A few weeks ago, my wife Jacqueline and I traveled on the California Zephyr—an Amtrak Train running from Chicago to Reno–with three other couples: Fiddlin’ Pete & Kathryn, Scott & Pam, and Kris & Karen. We called this journey the Liberty Train, with the goal of playing music across the western states.

Amtrak didn’t know we were coming.

Most all of us on this journey had been friends for nearly 40 years. We met in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where we either grew up and went to college, or married someone who did.

Fiddlin’ Pete and I have played music together through most of these years. When we were in our twenties, he and I hopped freight trains together. The most memorable was the ride we took across the Great Divide from Missoula, Montana to Washington State. En route we would stage fake fistfights in our open boxcar for the waiting cars we would pass at intersections.

During this journey Pete reminded me of crossing an area called “Moon Canyon”, so-called because of the river rafters who would drop their pants and moon the passing freight trains. We had that affection bestowed upon us as the train roared above canyons that dropped thousands of feet below the trestle before heading into a mile long cavernous tunnel to get to the other side.

Also on board with us on that ride was Dubious, a beautiful dog with golden hair and black markings on the tips of her ears, tail and all four paws.

I got Dubious in a dream. One night I dreamt that I was going to get a dog. The next day I walked down to the local bookstore and shared the dream with a friend who ran the place. A young couple overheard my conversation and said they said they just gotten a puppy. They also mentioned that they were about to leave for Los Angeles. The next day I got a call from my friend at the bookstore, telling me to come on down and get my dog. Sure enough, the young couple had realized they weren’t able to take a puppy with them on their trip, so they passed her onto me. They had named her Doobie after the Doobie Brothers or the slang word for a joint. I called her Dubious as in doubtful. It stuck.


Fiddlin’ Pete can calm a raging storm with his bow! When we walked the tracks to hop a boxcar in the freight-yards of Missoula, Montana, a Yard Bull or railroad cop came running up and told us to get out of the yard. Pete asked him if he would like to hear a fiddle tune before we left. To our amazement the yard bull said yes. After listening to a 10-minute version of Cumberland Gap and the Orange Blossom Special, he pointed towards one of the trains and said, “That’s the train you want to ride. Get in the third card over. Make sure you hammer a wooden wedge into the side of the open door so it doesn’t slam shut when the train starts to roll. And whatever you do–don’t tell anyone I gave you permission to ride.”

That trip was the start of our lifelong fascination with trains. And the Liberty Train trip was a way of going back to our train-hopping roots. (Albeit in a more comfortable fashion. This time, we bought tickets for a sleeper room).

The sleeper room (so-called, I assume, because that’s about all you can do in there) is roughly four feet by eight feet. There are two sofas facing each other with left about a foot to spare for personal belongings. Lastly, there were two large windows to look out onto the world.

At bedtime the two sofas folded together into one bed. An upper bunk dropped from above with a foot and half between you and the ceiling.

To pull your pants off took a fair amount of work. Trying to pull them back on when you had to go the bathroom in the middle of night was near impossible. In the old days of open boxcars, you’d just hang out the open door and let it rip.

Our car was number 531. It was under the charge of Willy the Porter. He made it very clear that he didn’t want anyone but him opening and closing the beds. No explanation why. It was just one of Willy’s rules. Willy ran a tight ship–or in this case, a tight sleeper car. It was his little fiefdom.

It was Willy who first informed us of another rule: it is “against the protocols” of Amtrak to allow live music on the train because it might offend somebody. Who that “somebody” was, he couldn’t say. All we knew was that somebody was going to get pissed off and that somebody was Willy, so we did our best to humor him.

It’s important to note that when we first boarded the train Jacqueline and I discovered that all of our friends had sleepers on the upper level. Our room was the only one on the lower lever, which meant that our dream of sharing this train ride with our friends was in danger.

I talked to Willy about changing, but all of the sleepers on the second level were booked. So I approached an elderly couple in the sleeper across from Chris and Karen, and once I explained our predicament they graciously agreed to change rooms with us.

Willy told us we could stay in their room until Denver. At that point somebody else would be boarding the train and would be given the room. Somewhere between Chicago and Denver, though, Willy decided he liked us. He either negotiated with or simply told the other folks who had reserved our room that they would be sleeping in our old room on the lower level. Fiefdom indeed.


One of the many benefits of a sleeper car is that you get three square meals a day.

Our waiter during mealtime was an elderly African American man who had worked for Amtrak for as long as Fiddlin’ Pete and I had been playing together. He had the most amazing ability to walk down the aisle of a moving train, carrying plates of food and drinks without spilling a drop. His flat footed feet shuffled outward, while his knees served as a shock absorber to prevent his body from tumbling.

Since he was doing all the work I assumed that he was the “Willy the Porter” version of the dining car. He laughed at the suggestion and turned his head toward a younger man counting a wad of money in his left hand. “He’s the boss.”


It’s important to note that if you disobey the orders of any of the Willy the Porters it can be quite serious. The first time they give you a warning. The second time it’s more like a scolding. The third time you’re booted off the train.

The first day we behaved ourselves. When nightfall came, though, Fiddlin’ Pete and I went into the lounge car separately with our instruments to play some music.

Pete scouted it out first and it looked good. I followed. We asked some folks if they wanted to hear some music. Everyone wanted us to play. So we straddled our legs over the top of a couple of chairs.

Just like in that freight yard we played a couple quick fiddle tunes that got everybody in the mood. We began to mix it up with some old sing-a-long train songs like the Wabash Cannonball, Rock Island Line, and—appropriately enough—the California Zephyr. People gathered around and sang along with us. An elderly man there with his wife knew a lot of songs by Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford and soon began to lead us all. Later he told us that singing on the California Zephyr made their trip.

Within our growing circle in the lounge car were folks traveling from Japan, Australia, Germany, and all parts of the United States. A young Australian man even joined in with a hand drum. Folks from other countries seemed very enchanted hearing live music. From their comments and looks in their eyes this was the America they were looking for—raw and rebellious.

But it wasn’t long until we saw Willy the Porter’s head pop up from the stairway coming up from the lower level. I was waiting for him to say something, but he just stood and listened with a big smile.

Around that time another crewman on the train by the name of Brian came weaving down the aisle through the lounge car with a great big grin on his face. He quickly came back with a digital movie camera and filmed us as we played the Orange Blossom Special. (You can see his butt blocking our camera:

We called it a night around 11 o’clock.

After breakfast the next day we sat in the lower level of the lounge car. We were outside of Denver and heading up the grade into the Rocky Mountains. We were beginning to see hillsides of dying timber, devastated by the pine beetle.

Brother Scott’s birthday was in a couple of days, and his wife Pam wanted to celebrate early by giving Scott a few gifts. It soon became apparent why. There were a clacker, wooden block, jaws harp, and a triangle.

Scott, who owns and runs a small manufacturing firm called Cords Set, has always wanted to play music. The Liberty Train was his chance.

When Fiddlin’ Pete and I pulled out our instruments, though, the Willy the Porter of the lounge car came right up and said, “I heard that you guys were playing music on the upper deck last night. It is the general policy of Amtrak to not allow people to play music on the train. I’m sorry but you can not play music on the train today.”
“Not tonight either.”
“Not tomorrow either.”
“Is this rule written down somewhere, so we can read it?”
“Yes. It’s in the book.”
“Where’s the book?”
“I don’t have the book.”
“Can you go get the book?”
“It’s final. You can’t play music on the train today unless the conductor says otherwise.”

The Liberty Train had just been derailed.

Scott was left standing there with a handful of percussion instruments he wasn’t allowed to play. Not one to be deterred, Scott came up with a plan. We’d get off the train when it made a ten minute stop at Grand Junction, CO, and play music at the station. And that is what we did.

Soon Fiddlin’ Pete and I were serenading a father with his baby daughter outside of car number 532. Scott danced around like Bojangles with that triangle in his hand.

Later that day a young kid came running up to us and looked at Scott, as if he’d seen a rock star, and said, “Aren’t you the guy who played the triangle?”

Our journey ended in Millpond, CA, at the music festival there. You can watch a clip of us playing here:

On this journey I wrote a song to not only honor the California Zephyr, but more specifically to honor the man who gave me the boots I was wearing on this trip. His name is Olen Edwards. The verses to his song, My Old Friend, tell the story.

Listen to the song

My Old Friend

I’ve walked the world over
In these boots of my old friend
From Boston, Massachusetts
Back on home again
From the State of Oklahoma
To Chicago on a plane
On the California Zephyr
To Reno on the train

My old friend. My old friend.
It won’t be long until I’m with you again

In these boots of Ostrich leather
On Sunday he would preach
In small country churches
From the pulphit he would teach
The road to salvation
With a guitar on his back
On the California Zephyr
Heading down the railroad tracks

My old friend. My old friend.
It won’t be long until I’m with you again

These boots are anointed
That’s what his wife said
When she gave them to me
While he lay in bed
In a veterans home
Where old warriors go
On the California Zephyr
Taking me back home

My old friend. My old friend.
It won’t be long until I’m with you again

Size 11B
The same size I wear
When I put them on
Felt like they were always there
In moments of decision
Looking down I hear him say
On the California Zephyr
On this guitar I play

My old friend. My old friend.
It won’t be long until I’m with you again

On the California Zephyr
In these boots of my old friend

Words & music by Larry Long