Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Train Trip - Part One

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and a scene of mild sensuality.


I’m on vacation with my family, taking a cross-country train trip to Chicago. In case you’re a criminal who trolls people’s blogs to see who’s out of town, and plan to burglarize my house while I’m away, think again. I could be home in two days, or could be home already. As my brother wrote in his grade-school “My Book About Me,” I am not stuppid.

In this post I’ll give a bit of personal history regarding my past trips on Amtrak; explain how we chose this unique vacation; offer a few pre-trip tales; and provide a day and a half of impressions and such. I’ll also include a recipe for my mother’s famous cranberry bread and step-by-step instructions on changing the oil in a 1986 Ford Fiero, per usual.

My previous train trips

I first rode Amtrak during the early nineties when I took it most of the way to Ashland, Oregon to visit my mom. The closest station was Dunsmuir, I think (I can’t fact-check because I have no Internet connection, a problem I’ll have to solve before posting this, obviously). It could have been a six-hour car trip. Instead, the train limped along at about thirty, which is all the track conditions would allow it to do. Somehow we got so delayed that some passengers were going to miss a connection, so the train was stopped in the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours so a bus (!) could come fetch those passengers and speed them ahead to rendezvous with their connecting train. (By this time Amtrak had sunk, in my regard, from legitimate transportation to pointless novelty.) I had to get out at some station—where I absolutely froze, it being winter—to find a pay phone, to tell my mom to wait a couple hours before driving down to meet me. The trip took ten or twelve hours.

My next Amtrak trip was coming home, a few days later. This was worse. The delays so infuriated me that my brain stopped shunting things into long-term memory and I don’t recall anything about that trip except that a) I couldn’t sleep because everybody on the train was a loud snorer, and b) it took twenty-five hours to get home. I vowed never to ride Amtrak again.

So, why this trip?

Obviously I’ve broken that vow, and it’s all because of “Parade” magazine, that little ten-page insert that comes in your Sunday paper. I don’t get the paper, but my mother-in-law, at my request, saves the Parades for me. It’s a guilty pleasure. I like the silly cartoons, the brain teasers from Marilyn Vos Savant (which I lack the patience to actually try solving), the ads for the Amish guys who are giving away portable fireplaces or air cooling systems that cost pennies to run because they’re not air conditioners. I even read the incessantly upbeat profiles of famous actors, with headlines like “What I’ve Learned” or “Love Is the Most Important Thing,” etc. (I really wish one day they’d profile Eminem. His feature would be titled, “God sent me to piss the world off.”)

Anyway, Amtrak had an article about cross-country train trips and how cool they are. I’d heard over the years that the interstate trains with sleeper cars are actually pretty cool and that the shorter-route bus-style trains were the Achilles heel of the system. Thus, I read the feature with an open mind. (Heck, I always read “Parade” with my mind wide open and all skepticism withheld. You kind of have to.) I learned that that billions of dollars have been pumped into Amtrak recently, not only by the Obama administration but by Warren Buffett (who would never invest in a doomed enterprise, would he?).

There’s a lot about train travel that, right off the bat, is enticing. Logistically, it’s pretty simple once you’ve assembled all your stuff and your family has made it on-board. Meals and lodging are included, making the trip fairly easy to budget (though it’s not cheap). Going by train is probably the best vacation possible for keeping a small carbon footprint while still getting to see faraway places. Moreover, the U.S. is, in my opinion, highly underrated as a place to travel across (an opinion which was only strengthened by a nine-month 7,500-mile coast-to-coast bike tour that my wife Erin and I took in 1994).

And finally, I think our kids are the perfect age for this. They can enjoy a, b, and c without pining for x,y, and z. For example, teenagers, the way things are going, might not be able to go a whole day, much less multiple days, without Internet connectivity. Meanwhile, even pre-teens might be too jaded to fully appreciate something so subtle as the niftiness of how a train car manages to fit everything, Tetris-like, into a minimal space. (When my family goes to the Claire Tappan lodge the kids wring remarkable amounts of pleasure from the bunk beds.) And I figured my young children’s culinary tastes would still be vulgar enough to enjoy what I expected would be fairly mediocre food. (Alexa said the other day, “Remember that hotel in Sacramento, the Embassy Suites? That omelette was amazing. It was thick and fluffy and inside there were just gobs of really gooey cheese. I remember it to this day!”)

The lead-up

We prepared carefully for this trip. You can’t do your laundry on a train, and can’t stop at a convenience store, and we feared that failing to bring enough activities for the kids could turn our train ride into a prison riot. So we bought some portable games, laid in a supply of decent books, and I picked up a couple of Lemony Snicket audio books. (These I had to rip to MP3, retag the files so they’d play sequentially, find the little speaker thingy I got at a fund-raiser years ago and never used, dredge up its AC adapter, find a reliable MP3 player, locate a male-to-male headphone cord to connect the two, and find the USB cable to charge the MP3 player.) And of course we had to pack. Here’s our checklist shortly before our departure:

Meanwhile, my credit card number was stolen recently so up to the last day before vacation I was updating all these autopay setups (last time this happened I neglected to update GoDaddy, who locked up my albertnet domain, killing my blog, my e-mail, and my family’s e-mail accounts). The day before the trip we had a plumbing issue and Erin was running all over town buying fixtures and dealing with the plumber. And I can’t begin to describe how hard it is to find a crazy gun-nut house-sitter willing to sit in our living room all day and night with a shotgun across his lap during our absence, waiting to gun down a would-be burglar. Finding a gun-nut like that who is also good with cats is especially difficult.

Preparations aside, the anticipation of the trip kept the kids in good spirits for weeks beforehand. Alexa brought me this note a few days ago when I was on the phone:

And the morning of the trip, the kids were simply jubilant:

The station

I recognized the Amtrak station in Emeryville right away: I had loitered there for hours once, five years ago, waiting for my train-delayed brother and his family to arrive. We loitered some more this time, having shown up incredibly early. Right away I appreciated the lack of security. There’s no line, no x-ray, no notices … it’s like boarding a bus, other than checking baggage (for free, as much as you want, meaning those venal airlines can officially go stuff it). We checked one bag, which had our contact lens fluid in it—d’oh! Once we got all our carry-ons loaded on the train and found our sleeping car, we still had like twenty minutes before the train left. I decided this would be a rare opportunity to get a photo of the front of the train. The kids protested bitterly, as they were certain I’d somehow fail to make it back on the train and would miss our vacation. Here’s the shot:

When I passed by the window of our sleeper car Alexa was pounding on the window, gesticulating for me to hurry up. I stopped to get her picture, and came up against the old reflection problem (which has made photography from the train difficult as well). It made for an interesting shot, anyway, after Lindsay joined her sister:

I got back on the train, returned to our room, and sat down. Soon the train just started rolling, with no fanfare. No safety announcements, no instructions on how to operate a seatbelt, no fussing with an overhead bin, no shrieking of a jet engine outside my window. Just gobs of legroom.

Our first crisis

Naturally, being first-time interstate train travelers, we made a crucial mistake, with disastrous consequences you might have actually heard about on the news. Okay, I’m grossly exaggerating for fear of losing your interest. But we did mess up, by following the instructions of our porter: “Don’t go to the dining car until the conductor makes an announcement! He’ll do that at either 11:00 or 11:30.” At about 11:35 we got impatient and went up there. Every table was already taken. We put our name in, and for the next two hours I made one bad promise after another to my kids about when we’d be seated.

This might not have been a big deal, except that none of us had had a proper meal in a couple of days. We were too busy preparing for the trip and using up the random food in the fridge. Twice we gave Lindsay broccoli of questionable vintage, and she actually ate it. I dreamt about nothing but food the night before we left (which normally only happens when I’ve dug myself into a caloric hole with a long bike ride). Nobody got much breakfast.

Anyway, when we finally got a table in the dining car, the service was unhurried—in fact, the waiter read the entire menu out loud to Lindsay. It may be that the kitchen is the weak link in the system, and the limited number of tables and long meals keep the cooks from falling behind. Anyway, the food ended up being pretty darn good. My standard point of reference is the burger. Here it is:

I’m bound to put on some pounds on this trip because lunch and dinner both come with dessert. So far I’ve sampled (through my own selections and mandatory parental tariffs of my kids’) the cheesecake (excellent), carrot cake (also excellent), ice cream (Haagen Dazs, ‘nuff said), gooey brownie (delicious), and lemon sorbet (Ciao Bella or whatever, great). Meanwhile Erin is still on the South Beach Diet, so I’m getting enough second-hand food to break new ground with my North Beach Diet. Here’s the little family at the tail end of dinner:


The view really is better from a train. We’ve often taken Interstate 80 past places like Sacramento and Auburn, but I can appreciate them more seeing the older, better parts. We had a guide from the California Railway Museum (tk) onboard until Reno, and she pointed some things out. For example, Rockland is named after all its quarries, and Roseville used to be called Junction, because it was a major railway hub. Its citizens, feeling expansive after a city-wide picnic, renamed it Roseville after the most popular girl in town. After Reno, I had to take over with the education of the kids. I just made stuff up, of course; they’re never going to know. (For example, when we passed through Helper, Utah, I pointed out that it has a sister city in Florida called Enabler; Erin chimed in about the third sister city, Co-Dependant, Missouri.)

Past the dining car is the observation lounge, a spectacular place. Look:

Though it’s hard to snap photos out the window, I got a few. The first was taken near Auburn, Californa; the rest are from western Colorado. (We slept through Nevada and as we went through Utah we were down in the sleeping car, which has kind of small windows.)

Living in California, I miss the gorgeous clouds of Colorado, and not since my childhood have I had the idle pleasure of watching telephone wires swoop like this:

I was lying on my back reading in the sleeping car when Erin suddenly burst out laughing. I was too late to see what had so amused her. She explained that a pair of young sunbathers on the banks of the Truckee River had greeted the train with irrational exuberance: the young man held his arms out at ninety-degrees to flex his biceps, and the young woman next to him pulled up her shirt and flashed the train! I’d heard before of this kind of thing with Amtrak. Needless to say I’m cursing my fate at having missed it.


Watching the porter convert our seats into beds was really something. Lindsay had been asking all day if she could have an upper berth, but I couldn’t promise anything. In the morning the porter had said, “This one that folds down into a double … it may be big enough for you and your wife. Some couples can do it, some can’t. I’m gonna leave that up to you.” In the event I found the bed not only wide enough for two, but remarkably comfortable. Lindsay was ecstatic about getting an upper berth. “This is too good to be true!” she sqealed.

Being on the train after dark, I couldn’t help but think of the James Bond movie, “Live and Let Die” I think it was, where towards the end Bond is getting ready to bed down his Bond girl and one last villain shows up. The girl is in another room—it must be a suite, or Bond is in the bathroom or something—and she is oblivious to the hand-to-hand combat. I kind of wished I could take out some nemesis too, as long as he didn’t put up too much of a fight.

I slept pretty well, though there must have been some bumps because twice I dreamed of crashing my mountain bike in snow (and thus not being hurt). There was an annoyingly persistent clicking as I dropped off to sleep, but I wear earplugs and didn’t mind. The only trouble was the closet door that kept bumping my elbow; I couldn’t figure out how it kept coming unlatched. At maybe 4 a.m. Erin told me to quit shutting it: she had been re-opening it all night because its latch was causing the annoyingly persistent clicking. Eureka!

So far the train is about two hours behind schedule. A freight train derailment ahead of us will screw over some of the passengers, but (if I heard the announcement right) shouldn’t affect us.

Stay tuned for Train Trip Part 2 – Ewoks On the Tracks!


  1. Dana, the family is looking great! I especially love Lindsay's dubious stare in the first family photo. You must have found a really scary bystander to snap the photo!

    My only experience with Amtrack was fetching Geoff and his family when they were riding up from your house. I had heard that his train was late in getting to you, so I was prepared. Before heading to Seattle, I checked their web site, multiple times, then called them, for good measure, then we left. When the train was scheduled to arrive, there was, of course, no train. I shouldn't have been surprised. In fact, I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me, though, was that we were the only suckers who actually showed up! Where were all the other people who should have been gathering loved ones from the train? What kind of secret knowledge did they have that we did not? Was it some kind of conspiracy?

    To make a long story short, a really long story, I called and talked to real Amtrack human beings who told me that the train would probably arrive "soon" and that we ought to wait it out, instead of driving the several hours home to get some rest. So we did, from ten until five the next morning! I could see it being an hour late, or two, or even three, but five or six? Every few hours I called, and they seemed less committed to the idea that the train would actually arrive. I couldn't believe it… It's not like a highway where the engineer just decides to pull off at a rest area to catch a nap. There's just one track, and just one train can be on it at a time. They must plan these things out, and yet, no one I could talk to had the foggiest idea what was going on.

    I was so amazed when the train actually showed up, and Geoff et al actually got off, that I was able to get over it pretty quickly. Jean, hugely pregnant, having slept in the van, was also very gracious about it.

    I'd like to take a train trip someday, good for you for doing it. I just love the idea of taking a train instead of driving or flying, the efficiency of it, the slower pace, and the beautiful views. Someday I'd love to give it a go. I wonder if they'll ever get it figured out—it sounds like they're making progress!

    Looking forward to you next report...

  2. Man, that's a real horror story! For the record, our first leg was 2-3 hours late, which isn't bad for some 2,000 miles (and with a freight derailment on the line!). We were on time getting into Flagstaff, and into L.A. Coming back up the coast to Emeryville (near Oakland), we were only about ten minutes late. I think things are getting better ... or maybe I'm just "real lucky."