Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amtrak Adventures

On August 15, I left for Omaha on a plane. On August 21, I took a train from Omaha to Chicago, and on August 23, I took a train from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. In all, I spent roughly 55 hours on Amtrak trains this week. This is an account of my adventures.

* * * * *
8.21.09 7:57am Central

I have totally lost my sense of direction. It feels like we’re going south to me. The train just left Omaha with the intent of going to Chicago, so I can only trust we’re heading east. If not, I guess I’m in for an adventure… side trip to Texas, maybe?

It’s already been an interesting morning. I got up at 4:25am to catch a 6:14 train which didn’t make an appearance until 7:20 or so. So I spent a couple hours in Omaha’s tiny railway station, eating Spongebob animal crackers and observing those around me.

There was this guy who, upon first glance, brought up the word “codger,” and then, upon witnessing his behavior, the word “curmudgeon.” Except according to Microsoft Word’s thesaurus, that means “killjoy.” Nuts, I thought it meant “old crank.” Because that’s what he was. A crank. He was bald and kind of wrinkly in the way of an aged potato. He was traveling with his wife, who I’m sorry to say may have gotten the short end of the stick in this particular union. He was snapping at her over the most mundane things. Ooh, hey, that’s what he reminded me of (besides a potato)! A turtle! One of those nasty ones, with teeth. He was all, “GO SIT OVER THERE. LEAVE ME ALONE.” And she would. But later she would return and she’d get more of the same treatment. She was trying to get a wheelchair for him so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way down the train platform. Sounds nice, right? But old Mr. Potato-Turtle-Man just growled at her. I wanted to say to her, “You know… this would be the perfect time to abandon him. If you got caught, you could just claim elderly memory loss and say you forgot him. Run, Mrs. Potato-Turtle, run!”

But I didn’t.

On the train now. In case you're wondering what Iowa looks like, this is it:


* * * * *
8.21.09 1:22pm Central

So I just had lunch in the dining car. They make you sit four to a table, even if you don’t know the other people. This makes sense, of course, and I knew this going in, but I was still nervous. Luckily, I got seated next to an old man (who was traveling alone) and an old woman with her genius grandson. This kid looked like he was 12, but spoke like a college grad. The kid's solution to people who jabber incessantly on their cell phones? “Shoot them up with the sedatives they give elephants.” Uh huhhh. Picture me with wide eyes here. And one hand clutching my butter knife.

They all looked horrified when they learned I was going to be traveling from Chicago to Portland on the train without the aid of a sleeping car. (Apparently they had their own mini-rooms.) I was like yeah, but once I went from Portland to Michigan on Greyhound, and well…. And they were like, Oh my! Well then, sitting in a train seat for a day and a half’ll be a snap! Indeed, fellow travelers, indeed.

You know, so many things are just a matter of good or bad timing, have you noticed that? Like, just because of when I showed up in the dining car, I got seated next to those particular people. But if I had been off by just a few minutes, I would have gotten to sit at the curmudgeon’s table! Yes! He and his fellow diners were sitting across from us. It was him, his wife, another old guy, and a girl about my age, who I felt sorry for. The old guys discussed politics and junk. You know how some old men discuss things, and how they pound their fists on the table when they want to make a point stick? Okay, they didn’t do that… but probably only because there wasn’t room on the tables for fists. Otherwise I totally think they would have. It was that kind of discussion. The kind that doesn’t expect or desire any input from “the womenfolk.”

An announcement just came on, telling us we’re about to pull into the last train station in Iowa. Can I really complain we're leaving this state? Don't get me wrong, the farms conjure up images of hot farmboys, but really... even that gets old after a while.



Ha, I just realized something somewhat amusing. According to the train schedule, we’re supposed to be in Burlington, Iowa (this next stop) at 11:36 am. And I looked at the clock on my laptop and was like wow, how did we make up so much time? It’s 11:34am right now! We're 2 minutes ahead of schedule!

And then I realized.

We’re on Central time. My laptop's clock is still on Pacific time.

We’re TWO HOURS BEHIND schedule.

Okay, who can I kick?

* * * * *
8.23.09 2:52pm Central

I just spent 2 days in Chicago. It was great! I got to ride the L train, just like Harrison Ford and the one-armed man. I visited the American Girls store, where I was both intrigued and terrified. I saw some really bizarre sculptures. But now I am back on the train -- the Empire Builder. Doesn’t that name sound important and powerful? Oregon’s trains are called Cascades and Coast Starlight. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. The important thing to note is that I didn’t have to get on the train in Chicago. There was a station closer to the place I was staying. And after witnessing the pure insanity of Chicago Union Station when I arrived on Friday, with its 852 different gates and tracks, not to mention baby buggies rolling down the stairs and all, I was pleased not to have to deal with that again. This other station was so small, you got to wait for the train on the platform. Ah, just like in olden times.

* * * * *
8.23.09 6:13pm Central


So I just had some cheese for dinner. I figured since I was in Wisconsin, it was the right thing to do. Okay, not true. Actually, it was about the only thing in the snack shop that looked remotely appetizing. As you can probably see from the blurry photo, it came with several different types of cheese (and crackers.) Cheese both round and rectangular. I accidentally ate some of the wax off one of the fancier cheeses. I thought it was yellow cheese! Nope, white cheese with a waxy yellow coat. So I may die now. I’m not sure -- is wax lethal? I doubt it. After all, crayons are waxy and I haven’t heard tale of any kindergarteners dropping dead after a good Crayola gnaw session. Not that I’ve ever known a kid who ate crayons anyway. Erasers, yes. Paste… paper… I knew a first grader who consumed a page corner out of her reader once. Mmm, tasty! In conclusion, I hope I don’t die.


The sun is setting. I’ve never been on a train at night before. I hope nobody snores. Apparently I hope a lot of things. I also hope I don’t go crazy in the next day and a half.

Okay, more later, possibly from Minnesota (which’ll probably be too dark to see)!

* * * * *
8.23.09 8:14pm Central

In Minnesota now. Also, the person who keeps getting texts, announced each time with a loud chiming noise, is cordially invited to bite me. My seatmate got off at the last stop, and I got a new one. But before the new one came, I moved to the window seat. Hey, at least now I can rest -- maybe. The fun part’ll be if I have to, um, get up during the night. But don’t worry -- I’ll karate chop my way there if necessary!

* * * * *
8.24.09 12:39am Central

I tried to sleep, really I did. I think I may have drifted off for a short while. But then suddenly I was wide awake. So guess what -- I got yet another new seatmate. The other guy got off, and I was joined by the guy sitting alone across the aisle. He got coerced to move because two people, “boyfriend and girlfriend,” fresh on the train from the twin cities, wanted to sit together. I was half-asleep but I could hear them begging the man to move over next to me. He seems okay, but let’s face it, sleep ain't comin’ anytime soon. So I grabbed the laptop and moved out to the lounge car, and here I am. Here with my Ritz peanut butter crackers and orange juice, counting the minutes until 6:30, when I can go to the dining car for breakfast. And in case you’d like to know, that’ll be… 348 minutes. I think. Dang, I suddenly just got sleepy.


8.24.09 11:27am Central (about to cross into Mountain time!)


So this is North Dakota. It’s very interesting. Lots of green hills and old fences and the occasional house. So of course, by “interesting,” I mean… zzzzz. Oh well, it could be worse.


At the risk at sounding like the Old Lady to end all Old Ladies, here, I am SO glad I bought a bottle of Pepto before getting on the train, because my stomach is NOT being nice. I often have this problem while traveling. I just get a weird ache and don’t really feel well. No yacking or anything, though. Which is good, because there is just not enough room in the train bathrooms for such things. If this wasn’t totally normal for me, I’d be blaming it on that bite of wax. And I’m not saying that couldn’t be what’s ailing me. It could. But more likely it’s the hashbrowns and omelet I had for breakfast. I shouldn’t have done that, but it sounded so yummy.

So in case it wasn’t obvious, I made it through the night. I curled up on one of the double-seat lounge chairs and managed to catch about five hours total. It wasn’t a particularly restful sleep, though, since I kept getting jarred awake by bumps that made me think, “Ack! Someone is trying to steal my laptop/purse/soul!” Okay, maybe only the first two things.

I suspect we’re near or in Montana now. You know what I’d like to see out my window? Wildlife. Seriously -- where, my I ask, are all the wild beasts? Do they avoid (train) tracked areas? I realize this isn’t a zoo train, but would it really kill the local jackrabbits to pop out of their burrows and put on a choreographed routine for my personal enjoyment?


I don’t think so.

* * * * *
8.24.09 11:25am Mountain (or did I just go BACK IN TIE-YIME?)

Dang, these tracks are bumpy. Is this really necessary? Are there potholes on the tracks that I’m not aware of? I’m surprised nobody has taken a fall yet. Especially any old people. There are a lot of old people on this train. Some of them are part of a tour group, so they wear special nametags. Yes, just like kids on a field trip, aw. But they teeter along through the aisle, as the train races along at a bumpy 60mph, and I keep hearing things like, “Ohhh my!” “Hold on, Edna!” and other exclamations, as they wave around frantically for something to catch them before they go somersaulting into somebody’s lap. It’s quite a show. Sober or not, everybody looks like they’ve been drinking heavily. I like it.

* * * * *
8.24.09 1:55pm Mountain

I really don’t want to gross anybody out, here. I mean, you didn’t come here for that. But if I’m going to relate the true, no-holds-barred train experience, I might as well just say this. This train smells like Depends.

At first I thought odors from the bathrooms downstairs were wafting up here, but I don’t think that’s it. I was down there a little while ago and everything smelled okay. Then I thought maybe the smell was coming from my seatmate’s Subway sandwich, purchased yesterday. You know how salami can be a little foul-scented the day after? But the guy ate the sandwich, and still, here we are. So I’m sorry, but I’m afraid old people are behind this. Or people with bladder control issues. Or a combination thereof. And I’m totally not having a go at people like that. I realize it’s a serious problem, one that is difficult to control, and being on a train with its inconvenient restrooms is probably not a picnic for this person or persons. But I’ve still gotta say “ew.” This situation calls for an air freshener.

But enough about that. So guess what, I’ve hit a milestone! I’ve now spent 24 hours on this train and I HAVE NOT DIED. Or, better yet, “perished.” When Sarah and I were at the Omaha zoo last week, I overheard a mother explaining to her 3-year-old daughter that dinosaurs are no longer alive. “They perished a long time ago,” she said. To which the child replied, “Dinosaurs have not PERISHED!” in a tone that sounded both indignant and horrified. You don’t usually hear that particular word associated with our reptilian friends, so it amused me.

We are currently stopped in Havre, Montana. My seatmate and I were trying to decide how to pronounce it. Our possibilities included: HAY-ver, HAH-vray, HAH-vree, and Harve. (Think: Brett Favre.) But apparently it’s pronounced like “haver.” As in, “someone who haves… stuff.” Or so says the conductor. I suppose he should know.

The border patrol just came through, asking us individually if we were U.S. Citizens. The guys were kind of cute. I told them I was a citizen, and they moved on. Rats. If I had told them I was from Tribekistan, maybe we could’ve had a nice chat.

Meanwhile, check out this sign:


(click to enlarge)


I know it’s serious, train cars falling on people, but I think warning signs themselves are pretty funny. Run, little stick person, run for your life!

Oh, I like this one too, considering...


Behold the boxcar, protector of dinosaurs and other perishables!

* * * * *
8.24.09 8:13pm Mountain

So I’m in a new car now -- one of the conductor guys said I needed to move, if I didn’t want to end up in Seattle -- and this one has ELECTRICAL SOCKETS! Yesss! AND I HAVE MY OWN SEAT! (For now, anyway.) And and and… okay, no internet, but hey. I’ll be home tomorrow and I will hit up the internet like there’s no… uh, tomorrow. Me is a good writer, yah.

No, but this is good, because now I can watch Anne of Green Gables. I bought milk and cookies for the occasion! Yesss, bliss.

(I hope I haven’t spoken too soon. There are little kids on this car, after all. They could start howling at any moment.)

So let me talk about the last 7 hours. Or at least the highlights.

The scenery is beautiful here in Montana. We briefly stopped by a swamp that had cat tails.




CAT TAILS! I haven’t seen one since I was about 14 years old. HALF A LIFETIME AGO. I wish I could’ve jumped off the train and picked one. But I guess you’re not supposed to do that.

For dinner I had some pasta with crazy olives, vegetables, and some kind of red sauce. New to me, but not bad. I was seated across from a guy and a girl who, as far as I could tell, had either met on the train and become friends, or were just friends. They were my age or around that. One of the first things the girl said was, “Did you notice the SMELL coming from the last car?” I told her I had noticed, and she asked what I thought it could be. “I have a theory,” I said, “but I don’t want to gross anybody out, so…” “Well, I’m a C.N.A.,” she said, “and it’s a familiar smell. Somebody needs to change their Depends!”

So there you have it, guys. Not only a consensus, but a professional opinion! Meanwhile, picture this: we’ve got older couples seated all around us when she says this. I hope none of them were like, “Oh crud, she smelled me.” I might’ve kind of felt bad, then.

Yeah, that’s about all that’s happened in the past 7 hours. My life is a banana boat of thrills.


* * * * *
8.25.09 6:34am Pacific


It is no fun
No fun
Sleeping on a tra-ain


Seriously it isn’t. Although the people around me were pretty quiet, the bumps and bonks of the train aren’t really conducive to a good night’s sleep. So when the sun rose, so did I. My limbs feel tight and icky from the way I was curled (scrunched?) as I slept.

Breakfast = Frosted Flakes and diet root beer this morning. I’m trying to finish off my rations, rather than buy anything new. The less I have to haul out in the end, the better.

I just finished watching the first half of Anne Of Green Gables (I started it last night.) I won’t be continuing, because I realized the power outlets aren’t giving any power anymore. Either that or my power cord is dead. Let’s just pretend it’s the former, so I don’t go all Eeyore on you guys. Anyway, my laptop battery must be preserved, and so I will put the DVD aside, and read instead. Either that or watch stuff on my iPod. Or not. You know the funny thing about iPods, I mean, watching videos on them? It’s really hard to do when you’re on a plane or train. The other noises around you sort of take away from the experience. Or maybe it’s just me. All I know is, I get more use out of that iPod when I’m at home. Home… you know, that place that has a TV and DVD player and computer and.… Is that as ironic as a black fly in your chardonnay, or WHAT?

As my can of root beer slides around on the seat tray in front of me (making that Mug bulldog angry, no doubt) I’m going to answer a question I’m sure you’re all totally asking in your heads (okay, probably not. But I’m going to pretend you are.) And that is, which is better -- a plane or a train? It depends on the distance you’re traveling, really. But let’s say, like me, you’re going from Chicago to Portland. Well, here are a few reasons why trains are better than planes:

*You don’t have to arrive 2 hours early to the train station or go through security.
*You can bring your own food and drinks aboard.
*If a crying baby is getting on your last nerve, you can escape to the lounge car.
*Much, much more leg room. Probably about 12 inches more.
*Better views. I mean, clouds have their place in society, but their color scheme leaves something to be desired. Mountains, plains, hills, whatever -- there’s more “scope for the imagination”, here.
*If you take a train through a state or city, you can say you’ve technically “been there.” Flying over a state does not count in the same way. Some would say you haven’t really been somewhere unless you’ve stepped foot on solid ground, but I say bah to that.
*You can use electronic devices whenever.
*The food is much cheaper. Also better. Also there’s food in the first place.

But what about cons? Okay, there are a couple.

*Trains make a lot of stops.
*There are more announcements. Hearing “Johnson, party of 4 to the dining car” at 9pm is a little distracting.
*It’s really bumpy.
*It typically takes a bit longer to get where you’re going.

It’s 7:03am and I’m still not done with the Frosted Flakes. More later, perhaps.



* * * * *
8.25.09 10:30pm Pacific

I'm back in Oregon at last! I had a long nap in my own bed earlier, caught up on my TV shows, and ate some delicious food. I still feel a little wobbly from all the turbulence on the train. My body is still reeling. I'm glad to be home, and yet -- my vacation was so awesome, it's a little :/ being back, too. But I would definitely do it again.

* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed reading about my Amtrak adventures. If you decide to take a trip and blog about your experience, I'd be happy to read it!

3 comments:

cehiday said...

Wonderfully humorous commentary. Great use of senses...lol. I've made that Portland to Chicago trip by train and you nailed it! I slept - sort of - across two seats and Jack slept on the floor - sort of. Fun read, thanks!

Sarah said...

I laughed when you said you needed an air freshener. I thought of the bus driver who threw that one out the window. Oh the times were a fun!

molly said...

@Cindy - Thanks! Hey, I used "smells", go me! Certain classmates would approve.:)

@Sarah - I wish I had kept a blog on that trip! (And had it all on videotape.)