12.10.2015

The (Not-So) Great American Train Ride

When I was younger, a growing sense of wanderlust found me longing to embark on a long distance train ride. Whether it was traveling from country to country in Europe or getting "a chance to see the real America" (as folks sometimes say), it seemed like a good way to go.

I envisioned long distance and overnight train travel to be a delight and as I saw it, some of the top reasons for taking such a ride were
  1. the chance to view nice scener
  2. the opportunity to meet all sorts of people and build camaraderie with other travelers
  3. a rare opportunity to do nothing more than sit back, contemplate things, read, write, and watch life go by
Over the years, I have taken a variety of overnight trains in Europe; on the beaten path from Paris to Rome and on the not so beaten path from Wrocław, Poland to Brno, Czech Republic, from Berlin to Vienna and most recently from Belgrade, Serbia to Bar, Montenegro. While each trip was far from a disaster, they were all far from being the memorable experience I was hoping for.

I have only taken one overnight train trip in the United State and it too was far from memorable. I was recently telling the story to a friend and as I thought about it, I realized that January marks the anniversary of this trip. Yes, it is almost 20 years to the day that I boarded the train. 

Here is the story...

It was winter break during my last year of graduate school. I had spent some time back east visiting my family for the holidays, and my cousin Carolyn and I caught Phish's 1995 New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden. I was to board the train a day or two later so I could get back to Laramie and make a big dent in the proposal for my Master's thesis before the semester began

In an effort to save money, I decided to take the cheap route for my trip. The plan was to share a ride across the country on the way east and take the train from New York City to Laramie, Wyo. for my return trip. As I reflect back, the reality is that I probably chose this route in an effort to have what I thought would be an adventure and a memorable experience. My parents paid my airfare in those days and the only reason to go the slower route was for the experience. While I wasn't eagerly anticipating the car ride, I looked forward to the long train trip. At the time, the only other overnight train ride I had been on was the Pairs-Rome trip mentioned above. Perhaps I was hoping to have a "So This is Yale" moment.


The Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco.

Read More: Amtrak Zephyr Rerouted Through Wyoming | http://kowb1290.com/amtrak-zephyr-rerouted-through-wyoming/?trackback=tsmclip
Back in the day, Amtrak's Overland Route brought passengers to Laramie, Wyoming
At the train depot in Laramie
The Lake Shore Limited was to take me from New York City to Chicago and the Overland Route, which ran from Chicago to Seattle, was to drop me off in Laramie. Day one had the train departing New York City at around 6:30 pm. Day two had the train arriving in Chicago in the morning where there was to be a three hour layover. After transferring trains in Chicago that afternoon, I was scheduled to arrive in Laramie late in the next morning on day three for an elapsed travel time of approximately 32 hours.

The train departed New York City as scheduled. Since it was an evening in early January, it was already dark when I boarded so item one on the list of reasons to ride a long distance train, enjoying the scenery, was not to be. I would not get the chance to gaze upon bucolic upstate New York as the train rolled by. Not that I cared much as I had passed through the area several times and still had to look forward to the second reason for riding a long distance train, meeting people.

I decided that the dining car would be the place to do just that. Folks there tended to be about my age, but were pretty scrappy and rough-around-the-edges. No one was engaging in any meaningful conversation but one young woman was rambling on comparing and contrasting major world religions; more of a monologue or lecture rather than an actual conversation. I speculated that she had just finished a comparative religion course that semester. Overall, hanging out in the dining car was a bore.

So the experience of engaging conversation with other train riders did not meet up to my expectations. No worries as I still had reason number three to enjoy, taking the time to really sit back and relax. I settled in to my comfy train chair to read and looked forward to reclining my seat back as the night wore on, lulled to sleep by the click clack of the train as it rolled along the tracks.

Sleep came easy but I woke up a few times during the night and each time the train wasn't moving. Hmmm...the stopping of the train must be waking me was what I concluded. No big deal. 

The night passed and in the morning the train slowly came alive with waking passengers. As people were roused from their slumber, the train became more social. I revisited the dining car and the scene was much the same as it was the night before, but a crazy rumor was circulating. Once again the religious studies girl dominated but this time it was more of a conversation as the other passengers seemed to know something about it as well.

If I were to believe what I was hearing, the train was delayed in upstate New York. Apparently, some folks (Apple Knockers?) were playing a snowmobile game that involved dodging the oncoming train and in this instance the train won. Yikes! Could it be true? No other rumors had circulated and we were behind schedule. What was I to believe?! The religious studies girl had a lot to say about the karma of the train driver.

We were six hours late. I was going to miss my transfer by three hours. What would it take to get back to Wyoming?! Fortunately, Amtrak had it all worked out. 

Before arriving in Chicago, an announcement was made that we were behind schedule. Passengers with connections were instructed to head to the Amtrak customer service center where they would receive further information. I didn't expect them to be too accommodating, but lucky for me I was wrong.

I arrived at the customer service center and introduced myself to the attendant. A small file was produced with my name on it and in it were instructions and tickets for my ongoing travel. To make a long story even longer, a shuttle van picked me up at the train station, drove me to a small airport where I boarded a plane and upon landing in Nebraska took another shuttle van that drove me to some random location where I caught the train I had missed hours earlier. Exactly as planned, I arrived in Laramie late in the morning the next day.

Many of the details are lost in the mists of time. I don't remember how long I waited around for the shuttle vans or the plane. My only memory of the plane ride is that there was a posse of Nebraska football fans on board, all "corn fed" looking and decked out in the school colors. The pilot felt compelled to announce repeatedly that he wanted to welcome those passengers and congratulate them as Nebraska had just won some big bowl game. As you can imagine, the fans we ecstatic.

I recall that it was cold, dark and quiet as I boarded the Nebraska train. If it were daylight, I expect I would have seen cornfields for as far as the eye could see. I don't remember there being an actual train depot or other passengers waiting and I don't remember if the van driver waited for me to board, but I don't recall being all alone in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska either

So there you have it My one (not-so) great American train ride also involved travel in two vans and on a plane. Although it wasn't an enjoyable experience, I'm glad I did it. It was an adventure indeed albeit not the one I had anticipated.  With train travel in the United States dwindling, there might not be many chances take a trans-American train ride again. Of course, Amtrak's Empire Builder route runs from Minneapolis to Seattle and makes a stop in Whitefish, Montana, right by Glacier National Park. The romantic in me thinks that sounds quite idyllic. Perhaps I'll take the chance and board another overnight train in America. Who knows what sort of adventure awaits!
The Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco.

Read More: Amtrak Zephyr Rerouted Through Wyoming | http://kowb1290.com/amtrak-zephyr-rerouted-through-wyoming/?trackback=tsmclip