Thursday, December 22, 2016

Our Own Polar Express

For the first time in three days, my bed didn’t move underneath me last night.  No constant jostle, sway, bump, no shift, no lurch.  We just got back from a train trip east, first to visit our family of friends in Kentucky, then to visit my brother in Clifton Forge, Virginia. Two eastbound nights, Bellingham to Chicago, of train whistles, a perpetual drive, racing across the continent in the dark at 79 mph then slowing to a stop waiting for a freight train to pass. Three westbound nights on the train coming back.

Waiting for the train in Bellingham

We ate dinner on a table set with white table cloths, ordered steak and cod from amiable waiters standing legs astride to keep their balance as they took our orders. Our first dinner mates were a fit looking orthodontist and his silent 18 year old daughter, who were heading from Camano Island to Whitefish, Montana for a weekend of skiing. At each meal throughout the trip, we were seated across from two new travelers, exchanging travel stories and destinations. We learned that the treasure of Amtrak’s all American menu was found in their desserts, like their signature warm date-pudding cake with toffee pecan sauce. Mmmmmmm.

So near winter solstice, darkness descended early. We missed the views as our train climbed over the Cascades, our descent into the frozen orchards of eastern Washington, the flattening landscape as we crossed Idaho. It all whizzed unseen as we passed our first long winter night on Amtrak.

Still, the beds.  We had chosen luxury over necessity when we made our reservations for a “roomette” on the train.  The roomette promised us a private space with two facing seats by the window, bathroom down the hall. The car attendant came by in the evening and turned the seats into a set of bunk beds for the night, each made up with crisp white sheets and standard blue blankets. Perhaps “luxury” is an overreaching term here.  The top bunk was 20” wide, the bottom was 24”.  The top bunk included webbing clipping between the bed and the ceiling to grab onto if you roll out.

The first night I crawled into the upper bunk, so close to the ceiling that I couldn’t sit up, a space so small and windowless that I only lasted about ten minutes. “This isn’t going to work,” I called to Lynne, as motion sickness and claustrophobia immediately kicked up in my body. She generously agreed to switch.  She has proven to be the more stalwart traveler many times when we have been on trips, able to read while the car or the boat is moving, able to sit backwards and able to eat while I am struggling not to throw up.  Once again, Lynne saved the day, or this time, the night.

Traveling by Amtrak is considered “slow” travel, but only in comparison to flying. We had ruled out driving this distance. It would have taken us a week to get from Washington to Kentucky and Virginia. Lynne ruled out the abuses of flying: being wedged into seats where you are not able to cross your legs, having to deal with hordes of people going through security, racing between gate changes from one terminal to another. Many of our friends travel east by train, so we thought we’d give it a try.

Looking towards Glacier National Park from the train

The first morning I looked out at the still beauty of Glacier National Park from the comfort of the observation car, spotting elk tracks in the snow.  The landscape flattened in eastern Montana, which extended so far that we didn’t get into North Dakota until after dark.  The train stopped at lots of places, mostly small towns, letting off or picking up just a few passengers who were waiting on the platform with their luggage as we pulled up. Within minutes the train was easing away, slowly gaining speed and then notching it up again as we returned to open country.  

The Great Plains viewed through the observation car window


We happened to choose the coldest days of 2016 to cross the Great Plains. At our stop in Minot, North Dakota, the temperature was -13 degrees F at 10 pm.  The crew that met us there, bundled in heavy parkas and boots, tried to thaw out the waste pipe of the downstairs lavoratory that had frozen. During the night, the mercury dipped to -17 degrees F. That lavoratory remained frozen for the duration of our trip to Chicago. Still, the train keeps going in the dark, the cold, the snow, the wind. The attendant told us that if the temperature reaches -20 degrees F, the train has to slow down because the rails are too brittle to provide traction to stop. We were in a snowstorm by the time we arrived in Chicago. All airline travel into and out of Chicago had been cancelled, but the train got us there.

Our stalwart traveler

Seven days later, we stepped aboard a different train, the Cardinal, in Virginia, heading back to Chicago. In the middle of the night, the train thudded to a stop when it hit a tree. The engineer cut the power to our cars, so suddenly we were in silence and semi-darkness. We could hear muffled voices and saw flashlights outside in the dark as the crew cleared the tree and inspected the train for damage. After about 45 minutes, power was restored and we lurched forward again. Towards morning, the train stopped once more. This time, the track switch ahead was frozen, so again, the crew was out in the dark clearing our path north. When we left Chicago, we saw flames rising from a section of tracks, an alarming sight to see out the window. When we asked the waiter that night, he explained that when the track switches freeze, the crew thaws them by pouring kerosene on the tracks and lighting them with a match.

I had mentioned the word “luxury” earlier. The luxury of the Amtrak is old world.  We traveled the double decker Empire Builder to Chicago. The newest cars on that train are 25 years old, and some are 40 years old, making them older than the cheerful and informative waiter who served us on the way west. The equipment showed its age: the bathroom down the hall had an ornery door that didn’t latch easily, the lock on our room didn’t operate smoothly, the walls had scrapes from previous occupants.

We upgraded from a “roomette” to a “bedroom” for the final leg home, and were delighted to have a full length sofa on which to stretch out, as well as a private bath and shower in our room. Splurging on this upgrade rewarded us with larger bunks as well, so for the last two nights, I ascended the ladder to the top bunk and experienced train travel as I had hoped it would be. I was lulled by the constant motion, like a gentle massage to which I yielded. The bottom bunk was large enough that we nestled together in the morning, only to scramble up when we heard the dining car announce “Last call for breakfast!”

The hard life

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