A Travellerspoint blog

Around the Nation In 25 Days

This is the original unedited version...a trimmed version ran in the Chicago Trib on March 27


“I think…” my friend, Ted Jacobi, paused as he collected his thoughts, gazing out the window of our train, “I think I am falling in love with Milwaukee,” The train we were aboard, the Empire Builder, is a massive double-decker train that runs daily from Chicago to Seattle. Nothing in Ted’s tone of voice suggested that this was a joke of any variety. It was January 2nd Ted, as well as another compatriot, Wicks Barkhausen, and I had been aboard this train no more than an hour since we departed from Chicago’s Union Station.
By evening, we had reached St. Paul, and throughout the night we continued north, rumbling through central and northwestern Minnesota. We had been on the train for almost twelve hours; still only a small portion of this enormous route, and already the train had incessantly rocked me into a numb mental state. The surrounding area was experiencing a cold snap, even for this part of the country, as temperatures dipped to 24 degrees below zero in some places. The Empire Builder barreled on despite these conditions, but there was little Amtrak could do to resolve the cold temperature inside the train cars—the heating system simply could not keep up. The temperature plummeted in our coach car, so much so that it sent the three of us frantically digging through our backpacks for our warmest cold weather gear. I fell asleep that first night on the train, with my winter hat pulled down tight and only my face exposed, watching my own breath and experiencing a physical numbness to accompany my mental state.
About a month prior to our departure, Ted, Wicks and I bought a thirty-day rail pass from Amtrak, running about $570 and allowing us to travel anywhere in the United States, so long as we did not exceed twelve different train ‘legs’. We were embarking on an epic twenty-six state, twenty-five day barnstorming train campaign around the perimeter of the United States. The three of us, all seniors at DePauw University, had the month of January off of school.
We conjured up this trip, over a year in the making, with vigorous planning: thoroughly researching train schedules as well as the attractions of our twelve extended stops off of the train. Our final stop was slated for Syracuse, New York, and from there we planned to take our last train back home Chicago, thus completing a loop—or “victory lap,” as we had coined it-- around the country.
It was a trip that required extensive research, but more than anything, it also required a great deal of luck. There are no guarantees that Amtrak will run according to schedule, if anything, it would safer to guarantee the opposite. Amtrak rarely makes the news, with the consistent exception being the ‘train from hell’ headline about a train that arrives a casual day late to its destination. A late arrival or lengthy delay would be costly, if not fatal, to our journey. For our monthly passes only allowed us to buy specific tickets on trains, we were not allowed to freelance our journey at our own leisure.
Many of our friends and families had understandable, legitimate concerns about the trip. They claimed that even if the stars did align, and Amtrak managed to run everything correctly and timely, that the three of us would still be returning to Chicago on the first possible flight out of Seattle, cursing the slow, methodical, and outdated mode of rail travel.
Perhaps the only thing that outweighed this external skepticism was our trio’s enthusiasm. Our first hour on the train consisted of abundant smiles and backslapping as we commended ourselves for conceiving this great journey. Many of our friends would use this month off to tour Europe, and yet we were paying a tribute to our great nation, and we boldly maintained that our patriotism could not be matched anywhere within that nation’s borders. As much as American identity is linked to the open road, we felt a similar romantic attachment to train travel, and the idea of this trip harnessed that aura completely.
Additionally, we did have some passionate supporters in our corner, including DePauw’s President, who had sent his blessing via text message prior to our start, telling us to keep our eyes and minds open, demanding updates of our travels, and concluding with “Good luck, sirs!” This message had only added to our enthusiasm, and Ted’s comment about Milwaukee was an obvious result of this unbounded excitement.
In the back of my mind, however, even I could not suppress some remote feelings of doubt. It was a hell of a long time to spend in a train sleeping half upright in a forty-five degree coach seat, and an even longer duration of time to spend with the same two people. I was fairly confident, that a stiff dose of the Great Plains, specifically our ride across the barren plains of North Dakota, would quell much of these early displays of enthusiasm as the thirty-hour train ride slowly eroded away our high spirits.
Surprisingly, despite the inclement weather conditions, we rolled through the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Forest and arrived at Essex, Montana right on time the following evening. Essex, a ‘town’ of maybe thirty people during high season, is a tourist attraction for train buffs and honeymooners, but not much else. After a rejuvenating stop in Essex, which consisted of hiking, doing laundry, and hanging out at a local tavern, we again boarded the train a day later, this time destined for Seattle.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of train travel, for better or worse, is the opportunity to socialize while you travel. We learned this fact quickly. There are plenty of spaces, whether it be the dining or lounge or observation cars, to make conversation with complete strangers, and of course, more than enough time to get acquainted with just about everyone on board. Fortunately, the people we had met on the train had been more than friendly thus far, despite their generally rough appearance.
A trend we noticed and held true throughout the trip was how the demographics of the train usually matched what you’d expect to find in these states we were moving through. For example, the people we had talked with in North Dakota and Minnesota were mostly white blue-collar workers, farmers or ice fishermen. In Montana, we sat next to a young Native American couple headed to Seattle.
The two were very friendly and talkative, as we discussed sports and coffee in Seattle, and they spoke about their Indian reservation, which they referred to as the “rez”. Apparently, from what we had gathered, the two had been forced off the “rez” for an incident involving the mix of alcohol and automobiles, and hence were headed for Seattle for other opportunities. The Native American man hadn’t appeared to address this issue, for he intermittently pulled a flask out of his coat and took swigs from it throughout our conversation.
Our stops were usually fairly brief in each of our selected cities, so we made a concerted effort to jam pack as much sightseeing and culture into our stays. In Seattle, we were greeted by a light mist, before walking to the Space Needle to have lunch. Later on we dodged flying fish at the famed Pike’s Place Market, and ate some quality seafood that night.
We felt it would be sacrilegious to not get coffee in Seattle, so in the morning, we grabbed our first espresso at a local coffee place. The cashier gave us strict instructions on how to drink the espresso, “Within ninety seconds of it being brewed,” he said, for the top part of the foam or beans or whatever starts evaporating and thus spoils the blend (of course). He then eyed us to make sure we did it correctly. It didn’t make a difference though; no matter how fast I drank it, there was no denying that it was far worse than the stale Amtrak coffee I had been consuming in the previous days. Wicks had the most sense out of the three of us, and ordered a more conservative latte instead.
We sat at the Seattle station, waiting for our boarding call, staring down a thirty-six hour ride before we stepped off onto land again. As we sat, a collective, perpetual silence hung amongst the three of us. Wicks, in between sips of his coffee, broke the silence, and with a half grimace and a half smile, “Well,” he said, “back on the boat.”
This leg of our journey, from Seattle to Santa Barbara, would be the longest time we spent continuously on the train. But, by the time we had climbed aboard, we were over-caffeinated and encouraged by the smoothness of the trip thus far, and the group morale remained at an unexpectedly high level. We were looking forward to the promised scenic views of this route as we winded along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. This train, the Coastal Starlight, also offered a daily wine tasting in the ‘parlor’ car; and we immediately signed up and forked over the ten dollars for the event.
The wine tasting consisted of more socializing: in this case, Ted, Wicks and I, were the only people under the age of fifty. One Canadian couple were particularly friendly, and they were celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary by taking the train to Los Angeles before subsequently flying out to some remote Pacific island for a couple of weeks.
We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the tasting came with complementary cheese and crackers, which was a nice break from the microwaveable turkey sandwiches we had been consuming religiously on the train. Our Canadian counterparts did seem mildly offended when we devoured all of our cheese before the first glass of Pinot was poured. Nonetheless, the tasting was a success, as the parlor car was comfortable and spacious, with big leather seats and expansive views of the Oregon and Northern California countryside. After Ted failed to talk our hostess, Nanette, into giving us a free bottle of Greg Norman’s brand, we signed up for the next tasting the following day and returned to our less glamorous seats in coach.
Each train, we quickly learned, has its own personality, and this one exuded a distinct West Coast vibe, as it was diverse in its demographics and rowdy in its character. We met many people on this train, who were quite talkative. This included a Marine; of whom we inquired as to what he did exactly in the military. “I kill people.” He responded straight faced, and then continued to converse with us in a most friendly and sociable manner over the next hour.
That night was our most eventful aboard any train on the trip. Alcohol is sold on Amtrak trains, although the price is set high so as to discourage abuse. This price, however, did little to hinder the blood alcohol content of the many of the passengers—they bought so much booze that night that the train ran out of alcohol to sell around midnight.
About every two hours, there were designated cigarette breaks, where the train would stop at a station for about ten minutes, allowing passengers to get off and stretch their legs. Ted, Wicks and I would get off at each of these stops to walk around and get some fresh air. As the night wore on, the smoke at these stops eventually smelled less and less of tobacco but carried a more suspicious stench of marijuana.
At about three in the morning, I awoke from my half-sleep to the sound of someone sprinting down the aisle. I had drawn the aisle seat for this ride, which the three of us took turns avoiding since people walk around throughout the night on trains and, with it rocking back and forth, seated passengers are constantly clipped by flailing hands and legs of those in the aisle fighting to retain their balance. As I tried to get my bearings, I saw a longhaired man wearing sunglasses, acting belligerent and running down the aisles yelling obscenities, evidently on a more potent substance than marijuana. “Hey!” He hollered from the front of the car, to nobody specifically. “When are we getting to L.A.? Why ain’t we in L.A. yet?” We were over eighteen hours from Los Angeles. At the next stop in Chico, California, the conductors booted him off the train, turning him over to two police officers at the station. Needless to say, the three of us felt somewhat relieved to have survived the night unscathed and get off the ‘boat’ in sunny Santa Barbara the following afternoon.
After a great night and day stop in Santa Barbara, California, we dropped into Oceanside, California for the weekend. Aside from the gorgeous beaches, the town of Oceanside left plenty to be desired. Oceanside is one of the closest towns to Camp Pendleton-- an enormous marine base -- and thus the town caters to the military population. The three of us checked in to the lowly Dolphin Inn, where the doorknob literally fell off into my hand when I turned the key in our door. It became rapidly apparent through the course of the night that most of the Dolphin’s customers were paying by the hour as well as by the night. After showering Sunday morning in our grimy bathroom, the three of us agreed that we were all looking forward to getting back to the sanctity of the train, our mobile home, which we all felt more familiar and comfortable with than the West Coast in general.
Shortly after leaving Los Angeles, destined for Tucson, the train came to a sudden halt. This is not unusual. Often, Amtrak trains have to wait for freights, as their companies actually own the rail. Shortly thereafter, our conductor came over the intercom, “It seems there has been an earthquake of an unknown magnitude in the area.” He announced, “We’re going to have to wait and get the tracks checked out before continuing on.” Thankfully, the train resumed about an hour later, but Ted and I couldn’t help but wonder of the consequences if a more serious quake had struck while we were rolling down the track.
Sleeping in a coach seat is a challenge. In all, we would spend six overnights on the train. Ted had the most success sleeping at night, and Wicks the least. Wicks sported bags under his eyes for the majority of the trip. When I did finally fall asleep, I usually awoke in a thick sweat, with a stiff neck. I occasionally felt motion sickness, which made our nickname of the ‘boat’ for the train all the more appropriate. More rewarding than the rest you gain from sleeping, however, is the time that passes while you are asleep. There was no better feeling than waking up in the middle of the night and realizing that two hours had evaporated quickly and painlessly.
We held a similar mindset towards dining on the train. The food we bought from Amtrak was overpriced and sub par. Additionally, we weren’t that hungry because we never burned many calories by lounging in our seats all day. But eating was something to do, and that made it valuable to us. We managed to stretch our meals into hour-long ordeals, and this was useful in passing the time.
After leaving California we would spend the next week in Tucson, Arizona and then Austin, Texas, where Wicks and I each have a set of grandparents residing in, respectively. In Tucson, we went horseback riding with a female guide, who unbeknownst to us, was apparently running an illegal business. At the end of our trail ride, our lead wrangler became probably the first person in the 21st century to be pulled over on horseback by two sheriff squad cars, with red and blue lights ablaze. The officers were rather gruff with her, saying, “We’ve had our eye on this here operation of yours for years, and you should know that it is completely illegal to lead tours into a national forest without a commercial permit.” They let her off with a formal warning, not before holding up the entire group for about forty-five minutes. To us, it felt like the lawlessness of the west was still somewhat prominent.
In any regard, Austin and Tucson provided a pleasant break from the lifestyle aboard the train, where we were now pampered with three course meals and beds, and had the luxury of getting exercise on a daily basis.
We boarded the Sunset Limited train in San Antonio on January 18th, where we would spend a night in New Orleans. New Orleans exceeded our expectations, despite it being a Tuesday night, as Bourbon Street was abuzz, fueled by excessive ‘hurricane’ consumption and talk about the upstart Saints, who were coming off a blowout win over the Arizona Cardinals. We hit the town at about 5 p.m and the first place we stopped had loud music and a mechanical bull. One inebriated middle-aged man took up a keen interest in Ted, and bought him several drinks before his friends finally corralled him.
On Wednesday morning, we left our hotel and rented a car to drive to Atlanta, for a large part of the tracks along this route had been closed for the month of January due to track renovation. By Wednesday night, we were off the highway and back in our rightful place atop the rails, where we were speeding towards our nation’s capital, Washington D.C.
Late Wednesday night, Wicks and I sat silent and bored across from each other at a table in the lounge car, when abruptly we heard and felt a vicious series of thuds directly underneath us. “Geez,” Wicks said, with suddenly wide eyes. “What in the hell was that?” I shook my head, having little idea what could have produced such serious bumps to the massive train. There had been a derailing of an Amtrak train in Arkansas just a week before, and the bumps we had just felt were unsettling. Behind us, a train conductor sat a nearby table. “Deer,” she said, without glancing up from her solitaire game. “That’s the sound it makes when we run one over.” It was hard to imagine what kind of force was behind these massive trains, but this was the most vivid example we had witnessed on the trip. “My god,” Wicks said, “That thing must have gotten absolutely shredded.”
The next day, we took full advantage of the numerous attractions in D.C., touring the Capitol Building and National Archives, as well as the Lincoln memorial. This stop had sentimental significance to us, as our trip was coming to its conclusion, and we felt this was the culmination of our tribute.
In the most recent Amtrak magazine aboard the trains, Vice President Joe Biden, a known Amtrak enthusiast who is often talks to fellow passengers aboard his many commutes from Wilmington, Delaware to D.C., had graced the cover. When we arrived at the Capitol building, we were briefly held up by the Vice-Presidential motorcade arriving near the Senate chamber. Biden, dressed in a business suit, got out and strolled with his convoy of secret service. Ted remarked, enthusiastically, “How much would Biden just love this trip?” Wicks and I agreed whole-heartedly, but none of us were brave enough to try to yell something to get his attention.
The three of us continued on from D.C. to Princeton University, New York City, and Colgate University in upstate New York, before taking our last ride back to Chicago. In Syracuse, New York, we lit up celebratory cigars on the train platform as we awaited our final train. We felt triumphant, and yet at a loss for words and meaning.
It was difficult to comprehend that we had taken in so many different cultures, and so many diverse people, all within the same country. It was as if we had conquered an entire country, witnessing every inch of ground accessible by train, and yet it had passed so fast that our memories of each place had blurred. It was an odd feeling, to have viewed everything so tediously and thoroughly, and yet not be able to fathom and appreciate what we had just done. As we stood at the platform, having run out of things to say, Wicks broke the silence. “I guess the maps don’t lie. It is all out there.” If anything, this trip had confirmed that.

Posted by kchapman88 09:17 Archived in USA Tagged train amtrak

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