As I sit here in my home, not being able to go anywhere, I’m reminded that a mere three weeks ago, I was in the middle of going almost everywhere in the continental United States. From March 1 thru 10, I was, at different times, on a plane, in a car, and on a train, traveling through Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California, and many places in between. I’d like to tell you about my self-imposed ten-day coast-to-coast train writing retreat.
But first, a bit of backstory. Like most red-blooded American boys, I loved trains as a kid. I had my own train set; sure, it was Playskool plastic and not a Lionel HO scale version of the Pennsylvania-Dutch Railway or whatever, but that didn’t mean I loved it any less. Even the train sets that I never owned brought me joy. I would trace the tracks of all the pictures of the sets in the JCPenney and Sears Christmas catalog, knowing full well that Christmas would come and go, and there’d be no train under the tree for me.
Riding a train was even better. And no, I don’t mean those little choo-choo’s at the amusement park; I mean real trains on real tracks. Took a few trips as a youngster, but up until about three weeks ago, I hadn’t been on a long train trip in more than 30 years. So, when I got the chance to remedy that, I jumped aboard.
I wanted to get a sleeper car, since I’d never experienced train travel that way before. And there’s no point in getting a sleeper car for a trip that lasts less than a day. So, I planned a east-to-west and back again trip that comprised 71 hours of riding the rails.
However, I couldn’t board the train in my home state of Florida; well, I could have, but then I’d have to ride it up the coast to either DC, New York City, or Boston, and then get on a different train and go west from there. That would have taken a bit longer, and I really didn’t want to have to transfer trains more than once (most of the east-west routes went through a transfer point at Chicago’s Union Station). So, my train trip started with a flight from Tampa to Boston early, too early, on a Sunday morning.
The flight was at 6:00 a.m., which meant I had to be at the airport around 4:00, which meant I’d have to get up around 3:00. I ended up sleeping through my alarm by about 45 minutes, then dashed to TIA and made it onto the plane with about a half hour to spare. Flew to Boston, Massachusetts without a hitch, then took a Lyft from the airport to the Boston South Amtrak Station. My Lyft driver asked me why I was getting onto a train after just getting off a plane; I just told him “long story.” He said I could’ve taken public transportation from the airport for free; yeah, that’s gonna be a “no” from me, dawg. Not that I’m a snob or anything; just that it was my first time in Boston, and I’m sure that was written all over my face and luggage.
Sleeper car riders get to kick back in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, a private waiting area with attendants, free drinks and snacks, and comfy couches and TVs. I had about four hours to lounge around before I’d board my bus. No, that’s not a typo; Amtrak called me the day before my trip and told me that my train was not running, because they were doing maintenance on the tracks, so I’d have to take a bus from Boston to the Amtrak station in Albany, New York.
I didn’t let the fact that my train was the only one not running bother me too much. The private bus trip to Albany wasn’t too bad; the bus wasn’t full, so I had two seats to myself, and the weather and traffic were good. Took about five hours to get to Albany, NY. Rensselaer, NY, actually, since the train station was across the Hudson from Albany proper. I asked the lady where the Metropolitan Lounge was. “We don’t have one,” she said, “we’re a small town.” Oh well, not a problem. I killed some time in their quaint cafe, where I had coffee and a muffin; nothing too heavy, as I’d be eating dinner while aboard the train.
Before too much longer, I was in my compartment on the Lakeshore Limited, heading west to Chicago, Illinois. It was… well, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t it. Not that it was unpleasant; it’s just that I thought that maybe they would have made a few more modern upgrades in the thirty-or-so years since I’ve been on a train. All the furniture, fixtures, and electronics were very last-century. Lots of incandescent lighting, velcro, and hook and sling setups. The train did have wi-fi though, which was a big plus.
I got a little bit of writing done before and after dinner in the dining car, which was located about six or seven cars away from where I was. The sleeper cars were near the front of the train, while the dining car was basically the caboose of this long-tripper. (The cafe car, which was open to everyone, was right behind my car.) As anyone who’s walked from car to car in a train will tell you, it’s not a leisurely stroll when you’re rollin’ down the tracks. I did manage to make it there and back without me or my food ending up in some stranger in coach’s lap.
Like I said, the sleeper cabin wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a bit cramped, in my opinion. Even though my Viewliner Roomette said it was for up to two people, I couldn’t really imagine two people traveling in here. I booked the roomette because I thought it’d be big enough. After I scraped my ankles on some protruding piece of metal for the fifth time, I’d made up my mind that I would get a bedroom cabin for my return trip.
END OF PART ONE