Peggy was making travel arrangements to fly back east to spend Christmas and New Year’s with our kids in Virginia and Florida when she emerged from her woman cave like a grumpy bear saying not-nice things about the airlines. Unlike her husband, she never curses (well close to never), but her tone of voice says it all. The industry was practicing its usual Christmas spirit by doubling prices and eliminating perks like earned miles and companion fares. Joy to the world. Isn’t capitalism grand.
I suggested that she check Amtrak. We quickly discovered that we could travel across America by train with our own bedroom and three meals a day for less than the airplane tickets would cost. And the meals would actually be edible. When was the last time you had a delicious, freshly-cooked steak dinner and crab cakes for dinner on an airplane? Since we are retired, time wasn’t a factor. We would see and experience America in a way we never had before! It was a no-brainer.
Our plans were to drive down to Sacramento from our home in Southern Oregon in mid-December, visit with family and friends, and catch the California Zephyr heading for Chicago. (All Amtrak trains are named.) From there, we would take the Capitol Limited to Washington DC. Returning, we would reverse our journey on the Capitol Limited to Chicago and then take the Southwest Chief to LA. Our final leg would be to ride the Coastal Starlight back to Sacramento. The total trip would take nine days and 8 nights. In between, we would celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with the kids.
We quickly found that there were three aspects to train travel. The first was the actual experience of riding the train ranging from sleeping arrangements to shared meals. The second was admiring the country the train traveled through. (That’s what got me the most excited.) The third was meeting your fellow travelers. Given Amtrak’s policy of seating you with other people at meals, you meet a lot of strangers. And most of them really seem to enjoy train travel.
That’s a major difference with modern airplane travel. While first class might still be tolerable, traveling coach is a trial to get through. Narrow seats where leaning back is severely limited (there’s no room), cramped leg room where you pay premium for a few more inches, minimal food service, and the policy of charging you big bucks for anything extra are all factors. Not to mention kids kicking the back of your chair and people sneezing out who knows what diseases at a 100 miles per hour mere-inches away from your head. There is no ‘it’s the journey that counts’ in air travel. It’s all about destination.
People who travel by train have destinations in mind as well, but the journey can also be an important part of the experience— one to be repeated over and over. Take Paul, for example. We had first met him in the passageway of our car on the trip back from Washington DC to Chicago. He sat down opposite us in the first-class lounge of Chicago’s imposing Union Train Station and struck up a conversation. (You obtain first class status by having a sleeper.) He was a tall, slightly overweight man with a ready smile who was close to our age.
We soon learned that he was a graduate of Oberlin College who had spent his life working for one of America’s intelligence agencies, a career that had begun with his service in Vietnam. He had enjoyed the work, but his true passion was playing in an informal blues band for fun. The group had been together for over 30 years. Paul and Peggy were soon into a deep discussion over whether her guitar playing and singing should include the blues. He suggested she start with Kate Wolf. I am a fan of Kate’s. In fact, my friend Tom Lovering once hosted a birthday party for her at his outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento. When she passed away, he had taken her daughter on a river trip.
As usual, the conversation turned to where we were going and what our Amtrak experience had been like. Paul had traveled on Amtrak a number of times, including traveling with his blues band. This time he was heading for Portland by himself, but here’s the fun part. He would arrive in Portland, spend one day at Powell’s Bookstore, and then climb back on the train for his return trip to Washington DC!
Peggy and I understood Paul’s desire to spend a day at Powell’s. It’s the largest independent bookstore in the world and one of America’s premier bookstores. Whenever we are in Portland, we make a point of going there. You can spend hours perusing its shelves. I doubt we have ever left with less than a hundred dollars-worth of books. Traveling four days by train to get there and then turn around and travel four days back to Washington was a tad more difficult to comprehend. You would really have to love train travel. Still, we were really enjoying our trip. We could drive over to Klamath Falls, climb on the Coastal Starlight and be there in a day. Hmmm…
As for my photos today, I want to share one segment of the journey with you: our trip across the Rocky Mountains. It was spectacular including snow, beautiful views of the river and gorgeous red rocks. Starting at Glenwood Springs we followed the Colorado River up toward its source and then dropped down into Denver. The photos speak for themselves. Enjoy.
NEXT POST: I’ll cover what train travel was like for us, introduce you to more passengers and and show more photos of our journey.