This piece started life as a blog post but as usual, when it came time to submit my weekly gibberish to the newspapers, I wasn’t ready with what I was working on and was not in the mood to finish it. I grabbed what I had written for part 3 of my weblog series, cleaned it up and removed some stuff about farts and scratching myself. If you read on, You will probably figure out where I did that.
There is so much more to say about train travel but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to putting it on here. It’s not all fun; long periods of staring out the window wishing I had something to munch on. I also missed talking to strangers about their lives, something I always did on previous train trips. Now everyone, including myself, have their noses stuck in a cell phone, tablet or laptop watching a movie or paging through endless and mostly mindless Facebook posts. I’m afraid we are being turned into a nation of Mark Zuckerbergs and it bothers me, not for myself so much but for our grandchildren.
My wife, Susie and I along with my daughter and granddaughter recently undertook a train trip from Chicago to Seattle to see our newest granddaughter, Audrey Rose. That means that this week’s drivel is coming to you from my son’s backyard in Washington State’s Emerald City. Traveling cross country by train on one of AMTRAK’s western routes is no longer a common experience so in keeping with this column’s spirit of public service, I thought it would be nice to touch briefly on the subject for those of you who will not be taking to the tracks anytime soon.
If you do decide to try cross country train travel -and I highly recommend it – your first decision after choosing a destination is to decide whether to purchase a coach seat ticket or pay the extra cost of a sleeper berth. The latter will provide you with free meals as well as a seat and a bed in a private compartment while the former forces you to pay for your meals in the dining car or bring your own food, something that requires a fair amount of logistical planning.
Choosing a coach seat also means spending one or two nights in a chair in a very public train car. During the day, the seat is very comfortable with lots of legroom and big windows that allow you to watch the world go by. It can also be reconfigured to provide a bit of comfort for sleeping; there are built in leg rests and a footrest. The seat also reclines but in the end, it’s still a chair and not a bed. The coach car is also not private and it seems like someone is always moving up and down the aisles and the pneumatically operated doors between the cars make a lot of noise.
On the other hand, the beds in the sleeping cars, while also serving as seats during the days, are enclosed in tiny compartments, providing enough privacy to get your pajamas on. That is why, if you can afford it at all, I recommend reserving a sleeper berth when you are putting together a cross country train trip.
Having traveled by train before, I knew that when we made the reservations for our just completed trip from Chicago to Seattle but I still went with a Coach seat because of the cost. I justified the decision because we were splitting our trip into 2 segments, breaking up the 3 day, 2 night trip by getting off the train for 3 days a little over half way into the trip at Glacier National Park. I figured anyone could handle sleeping one night while sitting up. I wasn’t totally wrong but I wasn’t totally right either.
We tried to prepare for getting a good night’s rest in our seat, bringing blanket-like afghans and pillows. That was one small step for mankind but there was nothing we could do about the fact that it would also help immensely to be small in stature, supple and arthritis-free when trying to curl up in a reclining seat. Neither Susie nor I fit the bill in any of these categories.
An added difficulty is trying to get comfortable in a seat while another person is trying to do the same thing in the seat right next to you. Luckily, that person was my soulmate; thus eliminating the worry of accidentally touching a complete stranger in some inappropriate manner in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine what I would do if I had to sleep next to a stranger. The best solution, although still not ideal, is having an empty seat next to you. This is not as difficult as it might seem. Individual seats are not reserved and a surprising number of people use the train to get from town to town so folks are always getting on or off at one of the numerous stops along the way, freeing up their seat or seats. A large group traveling from Chicago got off the train late in the evening in St. Paul, Minnesota freeing up several rows of seats. Seizing the moment, as it were, I left Susie in her seat and staked a claim to an empty row.
A few people got on the train at the same time and that’s when I spread out on the row, laying a magazine and a box of Cheezits on the empty seat beside me. I also assumed an unsocial look, hoping to discourage the folks walking down the aisle looking for a seat. Being the suave and debonair person that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to go so far as to pass gas or pick my nose as I suspected some other savvy travelers in the car were doing.
When the train left the St. Paul station, I began to go through the contortionist act of assuming the fetal position; wedging myself between the two armrests. I also had to negotiate the hidden steel bar between the two seats that requires constant adjustments in order to lessen the resulting hip pain.
When I awoke early, I was unable to walk without limping but I was consoled by the fact that I had saved a fair amount of money.
Not that I’m a skinflint or anything.