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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Train Experience Continues

Only a story but one based on experience in vacations and journeys. On a train cruising the coast and cross the country the individuals you meet are as diverse as the landscape. Traveling by train has its own benefits, people around the world can be found here, in this world this existence within existence, not unlike stepping away from life and its annoyances, and just enjoying the ride. Fine dining abound, a dining car, a cafe, all of which providing food and beverages as you travel seeing the untapped areas of the states and the urban sprawl which can also be found there. A sad story but a result of the choice to focus on progress and not so much on retaining what once was beautiful.

To the story, a man, a wayward traveler if you like, we will call him Joe, not the most spectacular specimen, tall and lanky, with long hair and dark brown eyes, had decided to experience a excursion beyond compare, not matched by travel by car, or plane, or even a boat for that matter, the choice tried and true, to ride a train, across the country he planned to go. What a joy it is to see things from another perspective Joe thought. So he begin packing of his bags for the great experience expected to have as he rode the train cross the country.

It was always an experience Joe had wanted to do something he had thought about for so long, when he finally began the trip to the train station he thought. "Well this is great but should it only be a start or a finish?" As he continued his walk, his mind was racing, pondering the possibilities of what may occur and yet excited at the same time. Although he had traveled by train before, it was more local runs up and down the coast as it were this would be the first time he had traveled cross the country on this mode of transport.

It was winter in California at this time, so he had packed for colder weather, and planned on dealing with weather variables regularly. Donning his leather trench coat and long socks and heavy duty jeans with his boots for shoes he was ready for what ever the weather threw at him or at least that is what he thought. After enjoying the walk and traveling at his own pace he finally arrived at the local Amtrak station stretched a little bit and picked up his tickets. It was going to be about an hour or so wait before the train arrived so he used the time to look at some local information guides on the train in all its glory. Trains have come a long way since the first steam trains of steel. Steam has long passed as the chosen fuel to move these massive machines, today more diesel or electric fuel is used instead. Beyond just that, the Amtrak trains have been adorned with such amenities as a dining car, a cafe car, sleeping cars and stepped up in customer satisfaction and getting the best experience for the dollar. He had decided on Coach class with the option of upgrading en route, due to the fact he had read somewhere that often times if there is space you can get a sleeper for a lower price based on availability. Figured it would be nice to also be able to experience what is considered first class when traveling by train. After awhile he heard the boarding call and put the booklets in his carry on bag to look at further while traveling.

As he entered the train two stories tall and miles long, he took a look around, similar in most ways to other modes of transport with one big difference, there was space, you could walk two abreast throughout the train, there was a observation car and a cafe car and the conductor was kind enough to offer a guided tour during different parts of the journey which made it all that much more interesting and kept the riders entertained. During some of the stretches they also showed movies of interest and just gave you time to relax and enjoy.

Eventually he found his seat towards the front of about the third or fourth car. Another difference he noted, even the coach was quite roomy, enabling you to lean back and to just relax while being offered pillows and covers. While settling in he put his bag up in the roomy baggage compartment above his seat and stretched as the train begun to move. Surely a different feeling that was, in fact it was quite interesting, one thing that can be only felt when you ride a train, the constant clicking of the wheels on the track the relaxing movement that provides and when in a sleeping car, the possibility, the same movement can rock you to sleep and make the trip all that much more pleasant.

The journey begins, for the first few hours while on the train he just sat and relaxed, after a bit though decided to explore the options the train provided, first stop was the observation lounge, a car with 180 degree windows looking out on either side of the train, and many relaxing configurations of seats for the best viewing angle. Also in the observation lounge you were able to watch movies or use the phone on the train which was interesting to say the least. Similar to most pay phones the difference being you could use your card to make the calls meaning you could slide your card and make the call. The quality was not to bad also. Upon arriving in the observation lounge he decided to relax a bit and talk with some of the other riders. A few interesting conversations later he had heard the call for dinner. A good time to check out the dining car he decided. The prices though high, seemed to be well worth it. When entering the dining car, he noticed a series of booths on either side with a walkway down the middle. It seems the kitchen was downstairs where the food was actually being made and then lifted up through a series of pulleys. and when it got to the top is was still warm and quite well prepared. The one thing about the dining car is the fact that you were sat with other passengers, though it was nice to talk with someone different the only complaint seemed to be that you did not have much of a choice in the matter. Once he got used to the way it was setup dinner was served. Taking a look at his plate, noticing that the food was well presented, nicely setup and each part became a compliment to the whole.

Once dinner was complete Joe retired once more to the observation lounge as it was found to be a good place to just relax and hang out. Including the amazing views and the comfortable seating arrangement and they were about to play a good movie 'lost in oblivion' you may not of heard of it, this is a short story after all. Once Joe settled in the movie began, 2 hours of insanity later across the screen were the credits. A good movie, he thought about it for a bit. Joe was getting hungry, by that hour the dining car had closed down so he decided to go and check out the cafe on the first story of the train. Ah the cafe car, so much fun was had in this same space on previous train rides, Joe had met some individuals last he rode a train traveling south, wayward travels such as himself, one had a guitar and everyone just had a good time, a chorus we put together in that car after the cafe was supposed to be closed. That of course is another story.

The cafe car, amazing what can be done with such a little space, enough room for about three tables all booths of course and the snack coup, where you could purchase whatever you needed, from alcohol to smokes, and all the morsels in between, priced for convenience but good nonetheless. Also the wonders of the cafe car, one of the few places you can find electrical outlets,whether to charge your cell phone or your ipod dependent on what you carry. Just another one of the niceties presented here in the cafe car. The view was not to bad either. A different perspective when you are closer to the ground for sure but worthy of mention.

With his stomach rumbling and grumbling, Joe walked up to the snack coup and took a look at what was available. The sheer diversity was remarkable for such a little space and well the prices of course higher then expected. Eventually he decided on some nachos and a soda, a treat besides Snickers bars and the such. All in all this snack was worth the money spent. Commodiously Joe sat on one of the booths, glad to have thought ahead and brought his cell phone, the charge was not holding all that well. So as he enjoyed his snack he plugged in the cell and watched the battery charge and snacked. Met some interesting people with the same cravings for that snack, and for the sake of a different perspective he had conversations about , life, living, existence and the holidays. After awhile the phone was charged up well enough so he headed back up into Coach then realizing he had almost forgotten to try out the hypothesis that based on availability he may be able to get a sleeper. So instead of returning to coach and falling asleep he decided to go and find a conductor to see if it could happen for his first night on this train.

After traversing the train point to point for what seemed like miles he finally found a conductor, started talking with him a little bit, name was John, and moved the conversation in the right direction he asked, "John, you think it is possible to get a sleeping car for this part of the trip?" John apologized, "Not quite yet Joe, try again in a bit, we about full for now, though at the next station some are getting off." Though a bit disappointed he realized, well at least I know the possibility is there. Then Joe traveled back what seemed like miles to his seat and leaned it back and using the pillow and the cover went ahead and fell asleep to the clicking of the wheels and the relaxing movement of the train.

Upon waking the next morning, we had covered all the coast of California on the Coast Starlight and had now arrived in Portland Oregon. A remarkable place and very bike friendly. His Aunt and Grandfather lived here. It was to bad though there was not enough time to enjoy it and visit them as the Empire Builder would be leaving in about two hours. During that time Joe stepped out the train and stretched his muscles as it had been a great ride for sure. As expected Oregon was cold and rainy that time of the year so he did not have much time to do anything. Fortunately there was a nice Jazz Bar & Restaurant just outside the station. With relaxing tunes and good food, or at least he found when waiting for the next train to arrive. What a meal he had at this fine dining location. Steak and Shrimp, a side of wine, a feast worthy of the amazing vacation he was having at this point in time, at this hour of the day.

vacation, the journey just kept getting better as it goes. While waiting he took a look around the station, well setup and pretty clean besides the bathrooms the Portland station seemed to be in good repair, and had some history besides, entertaining himself with more knowledge he had almost forgot the time. Fortunately for him, as is tradition Amtrak still announces the boarding call. "All Aboard!" Once heard he headed to the closest point of entry into the next train, on a route called, California Zephyr which runs from Emeryville, California to Chicago, Illinois coursing through the plains of Nebraska to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, and then through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco. Along the way the views are amazing and as you travel along you learn and grow as far as it goes. In this particular instance we are going in reverse headed towards Chicago.

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