icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Living and Writing in the Natural World

Across a Continent--by Rail

Country Lane, Iowa

What a quandary presented itself early this summer. I love my biennial reunion of college roommates; we graduated from Yale 50 years ago. But I hate getting from California back to the East Coast, site of our get-togethers. All can agree that airplane travel since 9/11 is no fun: long lines, removing a ridiculous list of clothing articles, more long lines, cramped seats in flying boxes of metal 40,000 feet above the ground (which has never seemed an entirely good idea to me), during which time you face yet more lines if you require a restroom.

And that’s when everything works out. On my return flight two years ago from the reunion, a storm grounded flights out of my Dallas connection, leaving me and several thousand frustrated travelers scrambling to nab overnight hotel rooms and alternate flights the next day (all on our own efforts and own dime, of course, since storms are an “Act of God”). Yikes.

This summer I found a solution to my quandary. A mode of travel that eliminates security clearances and lines anywhere in the process, gives you nothing but spacious and comfortable quarters, and permits you unexcelled viewing of the entire vast, diverse country we are privileged to call home. All at little or no expense above airlines, and but a modest additional investment in time. I took a train.

Several long-route Amtrak trains, actually. From Sacramento, California to Chicago to Washington, D.C. And back, via New Orleans, Houston, and Los Angeles. Including stops along the way to dip into various opportunities for kayaking, art viewing, and historical places. Oh yes: and mojitos and beignets in the French Quarter.

Before the specifics of time and money comparisons with flying, let me describe the train experience, departing Sacramento on the famous California Zephyr. I reserved a sleeping berth, since I’m several years into my 8th decade (50 years since college, remember!) and I don’t do overnights in a chair anymore. Amtrak’s “Superliner Roomette” accommodates 2 travelers comfortably, but I had mine all to myself, since my good wife was still teaching in May. During the day, there are 2 comfortable, roomy seats before a large picture window in your own, private 3 and a half foot by six and a half foot compartment. At night, your attendant converts these into 2 beds (plenty long, the bottom berth 2 foot 4 inches wide). Bathrooms and showers are close and I never had to wait for either.

The dining car is one or two hallways away, the observation car (extensive glass walls and ceilings, swivel chairs, tables, beer, wine, spirits, and snacks) another car down. I traveled amongst all this throughout the day, since I dislike staying in one place. The dining and observation cars, especially, are gloriously spacious. And, if you are inclined, full of interesting people from all over the country with whom to converse and exclaim over the sights.

The sights! Day 1 we crossed the Sierra Nevada, using portions of the route common to the Transcontinental Railroad of the 1860s, with good views of Donner Pass and Donner Lake, the site of the 1847 tragedy. In the afternoon the train followed the California Trail along the barely-flowing Humboldt River in Nevada, a long, dry, incredibly hot terrain that hordes of “California or Bust” wagon trains had somehow traversed (tho not without fatalities).

Day 2 we followed the Colorado River a stunning 238 miles, treated to the glories of a series of deeply-cut canyons (Ruby, Glenwood, Gore) with the tumultuous, churning Colorado set deep within an ever changing palette of stony colors and contours. Then we began to rise higher, and colder, and the snow accumulated as we crossed the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. At dusk we began our descent, the far flung lights of Denver gleaming on the high plateau.

Day 3 dawned to an entirely different world: the rolling hills of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, recently plowed farmland soggy still from an unusually rainy spring, tidy farmhouses nestled within the fields, all manner of trucks and farm equipment surrounding them. Narrow lanes connected more frequent small towns, including Ottumwa, Iowa, home town of Radar O’Reilly, company clerk of the famous 4077th MASH hospital in the Korean War (at which I had my photo taken with a new friend).

I chose to spend a day in Chicago, and well spent it was, wandering afoot throughout fabulous Millennial Park and the Art Institute, both close to my hostel, which was but a 15-minute walk from Union Station.

And finally Day 4 of travel, the overnight Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C., with most of the next morning spent following the stately Potomac River from historic and quaint Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia into the nation’s capitol. There I was met by high school buddy Jon, who kindly put me up for nearly a week as I used public transport to visit several museums on the National Mall, Mt. Vernon, catch a baseball game between the Nationals and my San Francisco Giants (lost by the Giants, predictably), and visit college buddy Tim and wife Susan in southern Maryland, with whom I kayaked the Potomac River into Chesapeake Bay (more later).

Beyond the pleasure of the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, following the Colorado and Potomac rivers, and soaking up the picturesque farmlands of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, I particularly enjoyed the pace of train travel. Going to bed when you pleased (the berth was comfortable, plenty wide), viewing the moonlit scenery thru the window after dark and sleepily noting the stops overnight, waking up when you pleased, and the pleasant alternation throughout the day between reading in the compartment, viewing the varied scenery through which we passed, or conversing with my fellow travelers in the observation car. Oh, and deciding whether to have beer or wine or tea throughout the day.

The framework for this pleasant daily duty was provided by the three meals in the dining car, whose cost was included in the accommodations. Each meal featured a menu of half a dozen choices, from vegetarian to steak, with side dishes. Each table had four seats, which were filled randomly as the travelers entered the dining room. So I met a wide cross section of fellow travelers and had many an interesting conversation.

One meal was with a Silicon Valley Asian-American who hated flying, so was taking Amtrak to Madison, Wisconsin to install a Barracuda security system in the university IT network. Another was with a taciturn former welder (who had served in Vietnam while I was there), whose profession had disappeared in his hometown during the 2008 recession, and had turned to driving RV’s from the nearby factory to dealerships all over the country—and returning by Amtrak.

Another meal was with an old former high school science teacher from Indiana (“How old are you, sir?” “Seven squared, reverse the digits!”) who had for years taken his classes camping out west in the summer. So of course, ever since his retirement, a different former student had escorted him on Amtrak out west, again, year by year. This year’s escort was my 70-year-old new friend who posed with me on the station of Radar O’Reilly’s hometown.

Another was with the former player and manager of the Tottenham soccer team in England, touring America with his wife and a dozen other boisterous limeys. They had traveled to New York City by ship, and from there headed to Los Angeles and other destinations, all by rail.

Another (on my return trip) was with a sweet white-haired lady returning to her hometown in Mississippi after visiting her daughter and grandkids in Virginia. We discovered we both were big fans of the Amelia Peabody mystery series, and discussed Amelia and doing archeology in Egypt as we passed through the swampy countryside of the South.

Well, you get the picture. A most pleasant, comfortable, unhurried journey by rail, in which I saw a lot of America and a cross section of its people. Almost without exception, the staff of Amtrak I encountered were genial, easy-going, and anxious to please, both on this trip and many others. This has not been my experience with airlines. So: how much did my rail trip cost, and how long did it take, compared to airlines?

From Sacramento to Washington, D.C. took four days of travel (if you didn’t stop and enjoy Chicago, that is—or Denver, or Ottumwa, Iowa, or Harper’s Ferry, or…). The same trip by air would take six to nine hours, of course (depending on whether you had connections)—a whole (grueling) day of travel, when you consider getting to the airport and all those lines and waits. So yes: rail takes longer. Do you think you can free up four days instead of one for travel? If you can’t, then I might gently suggest you consider whether you’re working too hard, or investing sufficiently in your enjoyment of life.

What about cost? Consider the first leg of my trip: Sacramento to Chicago on the California Zephyr. My Superliner Roomette and seven meals cost me $477. If my wife or my traveling buddy Al had been with me, it would have cost us $640, or $320 each. The reservations can be changed without any fee; they can be canceled two weeks out with a 20% fee; less than two weeks out, you are given a full voucher for future travel.

Compare a United Airlines flight Sacramento to Chicago. The Flexible Economy fare (which will give you a refund minus fees if canceled, though the ticket cannot be changed without fees) would cost me $453. (Basic Economy and Economy fares do not permit changes or give refunds, which is too “iffy” for my and most people’s taste.)

So rail cost me $477 versus $453 air—a negligible difference. And note that if I had a traveling companion sharing the accommodation with me, rail would cost us $130 less than air per person. With seven meals thrown in for good measure (value of meals? Something like $120 per person, I would estimate). Note also that the Superliner Roomate is very spacious and comfortable, still, with two people. And you can bring 2 pieces of luggage and personal items aboard a train with no fees.

Verdict: rail entails moderately more time, and either less or negligibly more money than air (with the value of meals an added bonus). And most importantly: the travel experience is infinitely superior in terms of comfort, spaciousness, scenery, and company.

Any downsides to rail? A couple. If you are sharing your Superliner Roomette with a wife or friend, someone has to take the top berth. It’s not quite as wide as the bottom berth (2 feet versus 2 feet 4 inches), has no view out the window, and requires a certain amount of agility to mount the several steps to get there. If both of you are overweight and lack agility, it will be challenging for one of you. (By the way, a safety net can be clicked into place, that prevents the occupier of the top berth from rolling out; I’ve never used it.)

Airlines are famous, these days, for being late (and for overbooking). Trains don’t overbook, but can be late; if you’re traveling thousands of miles, you might be several hours late (due mainly to freight trains owning the lines and thus getting precedence). Amtrak is great about making sure that, if you miss a connection due to a late train, you are guaranteed to get space on the next one out. My travel buddy Al and I usually avoid tight connections, and choose to take overnight breaks in our trips wherever such occur.

Smoking is strictly forbidden on the train, and even on the platform if the stop is a short one. The several longer stops a day, when smoking is permitted on the platform, are clearly announced. Don't even think about sneaking a smoke aboard, even in your private Surfliner Roomette. On my return trip, a couple of such furtive smokers were discovered and kicked off the train in Alpine, Texas. Left standing on the platform with their luggage as the train chugged away.

Ever been to Alpine? It's isolated, small, hot, and dry. The phrase "god-forsaken" comes to mind, altho my buddy Al says the appearance is deceiving, and that this tiny west Texas town boasts a modest college, a good museum treating Big Bend National Park (just south a ways), and a bar in the Holland Hotel where old cattlemen in worn boots spin fascinating tales of the early, rough Texas days of ranching and longhorn cattle.

Safety of rail travel? I have no statistics, tho I strongly suspect it’s far safer than travel by automobile. And remember: no one has ever fallen 40,000 feet from a train.

Next: Adventures on the Trip Back

Post a comment