The Long, Very Long, Train Ride

Elevated Train in NYC

I think that I know where my interest in train travel originated. My first memories as a young child are of the three family house in which we (my mother, my grandparents, and I) lived in the Bronx. We were just a half block from what was then named the Third Avenue El (elevated), now called the IRT Third Avenue Line, and there were two big treats as I recall.

The first was hearing and then seeing fire trucks roar into our neighborhood to put out fires on the elevated tracks. The passenger cars on the train threw off a lot of sparks, now and then causing a small blaze on the wooden track supports for the rails. The fires never lasted a long time, but the resulting cacophony of cars, fire trucks and people was exciting and never got old. These events convinced that little boy (me) that I should be a fireman when I grew up. Perhaps if I had continued to live in that part of the Bronx, I would have become one – I so much wanted to drive a hook and ladder truck.

The second big treat was taking a ride on the Third Avenue El. Generally, we were dressed nicely for such a trip, and I would get all wired up as we walked the short way to the train stop. I am sure that I was almost impossible to be around as we walked up the stairs to the platform. Mind the gap? Not me. I kept wondering what it would be like to be down in the pit with the railcars hurtling toward what would certainly be my demise. Perhaps once or twice my grandmother or my mother gave thought to letting go of my hand, just to see what might happen.

Janet and I have been talking about a major train trip (west coast) for several years, and in mid-March it finally happened. We flew to Chicago. Our destinations were Seattle, San Francisco and back to Omaha riding The Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle), The Coast Starlight (Seattle to San Francisco) and the California Zephyr (San Francisco to Omaha). Like that little guy more than 60 years ago, I was wired.

AmtrakAmTrak Zephyr

The first part of the trip was not without a bit of excitement. Our friends at Southwest Airlines thought they had lost Janet’s case. How do you lose luggage on a direct flight, we asked? Well as we learned 45 minutes later, the bag had only been misplaced (what’s that?), and our hosts blamed the TSA for the snafu (we blame the TSA for a lot these days, bad weather, bad breath…). Any way. There was no apology but we did get a $50 voucher, a reasonable recovery from a mistake.

I love taxi and Uber drivers. Many are a lot more interesting than many of the people I see day in and day out (sorry). Our Uber driver from Midway to Union Station was Syedalay, a most interesting chap. His father was a pilot for Pakistan Airlines (PIE) in the early days after the split. A few plane adventure stories were told. Janet and I just listened and thought, oh my. Syedalay originally came to Long Island from Pakistan, and had moved to Chicago only three years ago. He has three children and we heard a lot about them as well.

Union Station in Chicago is a cool place, and is in the process of getting much nicer. It has a great hall with a very high ceiling of glass. The stone carved walls and support structures give it a very classy look, yet not stuffy. It is fun to walk around, check out the shops and eateries, and make your way to the platform when your train is called.

Train travel is different. While I understand the need to move around the country quickly, plane travel can be very boring. Flight delays, flight diversions, passenger ejections, punch-ups, bag searching, TSA pat downs, and the child that won’t stop screaming all have their place in that world, but something is missing. If you really want to see our country (or another country), really interact with fellow passengers, and really kick back and relax, get on a train for somewhere. And, if you take a really long trip, you will see a bit of everything.

A few suggestions for those of you who are considering a trip. First, if you expect to arrive on time and it is a long trek, then you have recently hit your head on something. You will be late, but the delay may well be worth it. The first leg of our trip, Union Station in Chicago to King Street Station in Seattle was scheduled at 45 hours, give or take (2,206 miles). A big mudslide in Montana led to a 15 hour delay. So, while we missed some of our planned sightseeing in Seattle, we saw stunning views in western Montana that we would normally miss because it was night. Some of the Amtrak staff told us they had never seen these views.

Second, the sleeping rooms are nice, but very cramped space wise. Your big tent that you camp in is roomier. And, you can poop and shower at the same time (the commode and the shower are in the same space). So, I suggest that you get off the train for one or two nights of the trip and snag a hotel. The trip will be a bit longer and more expensive, but you will have more fun.

Third, as soon as you stow your gear in a sleeping rooms or in coach, get on down to the observation car, (and, if you are going from Seattle to Los Angeles, run down to the parlor car it’s a real treat). Many people who travel on trains are fascinating. The former science reference librarian at the University of Wisconsin – Madison had great stories about faculty and students. I met two Amish guys who were talking smack to each other. I met a turkey farmer from Provo Utah who told me about how mechanization of his business has made things better, and worse. He’s a Republican, but told me that President Trump scares him. He has a congenital heart defect, and is worried about health insurance. Also, enjoy the views. The mountain and river scenery is incredible. We even got mooned by two dudes near Grandby, Colorado.

Parlor Car

Fourth, get off of the train and walk around when train officials announce that you can. You will have to walk around the smoke clouds from those who run off the train at any stop allowed to smoke a cigarette. The two Amish guys mentioned above had really cool pipes. Get back on the train on time. Some passengers were late returning to the train in Whitefish, Montana. We did not wait for them.

Fifth, check out the very, very cool train stations. There is a lot of train station refurbishing going on these days, and these former transportation palaces are the scene of architectural designs that can only be found in a few places in the U.S. these days.

Sixth, be observant. After the first night of travel I woke up just west of Minot North Dakota. It was deer, donkey, and snow along with farm fields of oil wells, oil storage facilities, and wind farms. Later on we passed near the largest wind farm in Montana.

Finally, take some interesting reading material. Yes, you will get talked out. The drinking and the card games will get old too. My book for the trip was Ghost Map, a fascinating story about the effort to eliminate Cholera in nineteenth century London. It’s a reasonably quick read, if you like science, especially epidemiology, buy it and read it.

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