere subplot, like the weather. And it’s true, trapped on this moving jail, we were wrapped in our own dramas. The lawyers threatening to sue Amtrak. The conductors unlocking the unused car in the back for the smokers. A free breakfast on the second morning, with mutiny so near. (What do you mean, the crew has timed out and we’re waiting for another crew to drive 3 hours from Klamath Falls?!) The train stopped so passengers could walk around. The three people who got left behind when the train took off. One woman told the conductor she saw the men running alongside her window, trying to catch up to the train, but by then we were many miles away. But the men hitched rides and got back on the train 3 hours later in the first town, having found it faster to go by car. And no one talked about the war, except to say, We’re at war, standing in line for emergency rations of dehydrated scrambled eggs. Even though the three guys got back on the train to cheers, our own local resurrection, this Bad Trip really had the war at its core, because once you got into that vacuum in the mountains, where you couldn’t hear the incessant beating of the war drums day and night, where there was deafening silence and even a peaceful calm once you were out of range of the war mongering mushroom cloud wavers, the war didn’t seem necessary, and it didn’t take long in that bubble to ask yourself: what’s this war for, anyway?