Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All Aboard!

* This is a repost for my pal,  Mighty Mom.  I had posted it briefly about a month ago, then took it off because I wanted to spend some time editing it.  But... Time?  What time?  Haven't had any....  So..  Anyway, here it is again - undedited -- for anyone else who might want to read more than they ever wanted to know about train travel!

From the end of February, 2011:  I mentioned I had some pictures -- and a little gossip -- from my latest train ride over the mountains a couple weeks ago, so if you're all set  to come along with me... Here we go!

First a view of the inside of my train car: 

How the trains work:  When you buy your ticket at the depot, you're assigned a train car (if you aren't in a sleeper), but you can choose your own seat in the car -- on the upper level, separate from the sleepers.  You stake your territory, as shown above, by putting your ticket over your seat near your overhead rack area.  The tickets are color-coded to indicate your stop -- so if someone's snoozing, the conductor can make a quick tour of the car and quickly identify who he needs to wake up before a stop.  If the other passengers haven't already done that for him.

Train travelers are amazingly companionable folks.  I've had many a lively conversation with my car-mates, though I've never had to share my seat space.  There are two seats on each side of the aisle and most people traveling alone claim two seats together if they can.  I'm told that during busy times of year, like around Christmas, and in between certain stops, like Reno and San Francisco, the train can get pretty full, however, and lone travelers don't get to be 'lone.

Still, even with a seat companion, compared to a plane or bus, train seats (cross-country, mind you!) are very roomy and comfortable. I'm sorry I didn't think to get a good picture of the set up, so I could show you how cushy it is.  The seats all recline pretty far back and have foot rests that pop out like a recliner.  There's also a pull down tray, like in airplanes -- but there's so much room between where you sit and the seat in front of you that you have to lean pretty far forward to use it. Given that fact, you can imagine that there's TONS of leg room - or room for whatever you want to put at your feet -- all your luggage, for instance -- which is what I do.  Plus there's a lot of room between the two seats on each side of the aisle, with armrests that fold up so you can turn sideways if you like and put your feet up on both seats.

The luggage specs on Amtrak are very different from airline travel, too.  Each passenger is allowed three checked-in bags of 50 lbs or less, plus two carry-ons, also 50 lbs or less -- besides any purse,  laptop, baby bag and/or medical equipment. And you aren't charged for anything you bring on within that limit.   Most people, especially on the day routes, don't check luggage,  and I think I'd avoid it if I could even on a longer route, because, once checked, your bags are just stuffed in some open bins inside the door of one of the cars; you can go and get it or get something out of it any time you like -- which is good and bad.  It's convenient that things are so simple and accessible, but then dangerous, perhaps, that things are so simple and accessible.  Anyone who wanted to steal your luggage could do so with little trouble.  Anyone who wanted to plant a bomb in a bag on a train and then just walk away could do so with basically no checkpoints or resistance.  But, I don't think that would happen.  Train folks are incredibly nice for the most part.  And why would anyone want to blow up a train? (If you have a reason, don't tell me, OK?)

Interesting fact:  Most trains let you check on a bike if you like, at no extra charge if it's within your luggage limit.

On one trip across the mountains last year I ended up in a car with a young mother and her two little girls.  The momma was overwhelmed and exasperated after having traveled all night from Omaha before meeting up with the Denver crowd heading to California, her ultimate destination.  Somehow or other, the little girls ended up spending more time with me than their mother - which was ok.  We did origami and drew pictures and talked about cows and birds and why not to throw pieces of paper at the other passengers.  And their momma took a nap.  This sort of thing is somewhat common on the train in my experience.  Most everyone tries to help out with youngin's -- and most everyone is sympathetic when they're out of sorts.  The only time folks really fuss is when the parents just let the kid run wild all over the train.  That's annoying.  But you rarely see it, as the conductor patrols the cars making sure that it doesn't.

Interesting fact:  This young mother's littlest girl had a "diaper explosion" incident and was able to get into her checked luggage for a change of clothes, got a mercy "cut" into the sign up sheet for a shower.  Since the Zephyr serves 32 depot stations, spanning seven states beginning in Chicago and ending in California, it provides showers for those passengers whose trips are over several days.

On the way out of Denver, heading west, the train passes the "Big 10 Curve.” Winds can be so strong here that" hopper cars," welded to the rails and filled with sand, sit on an adjacent track to act as a windbreak.

Here's something that was annoying, though.  On my last trip there was a college-age young man who talked to his mother on the cell phone -- incessently.  And loudly.  And the discussions -- every one of them -- were whiny and obnoxious.  I wanted to turn around and slap the kid.  It seems his estranged father owed him some kind of "child support" money to help ease his way in college and he hadn't received the check.  He wanted his mother to get ahold of his dad, her ex-husband, and make him send money.  She wanted him to take care of it, himself.  You should have heard his end of the debate.  (Heaven knows the whole train heard it!)  The kid was even pulling out the alligator tears to twist his mother's arm. And then he'd instantly switch gears and yell at her!  Every couple of hours the whole long ride, either he called her to whine, or his mother called him to complain.  I could have choked that boy!  And then reached into his cell phone and choked his mother!  Argh. 

But, the conversations that predominate on the journey really are not normally so irritating. They're usually pretty stimulating, always friendly, and sometimes side-splittingly funny.  Though I didn't paticipate in it ( I didn't dare!  And it was just too much fun eavesdropping...)  -- there was a long and engrossing discussion going on behind me one train ride, debating the plausibility of just about every social issue and conspiracy theory you can name.  By the time I got off the train, a college age threesome, the grandparents across from them, and the guy with MS across from me had come to the conclusion that:

1.  Bush was not necessarily involved with the 9-11 attack, but he may have known it was coming.

2.  The worst thing that ever happened to America was the welfare system because it made people think they were entitled to things they didn't work for.  (This coming from a group of people most probably in the lowest rung of America's economic ladder, mind you!)

3.  College is not an entitlement.

4.   All the Middle East has to do to completely cripple America is to stop selling us oil.

5.  Flavored coffee grounds aren't as good as flavored creamer.

~ And lots more, let me tell ya!  This is just a sample....

Rounding corner after corner, the Zephyr climbs into the mountains, passing through countless little tunnels, then reaching the Continental Divide, it passes over to the western side through 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel.


All the rivers and lakes are still frozen solid in the high country. 

Interesting Fact:  Because the Zephyr is a cross-country train, it has beautifully complete accomodations for dining.  There is both a dining car and a sight-seer lounge and cafe. An hour or so ahead of the "dinner hour" ,when the Service Attendant comes around with his clipboard. passengers sign up for dining car space.  In order to make best use of space, you can't reserve your own table, but share with whoever else signed up for your hour.  The sight-seer lounge is located on the upper deck of the train and is completely surrounded with windows, clear up onto the ceiling.  The views from this car are amazing!  There is a cafe just below the lounge, where sandwiches, drinks and snacks can be purchased throughout the journey.

Interesting Fact Joke:  The entire California Zephyr trip from Chicago to California is listed as taking 51 hours and 20 minutes.  Maybe possible.  (But probably not.)

Winter Park, Colorado, outside of Fraser has a long-standing argument with Alma, Colorado about which town is the highest incorporated municipality in America.  One moniker that Winter Park can claim, though, is the "Ice Box of America," as tempuratures of -50 are common there in the winter.

I've never taken a train trip that both arrived and left on time.  This last trip, we were delayed two hours getting out of Denver because of a death on the train.  (I never did find out any more about that.... Like, was there foul play?  Any scary suspense music in the background when the conductor came across the corpse? Was Jessica Fletcher on board?)  But, anyway, other than the occasional untoward event, there are always strange, unscheduled little  stoppages. They're expected.  

This last trip, along with the late start, we had an hour's delay near Rollins Pass while we waited for some other train to pass by before we could continue. But, what the hey?  It's all in a day's train travel. I've never heard grumbling or whining among the passengers about delays; folks that sign on to ride the train know what they're in for...  And anyone who knows anything about trains has plenty of reading material, sodukus, crossword puzzles, knitting, etc... 
All that and most everyone brings a good relaxed attitude.

Check out the cool effect of the skier jumping behind the netting.  Click to enlarge if it's hard to see.  See her pigtails flying? :)

This looks like a lake, but it's actually a very large  field of snow.

Granby, Colorado, I think.

Interesting Fact:  A coach class ticket (purchased now to travel tomorrow)  from Denver, CO to Emeryville, CA -- one way --  runs  $245 -- and takes 33 hours and five minues (give or take a few hours...). 

It's another $261 for a "roomette" which features two single bed,  bunk style, two reclining chairs, and no bathroom, but meals are included -- along with a daily paper.  A "superliner" room features  a bunk with a full lower, a large couch and complete bathroom with a shower and all meals included and delivered. For $707.

For the full trip, from Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA, coach, you'd pay only $292!   For a superliner room, it'd be another $1433.  A bargain, huh?

Mountains and snow.  Passed lots and lots of mountains and snow.

And cows.  Lots of cows in Colorado.

Smoking, of course, is not permitted on the train, so whenever it's time for a station stop (which is about three times, I think, between Denver and Grand Junction), all the smokers stampede for the doors to stand on the platform and smoke.  They are warned continuously, via the loudspeaker, not to light up on board, and are re-warned when they get back on after station stops to not bring their cigarettes back on the train with them.  Once, when we were stopped on top of the mountain for over an hour for no apparent reason, it was obvious that some smoker's nicotine withdrawal had gotten the best of him, as the distinct smell of cigarette smoke wafted up to the upper cars through the stairwell outside the bathroom down below. 

 Everyone looked at each other and smiled knowingly and there was some laughing and giggling, because we all knew who the culprit was...  There was a gentleman with a long braided ponytail and a duster coat who'd gotten on in Denver when I did.   He was a very pleasant, "down home" kind of guy, with a two-pack a day habit -- one of the ones that barreled down the aisles whenever the train came to a full stop so he could puff down a cigarette or two while he had a chance.  Having been several hours between stops, there was no question in our minds who was in the bathroom sneaking a smoke.  And, well, I guess it was no surprise, a train being a very small space, that the conductor "got wind" of the smoke too. It wasn't long before we all heard an impatient voice over the loud speaker:  "There is to be NO smoking on board the train!  Anyone who is smoking will be removed from the train.  Right here.  Right now!" 
(Remember, we were in the wilderness on top of a mountain)
"And we know who you are!"

About this time the pleasant, ponytailed gentleman came sauntering up the stairs. Smoke still hung about him.  He  started to head to the frontof the car toward his seat, but when he heard the snickering behind him, he turned around toward us and affected a very elaborate bow. Everyone applauded. 

Not that I condone smoking, mind you.  On the contrary.  But, I have to admit I admired the twinkle in "Ponytail's" eye. And it was a distraction we all appreciated.  

God is a wonderful landscape artist.  I should say He is thee Landscape Artist.

So, anyway, here we are at the end of the tracks.  The Zephyr stops in Grand Junction at a little old, antique railway station (that I dearly wish they had the money to restore!).  Unlike the other stops on my route, this station stop has a gift shop and a restaurant attached to it, the Pufferbelly.  According to Davis family legend, our oldest daughter, Michelle, got her nickname, "Chicky" from a waitress at the Pufferbelly.  But I digress.  Though I enjoy stopping at this station for its extra amenities, what I love best is that my family can come running out onto the platform alongside the tracks and surround me with hugs and kisses the minute I step off the train.  My welcoming committee.  Don't get that at the airport!

Hope y'all enjoyed the journey.  As you know, I always do! 


Cheryle said...

This was a wonderful post to read, Lisa. Thank you for sharing!
My Daddy rode the Southwest Chief in June 2002 from Trinidad (bus from Springs to Trinidad) to my hometown, San Bernardino, CA. He loved it! back then there was a smoking car that the smokers could hang out in.
Rachel and her best friend rode the same train with Jess' mom in 2006. They were upgraded to a sleeper car for a very small fee. They had a great time too!
Maybe I will have to take a train ride someday :)
Again, thanks for sharing.

Bia said...

this was absolutely fascinating! while i have traveled by train many times in europe, i have never done so here ... and now i would love to try it.

thanks for sharing your experiences and photos!

Natalie said...

Haha. The train ride sounds like fun. I've rode the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway for fun and I agree, the people are always pretty interesting.