Winter Train Travel: All Aboard the Journey

Though I have been journeying for just about the past year and a half, it honestly has not felt much like travel.  It’s been more of a general peripatetic (I recently learned that word!) existence as opposed to a dedicated travel experience.  Thus when I had the “planes, train, and automobiles” option set out in front of me, I chose train.

As explained in the newsletter auto was out.  Plane?  There was no time crunch to skew me towards taking a flight.  Additionally, I had points (Amtrak credit card covered the cost of train passage) and a general hankering for riding the rails.  It also felt safer with the idea of taking a train during the darker winter months considering all possible automobile complications that could arise during a vehicular crossing the entirety of the country. 

The main draw of a cross-country long-distance multi-day travel via train is the comfort of riding in a private berth.  In this case, a roomette - comfortably spacious for the solo traveler, though large enough to cozily share with another.

During the day, seats face one another with a fold away tray table in between.  A window on one side for a view of the passing countryside, a sliding door on the other with privacy drapes and room enough to hang some coats in a thin storage closet.  The door separates you from a hallway and a similar oomette on the opposite side of the train.  A top bunk can either be folded up to give more spacious head room, or folded partially down to allow for extra storage of luggage etc.  Evenings the seats recline flat and meet in the middle to create a lower sleeping space, while the top bunk may be lowered to provide an upper sleeping compartment (albeit with no window).  Each bed has a reading light, and temperature controls are reachable at the lower bunk.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are provided daily, cooked fresh in a very space-efficient kitchen.  A waiter or waitress takes your order from a menu offering appetizers, main meal, and dessert, as well as a selection of various beverages.  The service, meals, and overall dining experience are all included in the roomette pricing.

As the journey began later on a Tuesday afternoon in Seattle, due to the northern geography and it being winter, it was dark outside before the Empire Builder (this first leg of trail travel) even got started.  It made for ease of settling down to bed early, but afforded no views of the Cascades we were passing up in this area of the Pacific Northwest.  Wednesday morning dawned to a gray light, snow flurrying by the windows, approaching the Rocky Mountains and eventually passing through Glacier National Park - a magnificent sight what with icy green-blue glacial runoff meandering through tall snow-covered pines and a backdrop of craggy mountains.

Once through the Rockies it’s pretty much two days of plains all the way through to Chicago.  During this second overnight one doesn’t feel as though he or she is missing much of anything.

A big plus when it comes to train travel is the freedom to move about the train and take in the passing view.  Sure, with a vehicle, you have the ability to stop off at various locations and wander around a bit; with the train you definitely need to be attentive to your surroundings, because they will pass you by at a moment's notice.  But perhaps that's one of the benefits of train travel.  It encourages you to be in the moment, to appreciate life's fleeting experiences!

Train stations themselves also play an important part in the experience of train travel.  There is so much history to America's rail system, and though the height of train travel is long past in this country, many stations preserve an aura of those days of yore.  Take Union Station at Chicago below as an example, with adornment of a bygone beaux-arts era, where ornate design in ceiling and sculpture supported by marble were valued.

The photograph below is of a neighboring building to Pittsburgh's Union Station (there seem to be a lot of stations with this name) - the actual station at Pittsburgh being a single, drab room with perhaps a dozen rows of uncomfortable chairs, a ticket counter, a baggage claim cutout, and a couple of vending machines tossed in the corner.  It has more of a functional afterthought bus terminal feel to it as opposed to a nostalgic rail atmosphere.  One has to explore outside the confines of the waiting area to take in Ayn Randesque architecture offered by the city.

What train travel does is afford you time.  Time to relax, to get work done, to reminisce, to day dream.  There's no obligation to control anything other than what you do with the time given you during the journey.

As a lot of life has happened seeing leaving behind a full-time occupation in July of 2020, this bit of train travel has afforded reflection upon the past year and a half, with consideration of intention for the year ahead.

-Paul

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