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
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
|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,
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 clipped 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
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.
|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 , 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 Minot, North Dakota 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
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|