Friday morning I boarded the packed shuttle bus for an 8 hour trip back from Yellowstone to Salt Lake City, where I was scheduled to catch my train east at the miserable departure time of 3:30 a.m. I don’t know whose idea that was, but in truth, I guess it was mine because that dreadful hour was the only one available. I arrived in downtown Salt Lake where I was deposited at a street corner, from where a Lyft driver picked me up and drove me to my hotel for a brief sojourn before boarding the California Zephyr which would get me to Chicago. I was actually looking forward to getting back on a mode of transportation where people enforced the mask mandates that were ignored on all the others, me in the tiny minority of people wearing one. Hanging around with strangers in close quarters, with no clue who might have what virus, was pretty stressful. I was glad to leave all that behind me.
I made a beeline for the outdoor section of the hotel restaurant and settled in for a slow-food nutritious meal after eating on the fly for the previous few days. Fresh vegetables, fish and potatoes were a comforting alternative to trail mix and peanut butter. I retired to my room, wrote awhile and slept a few fitful hours, nervous that I wouldn’t wake up at the right time to catch a ride to the train station by 2:45 a.m., enough lead time in case the train was early. The station was in a marginally unsafe area but there were plenty of passengers around. By 3:50 I was boarded, ensconced in my little sleeper roomette and passing out from a combination of utter fatigue and relief at feeling relatively safe from Covid. Sleep came fast but was unfortunately interrupted at 6 a.m. when the call for breakfast in the dining car was announced. You don’t skip your meals on the train which are included in your ticket purchase price. So I got up to eat, resigning myself to being tired and having hours ahead to stare out the window at the topography zipping by, so different from my midwestern home views.
I was deep in thought on my ride east. The power of what I saw in Yellowstone elicited the same ideas and sensations I’ve experienced at every natural wonder I’ve been lucky enough to visit. I think the most dominant theme in my mind is the essential perspective shift from the self and its incumbent center-of-the-universe focus we all share, to the bigger picture, impossible to ignore when standing in the shadows of ancient mountains and old forests. We are so small, so transient relative to the soaring peaks and tumbling waterfalls in these marvelous conformations. The striations of color in the layered and jagged rocks are silent witnesses to thousands of years of variation and change. Before them I am a tiny speck and that is a good way to feel after being caught up in the drama of my daily life. The energy and power of majestic places which have stood through the comings and goings of an impossible conglomeration of living creatures is a reminder that human life is just a brief passage through a physical universe much bigger than our minds can absorb. These are places of wonder, antidotes for our bruised psyches caught up in the minutiae of life. Cosmic thoughts, I suppose, but a relief from the daily grind. I kept my face and my phone camera pointed out the window as the train passed through tunnels and followed the Colorado river north of the tracks. I crossed over and under the Continental Divide, the place where rivers change the direction in which they flow. People fished, rode the rapids in their rafts and paddled their water boards as I passed by. They live in the shadows of the mountains, along with their families, their cattle and horses, and even their alpacas. They waved at the train as we zipped along. Trees and wildflowers, seeded by birds and wind and maybe climbing animals, poked out from slivers in the rocks that stretched high into the sky. Dreamscapes and back country. Following are my photos from Utah through Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa into Illinois.
After the last mountain, the Mississippi River appeared and the terrain flattened. I am back on my familiar Midwestern turf.
The big risk trip draws to a close as I look out the window at the familiar Chicago skyline of my youth. I am exhausted with a few more hours of travel ahead before I will collapse into my own bed. I am healthy. I’m a bit more than I was when I started this journey. I don’t know what’s next but I’m already thinking about it.