Monday, October 17, 2011

Salt Lake City Before Sunrise

I'm going to write about my recent trip to SLC as a series of meditations on using sustainable ground transport to get around the United States, and how challenging it can be. Logistically challenging, and also frowned upon: I got a lot of strange looks from people I told I'd be riding the Greyhound.

First, a logistical challenge. Because a whole lot of beautiful mountains lie along the California Zephyr's route, Amtrak has scheduled that train to pass through the flatlands of Nevada and Utah in the middle of the night. When I bought my ticket to Salt Lake City last month, I kind of shrugged off the arrival time, 3:30 am. As my trip grew closer, I started to worry. The sun would rise in Salt Lake City around 7:30 am. What was I supposed to do with myself until then? What do you do when you get to an unfamiliar city in the wee smas? As a woman traveling alone, and as a grad student traveling on a shoestring, I rely on networks like to stay with locals, and I don't think it's at all appropriate to be like, arrival time: middle of the freaking night. All of a sudden I needed a 24 hour public space, and I didn't know if that was something SLC could provide. I did some Googling, and found that a nearby Denny's provided potential sanctuary in case hanging out in the train station wasn't possible.

For once I hoped Amtrak would run hours behind schedule, but we actually arrived early. I woke up at 3 am to see a ghostly salt lake outside the train window and thought, shiiiiit, time to face the music. The Amtrak station in Salt Lake City sits in a new complex that integrates local and regional transit, bringing together heavy rail, Greyhound buses, light rail, and city buses. Pretty cool! Still, not a cozy place to hang out before sunrise. The train station itself turned out to be a prefab box that only stayed open until 5 am, but people sitting there could mosey across the transit plaza to the Greyhound station, which would just be opening its doors at that hour. (I did some research, and Amtrak plans to move into a refurbished station soon. More info here on their Great American Stations website.) Since I planned to spend some time in the Greyhound Station the following night, I didn't really want to hang out there in the morning as well. On the map it looked like a short walk to Denny's. So I settled in to wait until 5.

I tried to follow along with the manic vignettes in the massive Pynchon tome I'd brought along, but instead eavesdropped as a sort of neorealist one act unfolded among others in the waiting room. One man sat near me and didn't talk to anybody. An older man, traveling alone, tried to figure out how to reserve a rental car to reach his daughter's house in the suburbs. A young family coached him through this. They listened as he made a reservation not for Salt Lake City, but for his hometown, having misunderstood what the lady on the phone meant when she asked for a zip code. Once he hung up, the young father asked him some questions to get him to realize his mistake, and he called back to correct it. Then they chatted some more, and it turned out that the young father worked as a commercial driver for Walmart. The time had nearly reached 5 am, so first the family and then the older man migrated out of the station. Somewhere in the mix the other man had left as well, so I found myself alone in the silent station. End scene.

I went out into the frosty air to start my walk to Denny's, and I found the ticket agent taking a smoke break. He advised me to take a cab instead of walking long blocks through an industrial area, and told me some stories comparing SLC to other cities. So I took a cab to Denny's and drank about six gallons of diner coffee. My Couchsurfing hostess picked me up there just as the sun began to lighten the sky over the mountains.

I feel pretty good that I made it work, but it'd be nice to live in a country where you weren't expected to vanish into private space as soon as you step off your train, while those of us without the resources to do so simply wait wherever we can for the sun to come up.