There are two schools of thought when it comes to traveling. One is the “I want to get to my destination quickly and start my vacation” school, and the other is “Getting to my destination is as much a part of my vacation as where I’m going.” I prefer the latter. I build in my travel mode as part of my vacation, thus allowing the extra time to get there.
I recently had the opportunity to go to Arizona. I could have taken a plane and been there in six hours. But, it would have been the most miserable start to my vacation. Airplanes since September 11, 2001, offer virtually no service, no amenities, and no food or drink unless requested. It’s not like the old days, when you took off and the attendants came around to see to your needs. “Would you like a drink, ma’am?” “Can I get you a pillow for your head?” “We are serving chicken or fish for dinner, which would you prefer?” They worked tirelessly walking up and down the aisles seeing to the comfort of their passengers, cart rolling along in front of them with cans of soda and mixers, nips of alcohol, peanuts, pretzels, and ice. Now you must flag them down, ask for what you want, then wait while they bring it to you. No more carts. No ice permitted. Pillows cost extra.
The seats are crowded two and three abreast. No one speaks to each other unless they are traveling together. They show movies and play music, but the headphones cost extra. Following take-off, everyone takes out their laptops, I-pods, cell phones, and hand-held video games, and spend the entire flight thus engaged.
A plane, these days, is nothing more than a bus with wings. The difference is, the view is better from the bus. I checked out both, buses and trains, as possible modes of transportation for my trip and was surprised to discover that the bus costs more than the train, and the train costs only $40 dollars more than a plane. The decision was easy. I booked a train from Boston to Flagstaff, a trip which would take 55 hours, or two days, seven hours.
Now, I am aware that trains, like buses, and airplanes, almost never run on schedule, but if I’m going to be late getting somewhere, I would rather have a club car that serves food and drink, a dining car that serves meals, an observation car that allows me a spectacular view in a wide comfy armchair, and plenty of room to walk around
I bought my ticket and boarded my train, The Lake Shore Ltd., from Boston to Chicago. I was the first person on board and had my choice of seats. I sat in the middle of the train against the window. I then pulled down my table, and took out all of my traveling gear: laptop, music, DVD’s, book, and cell phone. I had two outlets right beside me so I didn’t have to worry about charging my batteries. My seat came equipped with a pull out leg rest, as well as a foot rest on the seat in front of me. The seats were wide and comfortable. I settled right in. As soon as the train started moving and the conductor checked everyone’s tickets, I was handed a pillow–free of charge.
I left at 11:55 am on January 31, 2011. It was cold in Boston, and a snow warning was in effect for New England. Lucky me, I thought, I’m getting out in the nick of time. The view from my window through Massachusetts was lovely. The quaint towns of Western Massachusetts, the vast tracts of farmland complete with livestock, the white steepled churches for which we are famous, and the splendor of the Berkshires. Today, against the darkening gray sky pregnant with snow, the Berkshires seemed mystical, surrounded as they were by the mist at the higher elevations. The Berkshires were followed immediately by the Adirondacks of New York, the slow climb over these mountains offered glorious, panoramic views of the forest, even without their leaves, as well as rivers, streams, and valleys.
Our first rest stop came in Albany, NY. The train was being split between those going south to New York City, and those traveling west to Chicago. We had a half-hour layover, in which to get off the train, wander around a little and talk to our fellow passengers. Meeting people is easy on a train. You simply ask: “Where are you headed?” and the conversation begins immediately. There are as many stories on a train as there are passengers. One young man was a musician moving to Chicago in the hopes of making it big out there. Another woman was heading to Buffalo to be reunited with her daughter whom she hadn’t seen in many years. I spoke to one middle-aged man who was planning to see the entire country by train. He had an ‘America by rail’ pass, plenty of time, and was heading all the way to Los Angeles. I met a soldier coming home from Iraq, as well as another being deployed to Afghanistan. I also met a man on welfare from Boston who had made arrangements to be on welfare in California. “Why should I freeze in Boston when I can get the same benefits somewhere warm?” You meet all kinds of people on the train.
I re-boarded and took my seat. As night fell, I grabbed from my carry-on, my little bag containing toothbrush, floss, and washcloth, and went into the bathroom to do my evening ablutions. I then put a movie on my computer and promptly fell asleep while watching it. The conductor turned down the lights, and the gentle rocking of the train put me right to sleep. The train was not crowded and most people spread out across both seats. In the morning, I could see feet sticking out from every aisle as even couples separated to have their own ‘couch’.
In the morning, I again brushed and flossed my teeth, washed my face, combed my hair, and changed my underwear and socks, discreetly returning to my seat and stuffing the dirty laundry in the bottom of my carry-on. Then, I made my way to the club car and got myself a large cup of black coffee, which I then brought to a table and started drinking. Before long, I had company. Someone I had not yet met, who was interested in my Regis College sweatshirt. He lived in Newton, near Weston, where the school was located and we talked about Newton, Waltham and Boston. He was headed to Cleveland to see his mom. It was a surprise. He hadn’t seen her in two years. She had moved out there to live with her sister when her husband, his father had died. We then drank our coffee, looking out the window and commenting on the scenery south of Buffalo. I went back for another cup of coffee, and decided to head back to my seat.
I had a lot of texting to do. Everyone back home wanted to know where I was, what I was doing, was I having fun? I took many pictures with my cell phone and sent them off to everyone along with a note telling them where I was and yes, I was having fun. I also gave daily status reports on Face book using my cell phone, since trains, unlike buses, do not have wi-fi. That done, I slipped a CD into my computer, put on my headphones and watched the scenery of Pennsylvania and Ohio go by complete with soundtrack.
In Cleveland, we were again allowed to exit the train. Right next to us was Browns’ stadium. My friend from the club car was off to surprise his mom. I wished him well, and got back on the train. Somehow, overnight, we lost about 2 hours, and it looked like we wouldn’t get into Chicago until noon, rather than the 9:45am originally expected. Almost no one cared. Chicago was a long layover for most of us traveling further so the less time to hang around the better. Outside, it was beginning to spit snow. No reason to think it would be a problem.
We arrived in Chicago’s Union Station around noon on Tuesday, February 1. My layover had been reduced from five hours to just a little more than two. I made my way through the vast station, pulling my carry-on, (I had the foresight to check my baggage all the way through to Flagstaff so as not to have to deal with it in the station) and went straight to ticketing to find out the gate and track number from which my train would leave. That done, I went outside to see the place of my birth, and perhaps to do a little exploring.
It was snowing, blowing, and freezing cold out there. I decided against exploring, but took a few pictures anyway. I went back inside, bought a newspaper and some gum, and headed up the escalator to the food court. I found a McDonald’s, ordered a cheeseburger and a large coffee, and found myself a seat. According to the paper, Chicago was in for a big storm. Up to two feet of snow. I hoped that I would be out of there before the situation got worse.
While I was eating my burger and drinking my coffee, one of my train buddies sat down in the seat across from me. He too was headed to Arizona, but he was traveling on a different train, and was having himself some Chinese food from some other part of the food court. We talked for a while, then we both pulled out our cell phones and texted people their updates. I wished him well, then returned to my paper, and he got up to board his train.
I ventured out once more to have a look at the weather and my city, which I would have to explore on the return trip. The snow was picking up and the wind was howling. They don’t call it the windy city for nothing. I went back to the food court, found the rest room, then grabbed a table to sit and wait. I was right under the information board, and was glad to see that my train was still leaving on time. It looked to be the only one. All the other trains were marked delayed and some were marked cancelled. This was a little disconcerting. I checked my watch. One hour to go. Boarding usually occurred a half hour before leaving, so I updated my Face Book page, and headed to my gate.
One look at the waiting area told me this was going to be a crowded train. I spotted a man from my previous train and went over to sit beside him. He was a handsome, gray-haired gentleman, with the body of someone who works out regularly, but not overly. He had gorgeous blue eyes, and a devastating smile, with which he now presented me. We had not spoken on the previous train, but had passed each other often, always smiling at one another. He welcomed me to the seat beside him and said he remembered me from the Lake Shore Ltd. I remembered him too. Who could see this guy and not remember him? I wished I’d thought to get his name and number, but, I have always preferred the anonymous kind of acquaintanceship.
The conversation then turned to football, Steelers or Packers in the Super bowl. Several people got involved in that conversation: Roughly half for the Pack and half for the Steelers. I, of course, said Steelers all the way.
Then the call came for the boarding of the handicapped, senior citizens, families with children, and active duty military personnel. The rest of us would be called after. We were then told to have our tickets in our hands, already signed, accompanied by our ID. We got up and stood in line to board. They said they would be assigning seats since we had a full train. The man behind me told me, he just made this train, because all flights had been cancelled in Chicago. No wonder we were so crowded. I would later find out that ours would be the last train out before the canceling of all other train traffic.
I got up to the ticket taker, whispering in my head, ‘window seat, please be a window seat’. She asked where I was going, I said Flagstaff, she wrote a number on my stub and directed me to the third car. This train, The Southwest Chief, was a luxury double-decker train with all the amenities, including dining car and observation car. The Lakeshore Ltd. only had the club car.
I boarded the train, at 2:30pm, CST, looked up my seat number and breathed an enormous sigh of relief when I realized I got the window seat. I also got a seat-mate. It was fine though. She was a young girl, who, like me, was just going to watch movies on her laptop and was only going as far as Kansas City. She was very sweet and didn’t mind my constant trips to get coffee and go to the bathroom. She brought with her a ton of junk food: Hershey bars, potato chips, peanuts, and snickers bars.
We barely got out of the station, when we were made to hold up to allow for the Metra trains to get through. The Mayor was shutting down the city and sending everyone home from work. The snow was really piling up out there, and I just wanted to get out before they changed their mind and cancelled our train. After an hour on the tracks, allowing all the Metra traffic through, we were finally able to proceed. The general feeling among the passengers was that we would simply move out of the snow zone since we were headed in a southwesterly direction. That proved to be false however, as it seemed the entire country was involved in this storm. It was like ‘the Perfect Storm’ on land. Three systems were converging from the East, from the West, and from the South. There was no escaping it. We were traveling at about 30 miles an hour and had to stop frequently to allow other trains to pass us, before the switchers could manually unfreeze the switches and let us pass. Each time we did this, it took approximately 40 minutes for the trains to reach us and pass us, and 10 minutes to unfreeze and manually switch the tracks so that we could go.
The view from my window was like something from ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Wind whipped snow, 2 foot drifts, cars stopped dead in their tracks on the highways and bridges. By the time darkness fell, we were still in Illinois. My seat mate was expected in Kansas City at 9pm. We did not get there until 3am. I went outside for a moment in KC. The wind-driven snow just beat my face and soaked me in seconds. I got back on the train.
Once again, I had my seat to myself. I brushed my teeth and went to sleep watching ‘Moth man Prophecies’. By morning the snow had stopped, and everything as far as the eye could see was blanketed in white. It was frigid outside, in the single digits, but the sun was shining. We were still crawling at a snail’s pace, now because of the icy tracks. It was Wednesday, February 2, and I was expected in Flagstaff at 9:51pm. That wasn’t going to happen. We just left Dodge City, Kansas, and our next rest stop was La Junta, Colorado. The word was we were still running about six hours late. I texted my Sister-in-law who would be picking me up in Flagstaff that we were running six hours behind schedule and not to expect me before 3:00am.
Meanwhile, the passengers and I all settled in for a longer journey than we originally expected. No one was upset. After all, there was nothing anyone could do about the weather, and we were all happy that we had taken our time for safety’s sake. Our car had become like one big coterie of friends. We were talking about everything from our children, grandchildren, the Super Bowl and, of course, the weather.
The scenery outside, had gone from the plains of Missouri and Kansas, to the high hills and distant mountains of Colorado. At La Junta, Colorado, my very handsome man got off the train. We hugged and said our goodbyes and I regretted even more that I never got his name.
When we reached Raton, we would have reached our highest elevation of about 7000 ft. The climb through the Raton Pass was very slow and winding. Every few minutes, I found myself having to yawn as we increased altitude. The view was spectacular, sometimes being so close to the mountains that I was afraid to breathe for fear of rocks falling. Below, I could see where many rocks had indeed already fallen. Occasionally, I could see the distance below and marvel at how high we were. It was truly amazing. Then we passed through a long, dark tunnel and on the other side we were in Raton.
We had a brief exercise break in Raton and a lot of passengers got out to stretch their legs, take in air, or smoke a cigarette. There would not be another break until Albuquerque. A group of Amish that had boarded with us in Chicago, came out and raced through the snow and around the station. They were wearing only their shirt sleeves, vests and hats. The cold didn’t seem to bother them much and they were clearly having fun. It was amusing to see them enjoying themselves so much. They were located in the downstairs portion of my car and kept pretty much to themselves, though they always had a ready smile for the other passengers when they crossed paths in the club car or the observation car.
After a few minutes, it was back on the train again. I was freezing and went straight to the club car for coffee, then sat in the observation car for a while to sip my brew as we continued through the mountains on our way to Albuquerque. The observation car and the dining car are the only places where the coach passengers can mingle with the sleeping car passengers. I used this opportunity to find out more about the other passengers on the train. A lot of them were first timers, who simply decided to try the luxury of sleeper car train travel. They were not disappointed. They loved the privacy, the elite service, the free meals, even the community seating in the dining car. Their main reason for choosing sleepers was so they could sleep in a bed in a room to themselves, rather than in a seat, possibly having to sit up if they had a seat mate. Most that I spoke to were simply on vacation, choosing the train over the plane so that they could see America from the ground.
By the time we got to Albuquerque, it was nearly 8:00pm MST. I was supposed to be in Flagstaff at 9:51. Obviously, we were still running about six hours behind schedule. My sister-in-law booked a room in Flagstaff and told me to call when I got in. I went out for my air break, and to chat with my fellow passengers, but it was bitter cold outside, being only about 10 degrees. When I went inside, I did my evening cleaning up rituals, packed up my carry-on bag with all my electronic gadgets, and settled in for a nap, keeping one ear open for my stop. I didn’t want to miss it and wind up in Los Angeles.
My inner clock awoke me at 3:00am, fully expecting to see some sign of Flagstaff coming up. Instead, I got a text from my sister-in-law saying that she checked the schedule for my train, and I would likely not be in before 5am. Obviously, we had lost a couple more hours along the way. In Albuquerque, we had to add two more cars to our train to pick up passengers that were scheduled to be on a train that never left Chicago. That slowed us down some. The cold weather no doubt did the rest. Trains can’t travel very fast on icy tracks.
Well, I was awake now, and looking out of the darkened window, I could see lights in the distance. I watched as they got closer and closer, then discovered it was Winslow, Arizona. Right away, the song popped into my head: “I was standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see.” It stayed with me all the way to Flagstaff.
At 4:45am, I finally arrived in Flagstaff. The temperature was -5 degrees. I sent a bulk text to everyone telling them I had, at last, arrived at my destination. Patty, my sister-in-law, was there within 10 minutes during which time, I secured my luggage, still covered in Chicago snow. We went back to the hotel, I took a nice, really hot shower, and we headed down to Chandler, stopping to get a hot coffee at the gas station. I remained in Chandler for ten days, helping my niece rehab from a bad car accident. The effort was successful, my niece going from a wheelchair to a cane in the time that I was there.
I boarded the train from Flagstaff on February 13, at 5:41am and arrived in Chicago for a six hour layover at 3:15 pm on the 14th. The scenery in between was absolutely spectacular, now that I could actually see it without all the snow on the ground.
This time the weather was a warm 40 degrees. The train was early and I got to explore Chicago and take lots of pictures. There was no evidence that a storm had ever come through there. From Chicago to Boston, the train ran 1 hour ahead of schedule. What a difference 10 days makes. If you asked me to take a train anywhere in the country right now, I would say sure, you bet. It was the best vacation I have had in a long time.