Sunday, December 25, 2011

Winter Vacation

I've taken my first long distance train ride. I visited the folks and friends back home.

I have to say, I'm sold on the train as a means of long distance travel.

It was comfortable, with seats bigger than first class on an airplane. And no one thought you were about to rush the cockpit if you got up to stretch your legs. There were plenty of things to do onboard, as you could use your electronic devices as you wanted to. In fact, there were power outlets at every seat. The food was pretty good overall as well. I spent two nights in a sleeper and that was the most civilized traveling experience I have ever had. I had steak dinners and returned to a compartment folded in to a bed to sleep. I was awakened by a porter and plied with hot coffee on the way to breakfast. I ate French Toast as I covered cornfields at 80. I returned to my compartment to find it made up in to seats, and a local paper waiting. I read while sipping more coffee and being generally content.

It is true I kind of went the long way around. Chicago was a bit out of the way, but it was nice to spend some time wandering the place, running some Portra through my little Olympus XA. The schedule was adhered to by some trains, less so by others (the Zephyr is chronically late), but it offered something in exchange. I got to peek in to the back yards of America, looking as we passed  swing sets, town squares, Dairy Dips and VFW halls. Looking down main streets at art deco walk up theaters with marquees proclaiming their names and the movies, and grand old hotels with ornate overhangs and neon signs. I got to see America, this great country we live in. And how wonderful it is when it's being itself, far away from the chain stores, interstates, and sterile airports. A bit of the wonder of travel came back to replace the irritation I always feel taking other means. I was very happy to chase the sunset across the Mississippi river as rural America faded in to the darkness and was gone.

There was security, but it was reasonable, rational security. The typical train rider is almost rabidly anti-TSA. Security is handled by Amtrak's own police department. It was better that real police officers were on the job instead of mall cops. Amtrak PD used dogs instead of multi-million dollar machines. The dogs are far better at detecting explosives and are far cheaper, but no one gets kick backs on them. Plus, there is more metal in a single car than in a 737, and it's hard, tough steel instead of aluminum. You'd need a lot of explosives to blow up a train. And there is little chance of anyone hijacking a train and flying it in to a building.

All in all, it was the first time in more years than I can remember that I've been looking forward to travel, and having fun doing so.  I will be using it again in the future. Especially when you consider you can check your bike as luggage and take it with you on the ride. It's tempting to just ride out on the train and bicycle back.


  1. Nicely written. Amen to civilized travel. Now if only they'll lay tracks to Australia from here...

  2. Thank you. Some times I think I was born in the wrong era, in my craving for civilized travel.

    I've traveled mostly to South America, and I always entertain the idea of doing so on a bicycle, but I'm pretty sure I'll never have that much time off. There's a gap in Central America if you try by train, which requires a ferry.

    Australia requires a pretty sizable ferry ride.

  3. I flew to Australia, let's see... almost 11 years ago, but then I took the train across to make up for it, and did as much as we could of our travelling in Thailand and Sri Lanka by train, too.

    In Sri Lanka, people still tell Canadians about the 14 big blue diesel-electric engines our government gave them back in 1954-1961 as part of an aid package. They are still seeing heavy usage. Check it out:

    Have you read Paul Theroux's rail journeys? Good stuff!

  4. The cross-Australia train rife is supposed to be one of the most epic in the world. I'm a bit envious of that, if not the plane ride to get there.

    Theroux's book is perpetually on my "to-do" list. I never seem to find the time to devote to reading it. Of course, I now want to spend time reading it on a train trip.

    I haven't ridden a train in Canada yet, but I have been eyeballing Via's Canadian, doing research to pick up tidbits. Like certain sleeper rooms are bigger than others and are the same price.