I am nearing the end of an epic 3 week trip with Amtrak (FYI: they are not paying me or giving me discounts for writing this). Several months in, I am still trying to figure out exactly what to do with this blog; but my general rule for now is to write what I feel like writing about. So I will write about why I chose to take the train, and why I will likely do it again.
It’s Not a Plane
I go through phases of paranoia for various things, and right now I have a vague paranoia of flying. You can quote all the safety statistics you want. Like my boyfriend says: “I never said it was a logical fear.” Also, you have the airport lines and the security and all the current cost cuts that make planes feel more and more like a flying Greyhound Bus. So, if you’ve got the time, I think the train can be a viable option.
Be aware: while taking the train CAN be cheaper than flying, that’s definitely not the rule. It also takes, obviously, way way longer to get where you’re going. This trip, I bought coach passage on three of Amtrak’s most scenic routes (and one blah one) for a total of just under five hundred dollars. That’s pretty good, I think. It also ended up being roughly five full days of travel, and I can’t really sleep in the coach seats. So it can be an endurance test as well.
Comfort is Relative
So yeah, the seats. Coach seats are huge – like the size of first class plane seats, maybe even bigger – and they recline back pretty far AND have a little footrest you can extend. And on the scenic routes there is a lounge car with bigger windows, tables and outward-facing seats. You can purchase sleeper cars or “roommettes” (yeah what?) for more money. Like WAY more money. I would have paid several THOUSAND dollars for sleeping accommodations on the routes I took this trip. Oh, I guess you also get food included with the sleeping cars and it’s vaguely better than the stuff they serve otherwise. I mean maybe? It didn’t really look like it.
The food on the train is priced how you would expect it to be priced for a captive audience. There is also a dining car with sit down hot meals, but it didn’t really interest me. You can also take a bunch of your own food. I did that initially, but by the third trip I just didn’t feel like carrying all that around anymore. Turkey sandwiches and beer for me!
And also: regardless of whether you can sleep in the seats, it is essential that you take a neck pillow and some sort of blanket. They can sometimes go crazy with the air conditioning, and really, you need the neck pillow. Just trust me.
People Talk to Each Other
People talk about the Echo Chamber a lot right now, especially during this election season. When you travel the slow way through such a great expanse of territory, you’re going to meet a lot of different people. I hung out with a lot of different folks, and occasionally we even talked about the upcoming election. We kept it civil. I heard opinions and thoughts I had not considered before. It was refreshing.
One night on the Zephyr, I hung out for several hours with two young people in their mid twenties. We rambled about all sorts of stuff, and had some meaningful conversations about generational divides. The young woman asked me if I ever got resentful of Millennials and their fancy cameras calling themselves videographers after doing it for like a month. I said yeah sometimes, but people who are new to it can also bring fresh ideas; and I told her a few stories that illustrated that.
Later I sat silent and listened to her and the young man talk about growing up with the internet. Once she shared how excited she was to discover this “hot coffee dispensing machine” at one of the train stops. It was totally new to her, the idea that you could get one cup of hot coffee out of a machine. “Like a Starbucks only a machine. The coffee isn’t very good but it’s cool.” I realized, again, how different generations have totally different points of reference.
It’s Sort of Old School
Amtrak currently has this seventies patina that I kind of enjoy. Like flying, it can also remind one of a Greyhound Bus at times… but I think in a more charming way? I assume they are running on a pretty tight staff, so stuff like cleaning the bathrooms doesn’t happen very often. But yeah, get over it. The staff I have encountered are funny and sweet and long suffering. One cafe attendant played loud gospel in his car at all times, and sang along with it. I didn’t mind (he was a good singer). Another cafe guy announced some sort of bingo game for free non-alcoholic beverages down in the cafe car (he said he got lonely). He said “Spell my name, Alberto, with items you have with you.” So, A for aspirin, L for lipstick, B for bum knee – people got creative.
I ate once in the cafe car and met the young daughter of the assistant conductor. She was maybe eight years old, an outspoken tomboy, wearing a cardboard conductor hat like a Burger King crown. She really latched onto this charming young rock climbing guy sitting behind her. They had the type of stream of consciousness conversation that can happen between a chill adult and smart kid. She kept telling Rock Climber that he should get a job on the train. “You get all your meals for free!” She picked up her dessert. “You get cheesecake!” When her father and his colleagues came down for their meals, the topic turned to politics. The daughter kept coming up with made-up candidates and saying who she would vote for. She said, “If you were running, and you were running, and Sylvester the Cat were running, I would totally vote for… not the human.” I gave her internal spirit fingers on that one.
Sometimes people along the route wave to the train. That’s cute. We also got mooned several times. The first time I saw it was on the Empire Builder, the route that goes along the northern part of the country from Chicago to Portland. Two older dudes were in a boat in the middle of a mountain lake. One guy was standing up with his back to us, bending over slightly, pants down. His friend sat, holding his fishing pole, laughing his head off. The whole picturesque scene could have been painted by Norman Rockwell (and I wish it had been). I thought it was adorable.
On some of the trains, Amtrak partners with the Park Service to provide historic narration and even entertainment in the lounge car. On the Empire Builder, we had an acoustic country trio playing some really nice tunes. On the eastbound route of the Zephyr, we had a fantastic narrator named Jack. Jack must have been about eighty years old, with solid historical knowledge, firm opinions and a perfect Western grandpa deadpan delivery. He warned us about the possibility of moonings: “Every now and then you’ll see someone showing us his backside. But it’s a little chilly for that kind of activity today.”
You Look Out the Window At Your Country
I’ve done a fair amount of traveling outside of this country, but not a lot within the borders. For various reasons, now seems like the right time for me to do that.
I told my young train companions that I liked looking out the windows at the country. The young woman piped up immediately: “But that just makes me angry though! Because I want to get out and wander around. And really see it.”
She’s right. And I think I might do more of that.