Clickety-Clack 3: 5000 miles on Amtrak… Meeting Strangers Is on the Menu

Amtrak Train backing into LA station under the watchful eyes of an engineer.

He was a large man in his 50s with a tattoo covered body, an ex-con who had found the Lord, a smoke jumper with a serious twitch who seemed to have made a few too many jumps. She was a petite, attractive, college graduate going for her PhD in economics with a desire to work for the federal government. It would have been hard to find two more opposite people. They were our dinner companions on Amtrak one evening. Amtrak’s policy is to seat four people to a table. If there are four of you traveling together, fine. If not, you are seated with strangers based on when you arrive. The smoke jumper had arrived first, and then us. The student last. 

She had been seated next to the smoke jumper and eyed him nervously every time he made a serious twitch in her direction. With reason. He told us one of his twitches had caused him to dump a pint of beer on the man sitting next to him at dinner the night before. He liked to talk and we were a captive audience. Not that I objected, he had interesting stories to tell, but Peggy and I did what we could to involve the student in our conversation. She’d manage a few words before he jumped back in. She was just returning from an economic conference in Washington and was on her way home. Turns out she lives in Medford and works during the summer at an up-scale restaurant in Jacksonville, one we like to go to.

Given Amtrak’s policy, we never knew who our meal companions would be. Dinners were more formal and we had to sign up for specific times. There was even a real table cloth! It was paper for breakfast and lunch and you could show up any time during meal hours. The seating policy remained the same, however. Usually, we ended up seated with couples. Once we spent a delightful meal with a lesbian couple. Another time it was with a Russian who owned shoe stores in New York City and was on his way to set one up in LA. “I have too many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives in New York,” he told us. He was looking to escape. To keep the conversation going during another meal, I started telling stories about my encounters with bears. Soon, all of the surrounding tables and two of the waiters were listening in. 

I have to say the food was quite good. One of the items on the evening menu was a small, tender steak, cooked to perfection. It became my go-to meal. I had steak for every dinner! Since all meals were included for those of us who had sleepers, why not? Had I been paying the $35 Amtrak was charging for the steak, I’d have been down in the less formal café car eating hamburgers and hot dogs along with most of the coach passengers.

While meals took care of our social life, going up to the observation car and staring out the windows at the passing scenery (or sitting in our rooms watching the passing scenery) was our major entertainment. We also read and I got some writing done. I had a horrendous cold on the way back and isolated myself most of the time. I’m glad we were traveling pre-coronavirus; Amtrak might have kicked me off the train or my fellow passengers stoned me. 

The windows on the observation car. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

As for the future of Amtrak; it seems bright. They had their best year ever last year in terms of passengers and revenues. Train travels seems to be on the upswing. No surprise there, given how much fun air travel is. One of the folks I follow in Europe told me that some European trains were going to add sleepers, which they had dropped a couple of decades ago. 

A disturbing trend on Amtrak is that the company may be taking lessons from the airlines. We were served prepackaged airline food on our trip between Chicago and Washington DC. It had the same bland, inedible quality of something you eat to avoid starvation. 

I had a disconcerting conversation with our car attendant on the Coastal Starlight. The train was famous for a club car that came straight out of the glory days of rail travel. People would take the train just to experience it. Amtrak still has the car, but they no longer include it on the Starlight. The attendant told me that Amtrak was trying to standardize the service on its various trains. Apparently, the car was too special. With the airline food in mind, I had replied, “Ah, you mean increasing profits by reducing service.” Were narrower seats and added costs for everything in the future? He hadn’t commented but did get a strange look in his eyes.

Regardless of what Amtrak might do to its service, the relaxing feel of train travel combined with its unique view of the world as it passes by and the fun conversations with strangers will bring me back to experience the clickety-clack of the rails again and again.

Today I will feature photos Peggy and I took on our return trip across the country. The trip took us from Washington DC to Chicago, Chicago the LA, and then LA to Sacramento.

My cold discouraged photography and programmed a coughing fit each time I wanted to take a picture. We were well past Chicago when this silo caught my attention.
The middle of our country features vast flatlands where a single tree can add interest.
Being the western boy I am, I confess that the mountains of New Mexico put my cold on hold.
Trains require lots of switchbacks when crossing over mountains to maintain a relatively flat grade. It’s one of the few times you get to see the train engines.
Having returned to the Southwest, we were once again treated to colorful rocks. It got dark after we passed through Albuquerque. We went to sleep…
And woke up making our way across the San Gabriel Mountains approaching the LA basin.
And then dropped into the LA basin.
This photo taken at the LA train station went along with the photo at the top of the post. It provides a perspective on the height of Amtrak’s double decker trains. The added height gave us great views from our roomette.
As you might well imagine, there was no lack of graffiti along the tracks as we left LA.
The Coastal Starlight soon had us passing by rich farm lands and nurseries as we cut toward the coast.
And we were soon looking out on the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Views of the Pacific Coast near Santa Barbara are one of the highlights of traveling the Coastal Starlight. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
We were impressed during our journey by the photos you can now take with an iPhone. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A final coastal shot by Peggy. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
As we left Santa Barbara, the Coastal Starlight began to make its way inland through the Coastal foothills.
Eventually bringing us to the incredibly rich farmlands of the Salinas Valley, the land of John Steinbeck. The sun would soon sink into the West. Peggy and I arrived back in Sacramento around midnight, having completed our 5000 mile journey, tired but excited to share our tales of train travel. We hope that you have enjoyed this series.

NEXT POSTS: On Monday I am going to write about our travel plans for this year, which translates into what I will be blogging about. There are fun things like cruising up the Rhine River and going through the Panama Canal. Wednesday’s photo essay will be on the beauty of the American River as it flows through Sacramento. Hiking and biking its many trails are what kept me sane the years I lived in the city.

51 thoughts on “Clickety-Clack 3: 5000 miles on Amtrak… Meeting Strangers Is on the Menu

  1. An unfortunate reality is that in urban areas, the trains pass through the least desirable views. But the rest of the scenery makes up for it.
    Your comments, however, suggest that if we are to follow your example, we need to get out trip in soon before they get rid of all the benefits of rail travel while trying to squeeze out a profit.

  2. Oh dear, shame about the airline food 😦 That really is going backwards. One of my favourite memories is dining on a train going from Nairobi to Mombassa. The rolling stock was very old but the dining car was splendid — all wooden panels and black tie service. The food wasn’t bad either 😉

    • That would have been an incredible trip, AC. I drove it once in a VW bug. 🙂 No black tie service there. Although I remember eating at a restaurant in Arusha at the base of Mt. Kilamajaro where the waiters all wore black ties and spoke in these incredibly British accents. I was young and naive at the time and picked up my fish knife for the butter knife. One of the tall black waiters announced in a restaurant wide voice, “That is your fish knife, sir!” Picture me crawling under the table. 🙂 –Curt

  3. In 2017, we went completely around the U.S. on Amtrak. Wonderful trip! It’s sad to see them switching to “airline meals” (which you don’t even get on the airlines anymore). It’s clearly a move to cut staff and save money. But I read an article wherein Amtrak tried to justify the change by saying that “younger travelers” didn’t want to sit and eat with strangers.That certainly seemed like self-serving nonsense on Amtrak’s part. Why travel if you don’t want to meet strangers or share a meal with them? We’re planning another Amtrak journey for later this year and are looking forward to meeting strangers!

    • Getting to know someone new always adds a little spice to travel. And often, the highlights of a trip are the people you meet along the way. I couldn’t agree more, although I am a bit shy. Fortunately, Peggy can strike up a conversation with anyone. Where is your next Amtrak trip going to be? –Curt

  4. More good pictures (love the silo!) and more realistic commentary on the joys and perils of traveling and eating on a train. Now, I’m not so sure I could take a long train trip — as in across the U.S. — but I wouldn’t mind trying something short. No guarantees, of course, for quality of food, compatibility of dining companions, and scenery, but might be fun to take my chances.

    • The silo… glad I caught it since I went about a thousand miles taking very few photos, Rusha. 🙂 It was surprising how fast the trip went. I’ve been on airplanes that seemed longer. Grin. But a shorter trip could definitely give you the feel of what it is like. Peg and my first Amtrak experience was doing commute trips from Boston to Connecticut when our son was working as staff at the Naval Academy. The trips were only like three hours but we really enjoyed them. –Curt

      • A train trip would be perfect, Rusha. You will want to be careful when the train is swaying a lot if you are walking around. But the dining car is close to the sleeping car and the observation car. And you can order room service if you want. 🙂 We did that one night when my cold was really bad. –Curt

  5. Curt you transported me to your dinner table. I’m a mix of curiosity and dread in these situations. Most of the time it’s a fascinating encounter but there are the times one wishes for a magic disappearing potion to be served. I can imagine your bear stories had the dining car enthralled! I want to sit at your table. 🙂

    • We would love to have you and your husband at our table. Sue. Imagine all of the tales the four of us could share! I’m a bit shy when it comes to strangers. Left on my own, I’d be off reading a book, somewhere. Peggy, on the other hand, will talk to anyone anywhere. It was a good skill for Amtrak. –Curt

  6. Yes, I did enjoy the series, but a shame to hear you had to suffer a cold during it. I imagine that did make picture taking a big of a project!! You did quite well nevertheless.

    • I’m sold, too, Peggy. As for the cold, it sometimes seems like visiting grandkids and getting a cold sort of go together. They usually aren’t as obnoxious, however. Thank you for coming along. –Curt

    • Hi JoHanna. I’ve been enjoying your posts. The train trip was indeed a fun way to see America. And Amtrak has several more routes that I would like to explore. Hope all is well and Happy New Year. –Curt

      • All is excellent here Curt. Really busy time. You are guaranteed to meet lots of interesting folks exploring by train, real pulse of America stories just waiting for you. All my best.

      • Glad to know all is well, Johanna. been awfully quiet out your way ever since you turned off comments. Glad you’ve kept the beautiful photos of the Sedona area and your commentary coming. –Curt

  7. Train travel was always my favourite way to go. The trip between Genoa, Italy and Turku, Finland, was my best trip ever. Of course, in Turku my Helvi was waiting. I took the ferry between Stockholm and Turku, Finland. Before Genoa I had 5 weeks on a passenger boat, total indulgence with food and vino daily.It was 1965.

    In those days, going through each country involved passport controls and different foods, freely available from hawkers walking along the train carriages outside. I remember a basket with hot chicken and a small bottle of wine.

    I can’t imagine the horrors of cruise ships with 4000 passengers and no way to get off.

    • 1965… when I got married to my first wife and flew off to Africa for two years of Peace Corps. it was a while ago, Gerard. 🙂 Sounds like you had a journey to treasure with a great prize at the end. –Curt

  8. As always, Peggy’s pictures are stunning. They made me want to hop on a train for the trip — not the destination. The way you described it, Curt, sounded like the perfect balance of meeting some strangers and enjoying spontaneous dinner conversation. I get to do this a lot when I’m traveling on business. We’re always encouraged to sit with new people each day, and I love the million different conversations that occur at these. But ultimately, I am an introvert and want my alone time and solitude. Time to write and read. Time to just watch the scenery out the window. I’m going to have to look into Amtrak tickets.

  9. Curt, the first photo had me hooked … the engineer looks just the part and wow, the train is humungous! Truly a beast! I doubt I’d get much writing done with such views through the observation windows. Dinners sound interesting with such a mixture of characters. I’m glad you got to regale your dining partners and other tables with your tales – you have so many amazing stories!

    • As I told Alison above, Annika, the engineer was pure serendipity. My goal was to show the size of the train and there he was!
      Truth be told, I didn’t get much writing done. I had been hoping for more. It’s always fun to trot out the stories when the situation is appropriate. And thanks. –Curt

  10. I’ve done nearly all my train(and bus) travel in Europe, with only one jaunt on the Coastal Starlight to Seattle years ago. It’s an interesting way to go – you definitely see more than from an airplane window. (If you even have a window seat.) You’ve done well with the pictures, shooting from a moving platform.

    • Thanks, Dave. And yes, most of us in this country are strangers to train travel. Do you take advantage of Portland’s light rail system?
      As for shooting from a moving platform, I’ve had loads of practice taking pictures from our van when we travel. –Curt

      • I use the light rail from time to time, but not real often. When the wife and I are on the road I’m always the driver, so it’s tough to take pics. But I’ve definitely taken my share of window shots from buses.

      • Peggy and I share the driving, Andrew. When we redrove my 10,000 mile bike route three years ago, Peggy drove the whole way so I could take photos. 🙂 I handled much of the politics for bringing light rail to Sacramento in the 70s. The person we brought in to handle the technical aspects, John Schuman, moved to Portland afterwards and worked on the system there. –Curt

  11. I love that photo of the grain elevator, and the one of the Salinas valley. It occurs to me that one of the great advantages of a long train trip is that you get as much variety in scenery as you do in dining companions. And honestly? If you were going to have a cold, better to be on a train than having to cope with airline travel, for any number of reasons. This really was a fun post — I enjoyed every bit of it, except for the suggestion that airline food might be coming to the trains. You’re right: do Amtrak sooner rather than later.

  12. Sounds like I’d better book a nice long ride before the service goes way downhill! What a shame; it seems to me that Amtrak service had fairly recently improved, and now they are going to cut it back again? My hometown in western PA had a stop on the Broadway Limited from Chicago to NYC, but we never took the full ride even after we moved to Chicago for a couple of decades. I’d love to go coast-to-coast as you guys did, but I wonder who I could talk into going with me?!

    • It will be interesting to see how far Amtrak goes to increase profits, Lexi. If it’s just the food, it still won’t take away views. I could do a pretty good job of packing in snacks for the the few days it takes to get across the country! Good luck in finding someone to go with you! Show potential companions the Rocky Mountain photos I took. 🙂 –Curt

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