Riding the Rails
“Trains are wonderful…To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life.” Agatha Christie
Like many of you, Mack and I have been interested in taking a cross-country train trip for some time now. We’ve traveled by rail in Europe and Asia, but I haven’t been on a US train since 1968, when I turned 13 on an overnight trip from Houston to Jacksonville, Florida. (That particular trip scarred me for life when my sister Tammy and I had to go into the cargo car to feed our old dog, Socks, who happened to be “stored” right next to a couple of dearly departed cross-country corpses-a story for a different day). Anyhow, I’m not sure how this particular trip came about (I often forget the genesis(es) (genesiii?) of my “great ideas,” but a couple of months ago, we got on the horn with AMTRAK representative, Courtney and planned it out. I know that we wanted to go to Bellingham, Washington to visit Mel and Lana and we planned to take some of Mel’s massive tennis shoe collection to him in his new home. In fact, the shoe transport is probably what got us started on the train, now that I think about it. I know that we weren’t quite ready to fly again and another cross-country drive was just asking for divorce-at-this-late-stage. (We have taken three l-o-n-g car trips in the past few months. Let’s just say…I’m not sure who is worse - Mack as a driver or me as a passenger:). So, train it was. And we were really excited about it. The first thing to know is that, it’s not cheap. I was surprised that our “little trip” cost $3200, just for the train (I waited until yesterday to tell Mack that we could have flown first class for half that:). And, of course, it took 5 days each way. But, I’m all about the experience. And, it totally was an experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Jack dropped us off at the AMTRAK station in downtown Fort Worth a couple of Sundays ago. An hour or so later (no security, no TSA, no hassle), we boarded THE TEXAS EAGLE and headed out on the first leg of our journey - an overnight train to Chicago. While I was originally bummed about having to stay overnight in Chicago, it turned out to be a good “break” to sleep in a real bed and walk on solid ground about midway through. (We made the same stop, in reverse, on the way back). Our “roomette” was tiny, but comfortable. We opted for the roomette instead of the “bedroom” because it was half-price…our original quote being over $6000 for the trip with a bedroom - hmmmmm, no thanks. The potties and showers were across the hall, which didn’t turn out to be a big deal at all. The potties are exactly like those on an airplane and the shower/dressing rooms (separate from potties) were plenty big enough to bounce around in when the train took a sharp turn at an unfortunate moment:) The TEXAS EAGLE (train from Fort Worth to Chicago), I am sorry to say, was not nearly as nice as The EMPIRE BUILDER, which we took from Chicago to Everett, Washington. Food on the Eagle was a “doctored up” Swanson frozen dinner and a packaged brownie. A little better than food in coach on an airplane, but not much. Food on The Empire Builder was much better; served on real plates and white tablecloths, etc. and yummy desserts. While expectations for grand food does not necessarily have to be a part of every trip, since we paid a premium for it, I expected a bit better. Each car had our own attendant, who made up our bunks, brought ice and drinks, etc., and would have delivered meals to our room if we had so requested. Since we have had all 3 COVID shots and AMTRAK is “bullish” on masks, we felt comfortable eating in the dining car and enjoyed the change of scenery. I regret that, because of COVID, we were not able to visit with the other passengers. Learning about other people on a trip is usually one of my very favorite parts of travel. One of my ulterior motives was to check out train travel for a possible trip with the grands. While there were a couple of kids on short legs of the trip, I really don’t think that it’s something that our kids would enjoy. (The only small child we traveled with was a cute little girl - 5 years old - all dressed up in a fancy Christmas dress, on her way to Leavenworth to “see Santa.” The mom said that they lived near the train station and the little girl was fascinated with trains. So, as an extra Christmas treat, they caught the overnight train to Leavenworth, where I assume Santa is waiting out November before heading back to the North Pole to get ready for the big day). Our “roomette” was just perfect for daytime travel. Our roomy, comfy seats faced each other and had a little table that could be folded out for writing or playing games, etc. We played some mean gin rummy and passed the time by enjoying watching the world pass by from the picture window in our room. It felt safe to be able to close the glass door out into the hall and not to be in close contact with others. We were able to take off our masks in our own room (with the door closed), but masks were required any other time. And, AMTRAK enforced the mask mandate - describing, in detail, many times, how there was ONE WARNING, then expulsion from the train at the next stop and placement on the “no fly” and “no train/bus” list. I certainly wasn’t willing to test them on their resolve. There are some really cute little towns as you get “out west.” It was an adventure to pull into each station, making up stories about what the folks there do and how the town came to be. Somehow, our days were full. We read some, played cards, solved a few world problems, and were able to access YouTube videos and podcasts for most of the way. There was no wi-fi on the train, but we carried a Hot Spot, which worked most of the way. Mack continued working throughout the trip, and only dropped a few important calls:). Mack (always the gentleman) opted for the climb up to the top bunk, from whence he dubbed the last night of our journey “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Fortunately, he was enclosed in a cage-like apparatus, which kept him from tumbling out of the bunk on some of the more…shall we say…active….turns. Centrifugal force is real, folks. I was wonderfully comfortable down below, rocking with the train and watching the almost-full moon out of my window; waking up as we pulled into each of those really cute tiny train stations in Montana, North Dakota, etc. Between Everett, Washington and Bellingham, Washington (about 1-1/2 hours) we had to take an AMTRAK bus instead of the train. Bellingham is just a stone’s throw from Canada, and I guess that the original route goes through Canada. Of course, with COVID, Canada is not open, so we had to take the bus and stay on our side of the border. It was fine. As I said, we were kind of our own transportation unit. Busses, trains, automobiles… Bottom line, I really enjoyed the trip. Will it be our preferred mode of transportation in the future? No. But, I do think that I’d like to take another train trip in a couple of years. Maybe leaf-peeping in New England, or maybe up to Glacier. Five days (10 days, round trip) was a little too long. A two or three day trip would be just about right, I think. But again, I’m glad we did this trip. We are safely back home now. Last night, when I finally got into my own bed (there’s nothing as good as getting home, even if the trip has been fun), I was still rocking from the motion of the train. When I sit real still, I’m still a-rockin’. Don’t know how long that will go on - but it’s not bad…a little lasting souvenir.
PS…if you are thinking of taking a train trip, sign up on the AMTRAK app. I found out that, several times a year, they have a BOGO sale, which would have (obviously) cut the cost of the trip in half. That price seems much more reasonable to me – more in line with airplane travel.
Also, there are some good YouTube channels, with folks giving info on “do’s and don’ts” on AMTRAK. I found them really useful. So, be sure to check those out if you are thinking of a trip. (Just search for AMTRAK and several channels come up).