Conference on Current Pagan Studies 1: The Southwest Chief

Off-season, the train was only half full, which meant that there were armchairs and tables for the taking in the lounge car. I bought a beer at the snack bar downstairs and watched northern New Mexico go past.

I was honored this year to be asked to give a keynote address at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.[1]The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade. For journeys under 500 miles — and sometimes more — I would rather drive. If the trip is longer, I look first to see if Amtrak will get me there. If all else fails, I end up jammed into a metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, which is about as much fun as being stuck in an elevator.

Southern Colorado to southern California is a combination of the first two — drive a bit, and then catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, get off in San Bernardino, and catch a Metrolink commuter train west to Claremont, where the conference was to be held at Claremont Graduate University.

Santo Domingo Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I booked a coach seat on the way out, which would be easier on the organizers’ travel budget ($112), and used Amtrak reward points to get a roomette (sleeper) on the way back.[2]The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.

Understand that a coach seat on the train is huger than first-class on an airplane. Muchly huger. You have a foot rest and a leg rest. You can recline your seat without bashing the passenger behind you. Smart passengers bring a small blanket and a pillow and make themselves quite comfortable.

Refueling in Albuquerque. Basically, one locomotive pulls the train while the other powers all the onboard electrical systems — refrigeration, HVAC, toilets, lights, etc.

Me, I had a warm jacket, but I forgot the inflatable neck pillow, So it goes. I made myself comfortable, stretched across two seats—the car was only half-full. After a burger at the station snack bar in Albquerque, followed by a little whiskey from my flask, I opened an episode of the Strange Familiars podcast on my phone and rode west into the night.

I usually can sleep anywhere, but not this time. I don’t blame all the podcast discussion of fairy orbs, Bigfoot, “hell gates,” ghosts, etc., but rather the fact that I would have to get off at 5:30 a.m. I knew that either the coach attendant or the conductor would make sure that I made my stop.[3]I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight. They are usually good about that. But the monkey mind would not settle down. So when the conductor came down the dimly lit aisle, I was already sitting there with my jacket zipped and my carry-on bag at hand, watching the highway next to us.

You know you are in southern California when the freeway traffic — in the dark, at 5:30 a.m. — is already stop-and-go. The train whistles on past, into the San Bernardino station, a Mission-style edifice four times bigger than it needs to be. (Did the town ever need that station?) Across the tracks is a huge intermodal operation, acres of bright lights and freight containers being stacked onto rail cars.

For a kind of California-gothic touch — think of an abandoned amusement park — the “information booth” on the platform is staffed by this static mannequin, like the old coin-operated “Madame Esmeralda Tells Your Fortune” arcade machines. If you drop in a quarter, will he tell you when the next train is coming? Nope.

On the platform,  a robot voice reminds you that “We care.” It’s about a suicide hotline.

Meanwhile, the pre-dawn students and commuters line the platform, staring at their coffee cups or into the middle distance, until the brightly-lit double-decker Metrolink train rattles in and, after forty minutes, deposits me at Claremont station on its way west to Los Angeles.

The chessboard is at the far left end of the counter.

I’ve done my research: about four blocks away is a coffeehouse that advertises it opens at 6 a.m., and it is now 6:30. I walk into Augie’s Coffee, which sets a high bar for industrial-spartan design, with walls of hexagonal tiles like a 1920s bathroom. The baristas interrupt their chess game (Awww!) to get me a cappuccino and chocolate croissant. Outside, the palm trees are turning from black-and-white and color. I am here.

Next stop: Claremont, California

Notes

1 The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade.
2 The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.
3 I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight.