Friday, July 14, 2006

En route to FGC

It was my first time going to Friends General Conference. My daughter was excited to ride Amtrak again, especially for a chance to go on the Coast Starlight. (We had planned to ride it south to Santa Barbara in February, but were re-routed to the inland San Joaquin and connecting buses that time because the CS was running 5 hours late.) We found 9 others from Strawberry Creek and our friend Catharine from Berkeley Meeting waiting at the Emeryville station, bubbling with excitement to embark on this adventure together. They seated 8 of us in a clump together at the back of the train, 2 more a few rows forward, and over the course of the evening and the morning we explored the rest of the train. My running tally came to 43 Friends I recognized from Pacific Yearly Meeting, plus one brave soul from New Mexico.

Rebecca has already written of the meeting for worship on the train: a happy opportunity, and a joy to find the Amtrak staff so cooperative and helpful. (Although they wouldn't allow religious announcements, I overhead one of the dining car staff say to another during breakfast: "You got the devil in you this morning; are you sure you read your Book?") 45 minutes was enough time to get pretty warm sitting on the floor of that room, and to inspire mostly train-related messages. Meeting was broken after a couple of people had gotten up to leave, and I found myself wishing we had stayed much longer, missing what could have been a deeper level of worship, since we had all the time in the world that day on the train.

The long day afforded conversations with many Friends, heartfelt and silly singing, lots of play with outgoing children, glorious views, a running commentary from Carl A. about landmarks and how Amtrak works; and a lot of opportunity to move around through the observation car, the dining car, and the sleeping cars where some of our friends were. With that many of us together, we developed a sense of family that extended to welcome neighboring strangers.

But we learned that Amtrak doesn't own the rails, and that their main performance measure is the percentage of trains that arrive on time; so once your train is running about half an hour late, you are doomed to stop and yield to every freight train, and it doesn't matter to Amtrak how late you arrive. So the scheduled evening arrival (7-ish) became a morning arrival (3-ish), 8 hours late on what was supposed to be a 21-hour trip, and it was already light when our shuttle arrived and PLU staff assigned us temporary rooms where we could lie down.

Two nights "sleeping" in coach, in a partially reclining seat with the aisle lights on, left me groggy and a bit grumpy at FGC until I'd had another two nights to catch up. I found myself reflecting that I tend to think of sustainability mostly in terms of reducing our ecological footprint, but that a holistic sustainability would include a balance where possible with the needs of the body and spirit. (And from the workshop with Rachel, it sounds like John Woolman would likely agree.) In this case, paying a bit more for a horizontal bunk bed would have had about the same impact on the environment, but much less wear and tear on my tired body and my availability to be present at my first FGC. (Next time, how about chartering a Green Tortoise bus, so we could all lie down without paying extra, and eat healthy hippie food that could even be vegan?)

So for the first couple of days of FGC, I had a poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz stuck in my head:
Is only possible
When living in the suburbs
Of God

I was stuck in the suburbs until I caught up on sleep, and shared that poem in many of my conversations. One delightful bump to the side of the head came when Dorothy from Sierra Friends Center responded, "So when are you moving to the country?"


At July 14, 2006 at 10:31 PM, Blogger Rebecca Sullivan said...

Hi Lisa

nice to have a new blogger in the yearly meeting. this is another view of the train ride and i like it.


At July 15, 2006 at 7:05 AM, Blogger Liz Opp said...


I have never heard of Green Tortoise buses! What an interesting option.

My partner and I had a sleeper car on the 2-night journey to and from Seattle. I can't say we slept any better overnight--except when we both resorted to sleeping pills--but it was a luxury to have a place to lie down and nap during the day. I cannot sleep on my back or side, so the sleeper car was the way to go for me.

On the other hand, we were clearly separated from most of the other 50-60 Friends on the train who were headed to the midwest and points further east on our return trip.

Well, welcome to blogging.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

At July 15, 2006 at 6:39 PM, Blogger Lisa H said...


It's good to know that West Coast Friends weren't the only ones braving the train! I hope your routes didn't have the same kinds of delays...

Thanks for commenting,

At July 15, 2006 at 10:55 PM, Blogger Chris M. said...

I love Green Tortoise! They used to run a regular north-south route from Los Angeles all the way to Seattle. I took it from LA to SF once or twice, and Robin & I took it from SF to Santa Barbara once. Alas, they mostly do "adventure tours" now.

I was just looking at their routes the other day, interestingly enough. I may need to come home by bus after PYM and the "convergent Friends" gathering at Wess Daniels' house the last Saturday.

At July 16, 2006 at 5:38 PM, Blogger Lisa H said...


You're right that Green Tortoise no longer runs the straight coastal route. (I've also ridden and enjoyed that in the past.) But they do have two or three buses available to charter, so early planning might work for future Quaker gatherings.

At July 21, 2006 at 6:20 AM, Blogger Contemplative Scholar said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I really love train travel, but I was dismayed to hear about your 8 hour delay, and the fact that freight trains are given priority over passenger trains! This is an astonishing display of yet another way that our priorities are all mixed up in the U.S.: moving things around quickly is more important than getting people where they need to go! I really wish that we could expand and improve our train travel options, because it really can be such a wonderful way to travel, for all of the positive reasons you describe!


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