In 2011, Dan Burgoyne and I took Amtrak trains from Baltimore to Truckee, California – and back. It was one of our best travel memories, and I learned how romantic train travel can be …. and how awful too. Overall, we loved it. Here are my memories and a few tips on how to make a trip for two by train one of the best vacations ever.
September 17, 2011
I always thought travel by train would be romantic. So this year I booked a trip from Baltimore to California on two scenic Amtrak train routes – one on the Capitol Limited from Baltimore to Chicago, and the other on the California Zephyr going from Chicago to Truckee California with two stops in Colorado.
The Train Travel Experience for a Writer
I’m writing this post at 11:00 pm from the lounge car of the Capitol Limited Amtrak train… somewhere near Pittsburgh. I’m sitting in a booth-style seat with my laptop on a table and my legs stretched out across the bench. Dan is sleeping. I can see the city lights from these wide windows. The car is quiet now save for the sound of the train on the rails and the occasional whistle when we approach a crossing. Tomorrow is our anniversary. What a great gift we’re giving to each other with this trip.
We boarded our first train of the day at 2:00 pm this afternoon. We’ve met some interesting people, had a steak dinner in the dining car, read for awhile, I wrote for awhile, and we took in the sweeping landscapes of Western Maryland and West Virginia. The sunset just as we were coming into Cumberland.
Train travel so far is everything I hoped for. No cramped quarters, lots to look at and friendly people. But most of all there’s time. Time to think. Time to write. Time to notice the details. There’s something about the rocking motion, the towns slipping by, and the whistle in the distance that gets the mind going. The romance of rail travel depicted in old photos, stories, and movies starts to come alive.
Everything seems to slow down. You notice things like the accent of the conductor, the smell of steaming beef wafting out of the dining car. The embroidered turkey on the camouflage ball cap worn by a bearded, man in overalls. His sixty-something wife is wearing gray sweatpants with rhinestone zippers. Okay, I eavesdropped. They’re on a group tour going to Branson MO, they are ultra-conservative, hate “O’Bama-care,” and evidently attend church every day.
There’s man wearing an eye patch. His shirt is loud, printed with all kinds of brands of beer. His cap says “Life is Good.” He sits alone in a lounge chair watching the world go by. His face is somber – almost melancholy – out of sync with his festive clothes.
This is when I wish I could write fiction. All the characters you would ever need are on a train.
The sycamore trees in the woods running along the track catch the western sunlight in a way that makes them glow. Wild goldenrod brushes up against their trunks.
I never noticed stuff like this when I fly or drive or walk.
Two lines – one from a song and the other from a book come to mind …
“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” ~ Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar
“If all our flights are grounded, Libby we’ll go to Paris, and wish we were back home again or sailing on the ocean, just a window and a drink to set our dreams in motion.” ~ Carly Simon Libby
I’ve got my window and my drink, and my dreams are surely in motion. As the little towns pass by, my husband muses about what it would be like to live there, raise a family, make friends, call it home.
The Capitol Limited follows the Potomac River passing through Point of Rocks, Brunswick, Harpers Ferry and Cumberland … all towns that grew up around the railroad and still thrive today. I’ve been to all of these places, but they look different from a train. When we came into Harpers Ferry the tourists milling around the train station were amused by our train – like it was an attraction. Children (and some adults) waved from the platform like they knew us. We waved back.
At dusk, Cumberland was impressive with its skyline spreading out on both sides of the tracks. Its courthouse, churches, bridges, and houses stacked up the mountainside gives it a sense of place. This is complemented by much motion and activity. People seem to be moving with some great purpose.
I’m finally tired. Going to stretch out in my coach seat and try to get some sleep. We should be in Chicago a little after 8 am.
September 18, 2011
Oh, my God, I hate sleeping in a chair. Even though the chairs are wide with ample leg room, I’m a person who has to lay down to sleep. By 2 am I was ready to know on the door of one of those sleeper cars and off $500 for the bed. Dan stopped me. Then he gave me an Ambien. And I finally fell asleep around 3am. We got into Chicago in the early morning and had several hours to layover until we boarded the California Zephyr, that apparently offers the most scenic ride in all of America. Once
FIRST CLASS ON THE ZEPHYR
At 1:15 we boarded the California Zephyr and left Chicago, beginning our route out west. We will ride through the night across the Midwest and come into Colorado by morning. We are set to deboard at Grand Lake, Colorado, where we’ll spend two days visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park, then get back on the Zephyr and continue to Grand Junction. After my horrible sleeping (or lack of sleeping) experience on the Capitol Limited, I booked us in first class for this leg.
Amtrak First class gets you a roomette, which is a private little – and I mean little – room (room-really isn’t the right word … maybe space) with two wide seats (facing each other) and a big window. At night the two seats collapse into a single bed and a bunk drops down from the ceiling. Then a glass door encloses the two (now collapsed seats) with inches to spare. This enclosed space is called “a roomette.”
THE AMTRAK ROOMETTE
This Amtrak Roomette is no more than two narrow bunk beds in a closet. Large people might feel cramped – but we’re large and I loved it. As I looked up at the top bunk (pull down) from the bottom bunk, I surmised that the top bunk was about as wide as one and a half ironing boards. I decided I should probably sleep up there since Dan is bigger than I and he has a bad back. When I climbed up to look at the top bunk, I saw that it has this harness that you latch over yourself to keep from falling out as the train jostles in the night. Dan and I laughed out loud imagining how we were going to get our fat bodies into these bunks.
THE ATTENDANT AND MEALS (and the attendant will bring you your meals)
First class also gets you all your meals for free in the dining car, or if you prefer, the attendant will bring your meals to your roomette. This attendant’s job is to help you with anything you might need, answering questions, coordinating connections, helping with converting the roomette from two chairs to two bunks.
Our excellent attendant’s name was Bob Fudge.
Again, we laughed out loud, making remarks about the Keebler brothers and “Fudge Bob” who might provide us with a Crabby Pattie later. (Sorry, Bob, if you’re reading this). Bob was perfect in every way. When I climbed up on the top bunk for the night, Bob walked by and said, “What are you doing?” I replied, “Getting into bed.”
Bob looked at Dan and said, “Look, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and YOU are going to end up in that top bunk. You can either get up there now while everyone is still friendly and talking to each other … or you can wait for the fight you two will eventually have and then get up there. Believe me, buddy.. you’re going to end up in the top bed.”
I’m typing this post from the cozy smallness of my Lower bunk. Dan is snoring above me. I’ve got the window view, and Nebraska, dimly lit by the waning moon is rushing past my window as the train rocks us to sleep. Sometimes it’s a little too rocky. I’m glad Dan decided to wear his bunk seatbelt. 🙂
NEW FRIENDS – JOSEPH THE AMISH MAN
We met an Amish man named Joseph in the Lounge car who was traveling back to his home after visiting family. He and a young man were discussing the current state of the American economy. Joseph had long grayish hair but was bald on top. You could see where his wide-brimmed hat normally rested on his head, as his hair was perfectly mashed where his hat had been. Joseph’s beard was chest length and he wore traditional Amish clothes – black, no buttons or zippers.
Joseph asked the young man if he had a pen. The young man only had his iPhone. So Joseph asked if either of us had a pen. I gave him one. He struck up a conversation about business, industry and how the Amish vacation.
Joseph told us that lots of Amish ride American trains. They travel for vacation, to visit family members, to work. They believe traveling by train maintains their simple way of life. The Amish also travel to Mexico on the trains for medical treatments. Since most of them have no insurance and must pay for all medical expenses out of pocket, Mexico is a viable option because it’s often one third or one forth the cost of the same treatment in America – and Mexico works with our rail system.
We found out that Joseph was a farmer and a wood craftsman providing parts to a manufacturing company that makes guitar stands. He made over 20,000 these parts last year from the shop outside his house. That’s manufacturing with simple tools and no electricity, no phone, no car, no truck. Joseph had a great sense of humor and was an engaging conversationalists. He was humble, warm, and interesting. He asked for our address because he wanted to remember us. He gave us his address and offered his home if we ever wanted to visit Wisconsin. I told him, “If we’re ever in Wisconsin, we’ll call you.”
Joseph replied, “Well … if you want to call me, you have to call real loud.”
COLORADO AND CALIFORNIA BY TRAIN
The rest of the journey was wonderful and we kept that sleeping car for the duration. We stayed two days in Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park and two days in Grand Junction. Then we headed for Truckee and spent three days there.
After Truckee, we boarded the Zephyr and spent three straight days on the train getting back to Baltimore.
TIPS FOR CROSS COUNTRY TRAIN TRAVEL
Go first class, book a roomette or better. There are full rooms with bathrooms that you can book. It’s pricey but includes your meals, and experience is worth the extra money.
Don’t spend more than a day on a train. Book your hotels in destinations ahead of time. Rent a car and see the sights. More than one day on a train gets old, the food is the same and you’re paying a lot of money for a not-so-awesome travel experience. If I do this again, I’ll fly to Chicago (the Amtrak hub) then book trains to an endpoint that allow me to stop after one day and spend a few days in one location. Then I’d fly home.
Amtrak Rail Passes for Budget Travelers. If you’re on a budget and you don’t mind sleeping in a chair, the Amtrak US Rail Passes are a great deal. You can get 8 segments (boarding or deboarding) over 15 days for just $459. You book ahead, but its cheap travel if you work it right and bring your own food.
Reserve a car at each stop. We reserved a car in Granby because we knew we wanted to drive through Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding areas. But we didn’t rent a car in Grand Junction and Truckee because we were staying right in town and figured we’d spend lots of time in the town and use the public transportation system. This was dumb. Renting a car for a few days is cheap, especially considering the flexibility it gives you. Car rental companies will often meet you at the station with your rental car – even in very small towns. Having the car hired and the hotel booked in advance makes a perfectly smooth transition.
Go with person to person contact when dealing with Amtrak. Our experience with Amtrak was wonderful as long as we were speaking to people and not trying to do anything online. Communicating with Amtrak reminded me of communication with the government. Each person knows his or her job, but there is little collective understanding. I booked my rail pass online and made all the segment reservations. When I got confused I called Amtrak and realized the entire transaction was void because the segments couldn’t be reserved online (even though the online application allowed the user to reserve them). After I finished booking all the segments on the phone, things went perfectly. Same was true with upgrading to a roomette. Just ask the conductor. The Amtrak staff are very helpful – at least that was my experience all across the country.
Why Take the Train?
Take the train for the added travel experience. There’s almost nothing good about flying these days – except speed. Car travel can be exhausting, stressful and expensive. And traveling long distances in the US by car often puts the driver on Interstate Highways and Turnpikes where the majority of scenery is comprised of concrete, asphalt and steel highway signs.
But trains snake through the American landscape, sometimes going places where there are no roads. On the route from Denver to Truckee there are parts of the mountains and desserts that almost no one sees unless they’re traveling by train or paddling down the Colorado River. A train ride is relaxing. It’s a mode of transportation that becomes part of the travel experience instead of penance leading up to the travel experience.
Dan and I loved our rail vacation and hope to ride the Adirondack, Coastal Starlight and the Sunset Limited in the near future.
How was the Pittsburgh to Chicago leg of the trip? Were to able to sleep? Were you in a regular coach seat? What, if anything, did you do for breakfast? I’m very encouraged by your commentary. My young son (11) and I (57) will be taking that midnight train in few days; your experience sounds as if it might not be too bad at all.
Hey Suzy. Sorry I didn’t answer right away. i was out of town. We left from Baltimore Penn Station and from there got on the Northeast Regional in DC which went straight to Chicago. We went coach and the seats are roomy. Many parents brought children and slept through the night in coach.
If you could sleep in a recliner, you can comfortably sleep in coach. They are big roomy seats with footrests. You should bring your own pillows though. We ate breakfast in the dining car. You can bring your own fruit or carry on food and eat it at your seat if you want to.
I loved the train experience and highly recommend it.
Pittsburgh to Chicago was fine – not too long. The seats are spacious and many people bring comforts from home – pillows, blankets and food. There is a snack bar where you can get food items to hold you over, but you can also make reservations in the dining car for meals. All you need to do is ask one of the Amtrak staff. They are very helpful. Enjoy your trip.
This is a wonderful essay, Mindie. We benefit from your keen sense of observation and talent as a story teller. I look forward to reading more.
loved reading this and it SO made me want to take a train ride. Love the pic of you too- you should definitely make it your next profile pic. Love you guys!
wonderful article, look forward to more. what is your destination?
Martha, we’re boarding the California Zephyr and traveling to Grand Lake Colorado, Grand Junction, Colorado and Truckee, California – Lake Tahoe. Then back home.