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Traveling cross-country via Amtrak

When a bicycle ride is too slow and an airplane is too fast, the next best option from California to DC is an Amtrak train.   Before we secured tickets we had to be sure.  We watched a YouTube made by a nice man with a camera who took us on a Superette-tour of the Amtrak sleeper room — equipped with bunk beds, private wash and bathroom and extra room for two people to watch the scenery roll by for 70-odd-hours straight.  We couldn’t wait to settle in on the California Zephyr for the first leg to Chicago.

By 9AM Saturday morning, we climbed aboard without checking luggage and found our room — #18.  Perhaps the room wasn’t exactly like the YouTube video — there was no private bathroom,   there was barely room for small carry on bags, there was no Wi-Fi and we let that sink in.   We sat down and looked across at one another, a scene that would play out for the next 4 days and someone had a momentary meltdown (bless his heart).  Just then our concierge informed us breakfast was served and perhaps train life would be just fine?

The Amtrak meals  included fresh fruits, vegetables and vegetarian choices and the bonuses traveling by train were piling on.   With food in our bellies, we sashayed over the Observation car, readying ourselves for our first visual smorgasboard – the Sierra Nevadas.
The Amtrak experience from the Observation car truly delivers.  Sit back in comfortable lounge chairs with 360 degree panoramic views — looking over cliffs, out to mountain ridges, noticing snow covered mountain tips forming a backdrop to it all, and if you sensed the train was still climbing, it was.   Soon you could see the entire length of the train and it spiraled upward in slow-mo, switchback after switchback.   We looked down on the towering Ponderosa pines, and after having reached the summit-of-all-sierra-nevada-summit’s, we descended, breathing in each stunning view — far from highway and humans.   Without any fanfare we watched the Sierra Nevadas transform into the Nevada desert where nothing but miles and miles of flat-land filled with sagebrush, tumbleweed and sand could be seen.

We arrived in Salt Lake City at 2AM and I know this having not slept at all.  To be fair, I’m not the best sleeper, but on a tiny top-bunk a few inches wider than shoulder-width and shortened thanks to dual-serving as bag storage — could also have been a sleep factor.   Or, it could have been the sleep-belt — a harness that is designed to prevent one from falling overboard — was missing.   Once in place I had plenty of time to listen to Paddy snore and watch random stowed articles fall out of the berth bouncing their way to the floor below, rolling out our open doorway disappearing into the hall — and not once feeling inclined to test my ninja descent skills in the dark.   Dawn would arrive soon enough.

The Amtrak train, and specifically the California Zephyr is to be experienced.   Top speeds on the flats reach 80 mph, and in the mountains the train puffs along at 30 mph tops, giving time to take it all in.  Amtrak trains also feature random stops.  Such as waiting for trains in the opposite direction to pass.  Or, stopping because the Train Engineer needs to reboot the computer.    Our nature train stopped twice in the Rockies — 30 minutes each time — to reset the train’s computer system and while many complained that we are now an hour behind schedule,  Paddy and I  used that time to debate whether the train runs on Microsoft, and perhaps it was due for a system update, the usual culprit.


The Rockies delivered
a closeup of mountain passes, views of snow topped peaks in the 14,000 altitude range as a backdrop and an occasional herd of ram.  Everything was so beautiful that we took hundreds of pictures trying to preserve everything in 2D.  The Colorado river raged thanks to runoff from a snowy winter and white water rafters took a moment from navigating the rapids to mooning  the passing train.  Soon we descended to the foothills and the vegetation returned, trees returned and the City of Denver broke the au-natural code with it’s skyline.


We hopped off the train in Denver
for a 40 minute layover, a crew change and our hopes were high that the new crew knew a thing or two about the train’s computer software.  We met longtime friend Dan who lives nearby and graciously agreed to meet us at our train stop — and we walked about, inhaling deep on that mile-high oxygen and all the time keeping close contact with our train, just in case it decided to depart early.  Amtrak toots it’s horn twice when it is ready to depart, and when you hear the horn you have 15 seconds to get back on.

We settled into our Superette enjoying what remained of Colorado.  As dusk turned to dark we said goodbye to Mountain Time and hello to Nebraska.  The terrain flattened, elevation decreased and  the train was back to speeding along at 80 mph.  Now skilled at climbing into the upper bunk I settled in for hopes of sleep only to discover that high speed travel brings on new bounces sending me airborne most of the night, so I opted to listen the night away, getting to know the Nebraska flatlands by sound and bounce.

Daylight arrived and we were in Iowa and I proceeded to take dozens of pictures, for the purposes of study — wondering why Iowa by rail showed only miles and miles of no crops and several trailer parks that have seen better days.

After crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers our path ticked north and we arrived in Chicago — with a whole hour to spare before our next train departs — The Capitol Limited.  Chicago’s Union Station was busy and confusing so we took aim at the first lounge that would let us park our heavy bags.  But, as weary travelers with a Superette ticket we were denied entrance to the lounge and escorted to another lounge called the Metropolitan.  Here, Superette travelers indulge on unlimited Peet’s coffee, fruits, nuts and Wi-Fi long enough to re-energize before the next train.

We boarded the Capitol Limited, and by now, we were train savvy or maybe exercise deprived, or both.  We left our heavy bags on the lower-deck thank-you-very-much, and climbed the staircase with only light small bags, and searched for Room #10, hopeful to find the room described on YouTube.  Room #10 was nothing like the YouTube either, but it did have a working sleep-belt on the upper berth and everything Amtrak was grande.  We settled in for the final leg to Washington, DC.

The stretch of rail between Chicago and Toledo begged for track maintenance, though we sped along at 60 mph anyway on the rickety tracks.  Our sleeper car took on a lean-and-lurch movement which turned passengers into human projectiles.  Eventually, I wondered how this might feel from the upper bunk, so I ninja climbed to the top, and strapped on the sleep-belt and wham I lurched face-first into the window, only to be flopped back like a rag doll to the center just long enough to find myself hanging on a zip-tie of a sleep-belt.  No, this won’t work, and I made my way to the Observation car to try my sleep-luck there.  I settled in on a chair on the mostly empty car, covered myself head to toe with my blankie and shut my eyes.  I imagined I was sleeping…but  then opened my eyes to a man offering up his liquor bottle.  I thought on that, then said ‘no thank you’, and I left that Observation car, climbed back into my upper bunk and braced for impact.

Dawn arrived and coffee was needed.  A very chatty man was hording the coffee machine so I said the proper ‘excuse me’ reaching over him to get my liquid.  He observed ‘you didn’t get much sleep last night?’ and with red-eyes and a disheveled mind I glared at him long enough to let  ‘bingo’ free my lips.  Yet  my morning tone did not deter mister chipper and he went on about the benefits of sleeping pills.  He pointed to his Superette adjacent to the coffee machine, explaining how well he slept.  His Superette looked EXACTLY like the one in the YouTube — with giant sized chairs and sink and toilet and room to stretch your legs   He blathered on, and I stared over him at letter “B” on his door.  The YouTube Amtrak rooms did indeed exist and  note to self for future  Amtrak bookings — ask for the lettered rooms!

Soon the coffee kicked in, and we returned to enjoying the views east of the Appalachians, noticing a stark change from dusty soil of the mid-west to lush country-side and bulging rivers.
Our cross country train adventure reached destination DC, and while I was ready to be done with the train,  I reflected how fortunate we were to have the chance to time-travel.  To take time.  To make time to view a slice of the US from west to east, to meet fellow passengers, to unplug and absorb the beauty and terrain at slower speeds.  The journey by rail requires a degree of flexibility and compromise, but the experience was priceless, and  yes, I would do it again –making sure to book a Superette with a letter of course.
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