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.
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.
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.