McCloud is a former mill town, ten miles around on the south side of the mountain. Very scenic it is, and at the depot we checked in and got large tickets. After a spell of sitting and watching the other passengers milling around, the conductor came along calling “All aboard!”
The dining cars have names, like Trinity, Lassen, Shasta, and Siskiyou. Although in railroad tradition, parties of two may be combined with other parties, Adrienne had arranged a private table for two in the Lassen car. We entered past the galley, where lanky young chefs were preparing the first course. In the car proper, the interior was dark and polished mahogany, with carved shapes to decorate and fit the curve of the car, and old-fashioned light fixtures.
Our table had streamers and confetti and sparklers of stars and birthday cakes, saying Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday! Tre festif!
The couple across the way wished me Happy Birthday, and, seeing that their table had the same decorations, we wished them Happy Birthday as well, and asked which of them was having the birthday. As it turned out, both of them were. The husband said, “We were very startled to find we had the same birthday, twenty years ago. She didn’t believe me, and made me show her my driver’s license.”
Behind Adrienne, a larger group had lots of rowdy fun, and behind me, a very tall and stunning blonde was sticking the Happy Birthday sparklers onto her breasts. Her muscle-man husband said quietly, “Probably one is enough.”
The train clickety-clacked into the woods beyond McCloud, and we wound along the side of the mountain, to a switchback where the conductor dropped off the train as we slowly passed. We stopped, he threw a switch, and then the train started in the other direction, with the engine pushing our dining cars, as we climbed up a slight grade and wound further up the mountain.
The deep pines began to yield to spruce, thin oak trees, and manzanita scrub, and from our higher position we could see distant ridges of blue mountain, and beyond them, faint white peaks further still. The light was lowering as we wound around the mountainside. On the way to Mount Shasta we were served appetizers of sauteed vegetables in filo dough, fancy breads and spiced applesauce, and we’d selected a dry Sauvignon Blanc which turned out quite pleasant.
As we passed through the twilight pines, a sadness came over me, as did the fancy that I could imagine our dog Tulip running and running through these wild woods, somehow happy and in the wild. Tulip died not long ago, and I miss her bitterly. Why these woods? Why did I picture her so? I don’t know, but somehow I saw her there, and felt her loss.
Our train wound higher and emerged on the west side of the mountain, and we found ourselves above our town of Mount Shasta, looking west where the sun in a huge sky had dropped below the Eddys mountain ridge. Looking down through flowering trees and shrub, we could see into the fields of Shastice Park, where we once walked Tulip and Lizzie, and now walk Lizzie alone.
The train slowed to a gentle stop, and paused for a few minutes, there on the mountainside above our town, and then slowly we reversed direction and started back along the way we’d come. The light in the sky was failing, the darkness gathered beneath the trees.
We passed a few outlying houses, lit windows looking warm and cheery in the woodland. In our dining car, piped music brought us saxophones and country ballads, and old songs like Love is a Many Splendored Thing.
Rosemary our waitress brought us warm dinners of salmon, asparagus, and new potatoes. The woods grew darker and darker, and our dining car grew louder as the wine bottles were emptied.
At the table just beyound the couple who had the same birthday was a young couple. He was probably a soldier, and had seemed kind of nervous back in the station. She was a tall and somewhat gawky girl, who seemed to think the world of him. Along the way, he left his seat and knelt on one knee in the aisle beside her. Opening a small box containing a ring, he was asking a question.
She said yes.
Deep in the dark woods, Rosemary brought desserts of cheesecake and berries in whipped cream, and coffee. We listened to the clack of the rails, watched the dark trees passing our window.
In the fullness of night, we pulled slowly into McCloud, past the illuminated hotels and into the station. “Good night,” we told Rosemary. “Good night,” we told the wine steward. “Good night,” we told our neighbors.
Good night. Good night. Good night.