“It’s so much better than flying,” or so I’d overheard on a few occasions. Just how valid could that statement be, against a trip that was the same cost of flying but took almost forty hours longer? This, I needed to find out.
Amtrak has been around for 29 years, the name chiseled out of American interstate transport culture, along with Greyhound. Like its roadworthy kin, it has long since become an afterthought of travel planning, with crippling blows being hammered home by quick and cheap air alternatives. To set the record straight, pricing for an adult is not favorable if comparing with budget flights and online deals. Booking in advance and opting for a la-z-boy recliner as a bed, does reduce the Seattle to Chicago fare to the exact same $150 deal found for the flying alternative.
King street station in Seattle is the terminal for any of the Amtrak Cascades, Empire Builder, or Coast Starlight destinations, so anticipation was high, of entering a modern experience full of excited passengers and bustling porters, eager to get a journey started. Due to current renovations, it takes a little investigation to locate the actual entrance to the building and once inside, enthusiasm tends to get lost in the dark and tired waiting area that suffocates anything modern with a courtroom and banking claustophobia. The building is over one hundred years old yet the once enchanting upper decor, is now hidden above a lowered false ceiling. It took several minutes of exploration and lifting of left-over construction material, before an electrical outlet next to seating could be found. There are a few outlets under the public pay-phones, if willing to suffer the kicks and glares of anyone needing to dial out and I find this unforgivable, considering many people would need at the very least to keep cell phones charged, prior to heading off on a multi-day trip.
Still thinking on ‘airport schedule,’ turning up almost two hours early was completely unecessary; train boarding is last minute, at just ten minutes before departure. Expect a free-for-all, as the first people to get to the appropriate coach get the best seating. Thinking of a window seat on the left-hand side? make a run for it and eyeball the exact location while you’re approaching the door. Half of the coach is for single travelers, the front half being marked for groups of two or three, so plan on something near the rear that is not next to the stairway – the light and noise of people heading to the bathroom will not help the cause for sleep. The person you’ll end up next to however, is certainly a game of chance. This isn’t to say fellow travelers are unsavory but the next two days will be spent breathing, sleeping, and snoring, two feet from them. A good bet is to get chatting to people while still in the waiting room – striking up a conversation will not only pass time quicker, it could endear you to a better companion for the rest of the trip.
Without having time for warm bodies to mould into the seats, a broken announcement suddenly snapped everyone’s neck’s to attention. There was now a ‘mechanical problem’ and we would all have to step back off the train and wait for repairs. It would be another hour pacing the waiting room before getting back on board, during which time the train had departed to the depot for, apparently, a blocked toilet (you guys don’t have a portable suction?). Finally the journey was able to get underway and only one and a half hours late.
The bounce of the train is soft but sudden as we slowly creep toward Everett. Nobody outside seems to notice this metallic python of a beast slicing through their vision, except for a solitary homeless guy walking alongside the tracks, who duly points his middle finger at the whole train without bothering to avert his gaze from the track ballast. A metallic perfume starts to cut the air as I rest my head against the window and I realize it’s emanating from the vent.
My travelling companion for this journey is a wireframe man, dressed not unlike the bird-flipping vagrant in his choice of stained and tattered fashion, with windswept hair, rising like smoke from his head.
“How far you goin’?” he murmurs, with a last breath hiss.
“All the way, and you?”
“‘carga” he adds while turning away, indicating the end of the line at Chicago.
The brief conversation, visibly forced, is not to be continued. I ball my sweater into a makeshift pillow and angle my head against the soft vibrations of the window.
I’m distracted from the window some time later by an acrid smell of garlic. Rolling my eyes toward my companion, I notice in his hands a mosaic of food tightly packed into a glass jar, to which the lightly rusting lid has been removed. Small spoons of of the mystery mix are ushered into his mouth and onto his chin. Not content with this edible option, a flask is unscrewed to reveal a genie-like cloud of steam and meaty smell of bean stew, to confound my nostrils. I open my bag and remove one of my beef and mustard sandwiches, convinced by the concoction of odor next to me that I’m hungry.
Sometime after 7pm, the familiar buildings of Goldbar creep into the view. Concrete of the main cities are starting to become a fading memory with the low sun tinting the tops of the wilderness greens, with glistening yellow crowns. Finally, after a pedestrian pace through the pass, the scenery attempts to blur while picking up speed near Leavenworth. No sooner had the chains been loosened a little, the piercing wail of braking punctuated the first of the allowed smoke stops, in Wenatchee. Taking advantage of the chance for some air, I step outside to a much cooler environment. It feels so refreshing after the stiffness of adjustment to the coach seats but relief is cut short by the call to re-board.
The companion corpse bursts into life upon my return, to seize on the opportunity of a double-seat opening, further up the coach. It was at this moment I started to consider that I am both on the wrong side of the train for optimal viewing and also the opposite side to which I’m comfortable sleeping on. I decide to hold out for now in the hope that I get to keep both seats for an undisturbed sleep. During this contemplation, the conductor takes a seat and opens a novel across the aisle from me, throwing a prolonged wide smile in my direction as he settles in. We hit brief soundbites over the rattle of the rear door to one another, as he shares his pride of operating this forty four hour passage twice, over a six day period. While buffing up this badge of honor, his smile and gaze drop noticeably in response to my questions on slumber.
“How well do you sleep?”
“I don’t. I sleep when I get to Chicago.” He looks briefly in deep thought before widening his mouth into another smile.
“Don’t you wish you had my job!” he exclaims with forced enthusiasm and instantly raises his book, so as to not give me the option to answer.
It’s 1:40am as the shriek of steel wheels repelling movement against rooted tracks, woke me from a light sleep; we had arrived in Spokane. This stop would be one of the longer breaks, as additional coaches and a lounge car were being added. The temperature was enough to induce light shaking, even as I went through the warming motions of stretching my body out of its fetal position. Back in the coach, several more people had left during the last few stops and I found an empty double seat on the left-hand side, much further up the aisle. Settling in, relief turned into curiosity as a low growl and deathly hacking of smokers cough, vibrated the seat in front. Peering over, the sight of a small woman was confusing. These guttural bear sounds induced a wince of such magnitude to the woman sat behind me, that I could visualize nails scraping against a chalkboard in the depths of her ear. This is where the blessings of ear plugs and an eye mask neutralized both appropriate senses, eventually dropping me back to a restful sleep.
I slid the mask upwards and blinked hard to re-focus in the light before checking my iPhone; I’d slept for 3 hours. Light is instantly devoured by the seven mile Flathead Tunnel and my inner ears grip to my body, in fear of being suctioned out by this, the third longest tunnel in the Western hemisphere. I’m still sleepy and the air is uncomfortable, as I crack the joints of my twisted body back into usable shape for investigation of the lounge car.
Steaming coffee-flavored water is hard to swallow, both physically and financially at $1.75. Barely drinkable, the bitter heat is an indirect slap in the face to wake me from the morning comatose, while I step from the train to the platform in Whitefish, Montana. The clean air percolates my skin and kickstarts my bodily systems in such animated fashion, that I can envisage cartoonish waves of energy, flowing inward in power-up fashion. Yes, it felt that good. As the surroundings are drawn into focus, a blind man with his dog staggers forward from the lower levels of the coach for the ritual smoke-break. We exchange conversation and I’m left considering the senses of visually-impaired people and how they’re able to discern an individual, before they’ve even passed words. With comedic timing, his dog strains toward the grass verge for its own relief, revealing a bachelor party coming in to view, complete with a coconut bikini, grass skirts and acoustic guitar. Their off-key singing rolls past my ears, as they drift out of sight behind the ticket office.
The short journey to the West Glacier station, is spent in the bathroom where the only access to an electrical outlet for the coach is present. It starts to snow outside and with my iPhone battery mostly recharged, I fall back into my recliner to enjoy the lighter pace through unspoiled landscapes.
Havre turns out to be the enforced end of the line for one passenger, while they’re escorted away by immigration officials. All passengers are sized up by a local giant of a sheriff who could be accidentally intimidating, but still reminds me of the negative incident that occurred in North Dakota, a couple of years prior. My mind is numbing to the journey now as my whole body continues to drift in and out of sleep through the rest of Montana, and into North Dakota.
As afternoon ceded to evening, food supplies disappeared. As with air travel, over-compensating nutrition will always be the wisest move in budgeting travel, unless you have no qualms paying three times the going rate. Prepared for the worst after morning coffee, it was back to the lounge car for some sugar-packed snacks and a couple of shot bottles of whiskey. Determined not to brood on the obnoxious pricing, I cracked the whiskey open and cascaded a waterfall over the ice. Bringing the spiced cool liquid up to my lips, I couldn’t help but admire such perfect an end to this day, as the sun bled across the horizon, before replacing all trace of reds with that of light blues.
The right amount of numbing alcohol helped drop me to an almost instant sleep for a couple of hours. The effects of light inebriation worn off and a muffled wailing in the air, it was only midnight when I was awake again. Lifting my mask and peering into the dark aisle ahead, the metronome movements of a child’s head held my eyes; this was the source of the wailing, which could only be lightly muted with ear plugs. Somewhere between thoughts of a real bed and sunshine, I returned to sleep.
Darkness still blanketed the outside world the next moment I viewed the world and the temperature in the seat had dropped significantly. It’s now 4am and snowing while passing through Detroit Lakes in Minnesota, just over the state line. My stomach curses me with intelligible grunts, ordering me to get food at the first moment possible but there are still two hours, until I can carry out its wish.
The dining car is gratefully announced. Cold potatoes with overly microwaved biscuits and gravy from a shaky pensioner with her name tag on upside down, doesn’t constitute anything substantial but it was the only thing I could conceive of being edible off the menu; less than $10 but far worse than any airline food I’ve eaten. The seating in the dining car is ‘social’ meaning that you’ll be sharing with other passengers from the train. It’s a great time to exercise those verbal skills and find out a bit more about the people who have chosen to take this option, and ask them why they didn’t opt to fly. For some it’s the accessibility that is offered from their home location (the middle of North Dakota) and for others, it’s the romanticism the idea conjured up, as well as defiantly not wanting to take a flight.
With a calmer stomach, I again pass in and out of consciousness, until the white landscape trades with the lush greens of Wisconsin. Reduced to a steady roll, we pass through Tomah and Wisconsin Dells, until coming to a stop in Milwaukee. We’ve lost half the coaches again and there are more daily commuters filling up the empty seats. The stop is cut short here, closing the gap in schedule, after being anywhere from two hours down to fifteen minutes ahead. We’re settled at thirty five minutes behind schedule; I’m content with that, after pre-loading my amtrak knowledge base with stories of several hour delays and detours by bus.
By time the journey ceased in Chicago, I was more than ready to depart, mostly to get some decent food inside me. Traveling with someone you know would be a much more satisfying way to travel on this route, as would bringing more food (and potentially cheaper alcohol) but don’t let that dissuade those of you who can strike up conversation anywhere – there are many people in the lounge car, once it’s added, who are willing to engage in idle banter to make the ride pass that much quicker. I heard over breakfast that the sleeper cars are worth every penny but at over double the cost of my ticket, I for one would find it hard to justify such expense. “So much better than flying” it is not, but there are worse ways you can spend a lazy two days reaching a destination and if you’ve never experienced it you should, but do it quickly because the alternatives may just push it to extinction sooner rather than later.