Clickety-Clack 2: 5000 miles on Amtrak… The ‘Joys’ of Bunk Bed Sleeping

This shows the width of our roomette. My suitcase is perched next to me and against the wall. It had picked up a hitch-hiker: Peggy’s purse. The suitcase had to come down when Peggy climbed up to her bunk bed. Our window is on the other side. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The last time I slept in a bunk bed I was sharing a one bedroom apartment with two classmates, Cliff and Jerry, at Berkeley in 1964/65. I was on the bottom bunk then, as well. My memory includes one particularly wild night. It was our first weekend back at UC. Cliff had brought home a small wooden barrel of tequila from Mexico where he had spent the summer in a Spanish language immersion program.  For some insane reason, the three of us decided we had a solemn responsibility to drain the barrel to kick off our senior year. It was not our best decision.

Jerry promptly fell asleep and started snoring. Loudly, if I remember correctly. He had the regular bed. I spent 30-minutes staring at myself in the bathroom mirror in a semi-hallucinatory state fascinated by the fact I couldn’t stop drooling. When I returned to bed, Cliff, who had the top bunk, talked unceasingly. He wouldn’t shut up. Since neither Jerry nor I was listening, I assume he was talking to himself. I’d grunt on occasion. Finally, I lifted up my leg and kicked his mattress. Down came Cliff, mattress and all on top of me. After we had untangled ourselves, we laughed until we were hoarse and then put Cliff’s mattress on the floor for the rest of the night. I think he was still talking when I fell asleep. Damn, did we have headaches the next morning!

Fast forward 56 years to now for my second bunk bed experience. This time on Amtrak. Peggy had top honors. Our tiny sleeper was about five feet wide and seven feet long. It started as two comfortable chairs facing each other. Large windows provided great views from our double decker roomette.  There was barely, and I do mean barely, room for our two day packs and two small suitcases. When we were ready for bed, the car attendant came to our room and set it up. Our two chairs became the lower bunk and the top bunk was released from its attachment to the ceiling. The whole process took about three minutes.

Peggy shows off our windows. Reflecting sunlight distorted the view in this case.
Our roomette bunk beds are set up for us and waiting for us to crawl in. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The bottom line of all this, of course, is how did we sleep. There were three factors. The first was the comfort of the beds. No problem there. The second was their width. Given all of the times that Peggy and I have slept in small backpacking tents, they felt roomy.  The real challenge was adapting to the moving train. First there was the clickety-clack of the wheels passing over the joints in the rails. It was repetitive, however, and soon disappeared into the background. I thought of it as noisemaker to lure me sleep. 

The train’s swaying was another issue altogether. We didn’t have a problem coming across the Sierras. Trains go slowly when they climb and go down mountains. It’s on the flats that the engineers put the pedal to the metal. It’s where they make up for lost time. I can imagine one engineer boasting to another, “I made it across there in an hour!” with the other responding, “Ha, it only took me 59 minutes.” For the most part, the swaying is like the clickety-clack. You get used to it. But there were instances when I was reminded of being on a ship during a really bad storm or hitting heavy turbulence in a jet. There were three particularly bad situations: when the train was traveling over rough tracks, when it went over a poorly maintained road crossing, and when it went around a corner faster than it should. 

During the day, it wasn’t much of a problem, assuming you had something to grab onto if you were out and about. Sleeping was a different issue, as we learned our first night. The attendant had worked his three-minute magic and we had settled down for a long winter’s sleep across Nevada when the train hit some rough track, traveled over a poorly maintained road crossing, and went around a sharp curve— all at the same time— fast. Wham! Peggy was thrown into the netting designed to keep her from rolling off the bed and I was thrown into the side of the train. “That does it!” I head Peggy mumble loudly as she scooted across the bed, climbed down from her bunk, and slipped into mine. Remember how I said the bunk was roomy. That’s for one person. There was simply no room for the two of us. We had to sleep head to toe. I slept with Peggy’s feet and she slept with mine. I’m not sure which of us got the better deal. 

Traveling between Chicago and Washington DC we were upgraded to a bedroom. It came with a double-sized bed that was comfortable for the two of us, a sink, and its own bathroom! We didn’t have to use the communal facility. While our bedroom wasn’t large by any stretch of the imagination, it felt palatial in comparison to our roomette. A small shower even provided a bath assuming you didn’t mind washing off the toilet at the same time. Recommendation: Choose a time to bathe when the train isn’t swaying.

Our bedroom even came with an extra chair. The wide couch became our double bed. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

We had one other configuration. Amtrak had supposedly upgraded its roomettes with a restroom. We had one returning home on our route between Chicago and LA. The toilet that snuggled up to the bottom bunk, sort of like you might see in a prison cell. It was inches away from my head when I was is bed. That was not okay. To add insult to injury, Amtrak had removed the communal restrooms from the car. We had to go on a three-car hike to find a real bathroom. Our attendant told us that the company had realized the error of its ways and was no longer building the roomette restrooms. What a surprise.

All in all, while I’ve had a bit of fun with this post, we slept in relative comfort, especially if you compare it with trying to sleep on an airplane. Even the coach seats on Amtrak are wide, comfortable, and fold back far enough to create a half-way decent night’s sleep.

My photos of the trip today include our journey from Sacramento to Washington DC, minus, of course, the pictures we took while crossing the Rocky Mountains that I shared in my last post. Enjoy.

It seemed appropriate for our journey to start in Sacramento since it served as the terminus for America’s first Transcontinental Railroad, as shown in this mural in the train station
Leaving Sacramento, we began to work our way up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. These are the foothills near Colfax, about 30 miles away from where I was raised and a thousand feet higher.
Crossing the Sierras provided numerous views of the mountains. The track parallels Interstate 80, our usual route across the mountains. You can see it edging around the side of Red Mountain.
We were also treated to closer looks at the snow. Here it quite beautifully covers rocks. I had been hoping for and expecting more snow. I’d spent several winters sharing a cabin about ten miles from where this photo was taken where the snow was often 10-20 feet deep.
The train comes out of the Sierras at Donner Lake. The Donner Party spent its tragic winter down near the end of the lake. Thus the lake’s name.
After passing though the small town of Truckee, the tracks follow the Truckee River down to Reno. I took this photo shooting up from the river as the sun was setting.
And this one.
The sun sets on the Truckee River, ending our first day of train travel.
We woke up the next morning to some impressive eastern Utah scenery.
It was the type of country that Peggy and I have come to associate with the southern part of the state.
Crossing into Colorado, I snapped a picture of a farm with its long rows of grapes.
I will feature one photo of our Rocky Mountain crossing taken with our iPhone and not included in my last post. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Having gone to sleep for our second night after crossing the Rocky Mountains, this was more typical of the views we had when we woke up. My great, great, great grandfather James Mekemson and his wife, Mary, plus lots and lots and lots of Mekemsons are buried in eastern Illinois, a few miles away from this tree.
Chicago’s Union Train Station is truly grand. And since Christmas was coming, it had a grand Christmas tree.
Peggy stands in front of the tree for perspective. In addition to the large Christmas balls and small lights, the tree was appropriately decorated with signs from America’s different railways.
We went for a short walk which was supposed to be longer except for the 8 degree F weather. We entertained ourselves by taking shots of skyscrapers reflected in skyscrapers.
Having gone to sleep again outside of Chicago, we woke up in the Appalachian Mountains.
And were treated to views of snow covered trees. We weren’t in the Sierras or Rockies anymore, Dorothy. Grin.
When we passed through Harper’s Ferry we were an hour or so out of Washington. So I’ll end my photos here today.

For my next post, I am going to experiment with a photo essay. (It’s called what do you do with your 80,000 plus photos.) The post after that I’ll feature our Amtrak trip back to the West plus eating on the train, which is all about meeting strangers.

38 thoughts on “Clickety-Clack 2: 5000 miles on Amtrak… The ‘Joys’ of Bunk Bed Sleeping

  1. On our one cross country trip – D.C. to Billilngs, Montana – I was young enough not to care about sleep and spent most of the nights wandering the train looking out between cars and talking in the club car. On the Auto Train more recently, however, it was the swaying that kept me from a good night’s rest.
    Nonetheless, your photos make me want to do the cross country bit again.

    • Don’t know if I was ever young enough not to want to sleep, Ray. 🙂 But I did find myself opening the curtains and looking out at the country when I couldn’t sleep. There was a lot of that on the way home when I had a really bad cold. I was glad for the distraction. I think it was a great way to see parts of America I hadn’t seen before. As for the swaying and sleep, it was totally based on how serious the swaying was. –Curt

  2. Lovely description of the sleeping arrangements. Sleeper travel is due to come back in Europe soon after a couple of decades of decline. Doubt it’ll be as roomy as your options but having the chance would be lovely.

    • Interesting on sleeper travel in Europe, AC. I think train travel is making something of a comeback. I was interested to read that Amtrak had there best year ever in 2019. And thanks. I had fun writing it. –Curt

  3. Ahhhhh, love this. And love your photographs. What beautiful scenery. I can just imagine you two sitting there gazing out the window for mile after peaceful mile. There’s nothing quite like train travel.
    I’ve overnighted on trains 3 times in Oz, once in Turkey, once in Egypt, 3 times in China, and once in Thailand. Oz was best, Egypt and China vie for worst. I know all about those precarious top bunks! And hope I never have to do that again!

  4. Thanks for the tour. Poor John and I took the train across Canada with a similar sleeping arrangement, although we had two narrow compartments opposite one another. I love sleeping on trains.

    • We were right there with you, Gunta. It was the airlines doubling there prices for Xmas that sent us scrambling to Amtrak. Thank you airlines. 🙂 Glad you are enjoying the series. Thanks. –Curt

  5. Talk about swaying trains and clickity clacks, you and Peggy should come here and try our local trains. I bet they are slower than Amtrak. One can take a nap, wake up and still see the same cows as twenty minutes earlier.
    Train journeys are fascinating though. I am always keen on watching the views pass by and then the other passengers habits. Did you know that in Russia the overnight train travellers are not sex segregated and cosily all sleep in the same compartments.

  6. I enjoy following your Amtrak travels. We took the train once from Chicago to Whitefish Montana where we were living at the time. I remember ‘slowly’ following the Mississippi river for what seemed like a very long time. I was struck by how wide and full the Mississippi was. There had been a lot of rain and the river was running high and wide. The tracks were unstable because of this, so we went ever so slowly.

    It seemed like the train hadn’t been cleaned in ages and was pretty gross. They actually ran out of food and at one of the stops picked up whatever was available. By the time we arrived in Whitefish the train was about 5 hours late. I was so glad to get off. Not an adventure I want to repeat.

    I have enjoyed train traveling in Europe. The distances often are shorter and the TGV is amazing!

    I look forward to your next installment.

    • Train travel in the US was a dirt-poor relative in comparison to other modes of travel for years, Arati. There simply wasn’t much funding for it. Even for urban transportation. One of the things GM did in the 50s was buy up urban rail systems in areas like LA and SF and tear up the tracks so people would be forced to moved to rubber tired vehicles, i.e what they sold. –Curt

  7. My favorite photo’s the one that shows the snow covering the rocks, making it look like a set of miniature mogols. I wondered as I was reading whether you had the sort of lee cloths that keep sleepers in their bunks on a boat. Sure enough, there it was: your mention of the netting that was strung along the bunks. Your mention of the train’s clicky-clack in places brought back memories of sleeping in the back seat of the car when I was a kid. Iowa highways at the time were poured in rectangles with some sort of tar between them as expansion joints. Every time you drove over one, there was “the sound.” it was comforting, actually. I’m not sure how comforting I’d find the sense that a train was taking a curve too fast, though.

    • Certainly, the rolling of the boat on rough seas would require lee cloths, Linda. Since all of my overnight travel on boats has involved large cruise ships with levelers, I haven’t had the experience of being bounced out of a bed at sea. Try riding over those roses with expansion joints on a bike. Not pleasant. Especially if you are just starting our journey and you tail hasn’t toughened up. Ouch, ouch, ouch. 🙂 –Curt

    • Eight days altogether, Coral. Other than a four hour layover in Chicago, our trip was nonstop. If Peggy and I do it again, we plan to include layover days along the way. Thanks for commenting. –Curt

  8. You don’t have much room in those roomettes, and I needed to see your photos for myself. I have this glamorous picture in my head of train travel, and this brings reality into the picture. Packing light is a must, I see. And being patient with bathroom availability — well, I guess you just gotta.

    • You can choose a bedroom instead of a roomette, Rusha, that has more space and a decent bathroom. You have to pay more, of course. But that’s how Peggy and I may go next time. Laughing and agreeing about the space. You really do have to see it. 🙂 –Curt

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