Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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Train — The New Way to Travel (Part Two)

BLOG #23, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Two)
June 4, 2014

Please refresh your memory by glancing back at Part One of this tribute to trains, on May 21.

Now, let’s get back to the pluses and minuses of Amtrak travel. A huge plus has to be the seats. In recent years in air flight, the so-called “friendly skies” have become anything but. In order to cram more and more people into these flying cattle cars, seat-size continues to shrink. Width too. Worst of all, knee room. Once a plane is in motion, and the person in front of you reclines the seat, you are lucky if you have an inch or two space between your knees and the seat in front of you. And width-wise, if your seatmate is large (which is more than likely given our national obesity epidemic), you are forced to scrunch and contort your body in order to fit in the remaining space. Needless to say, the combination of the two, bad enough on short flights, can be a recipe for hell on longer ones.

Not so, Amtrak seats: they are wide with plenty of leg room: thus you are free to really stretch out.

As for the nights, that extra space really helps. One serendipity in transcontinental train travel is that when you leave major urban hubs such as Denver or Salt Lake City, enough passengers will have disembarked to enable you to stretch out across two seats. No one tells you that you can, but rarely will anyone stop you from doing so. Of course, if a large number of passengers boarded somewhere in the middle of the night and space became a premium, you’d probably be informed that you would have to surrender one of the two seats.

I’ll do one thing differently next time, however: I’ll take an extra blanket and a pillow. They do turn the lights way down low, which makes it easier to sleep. Sleeper cars, of course, are better. Complete with bedding, bunk beds, toilet, sink, shower, and porter service. But unless you are traveling clear across the country (taking three days), one night in a coach seat is not bad at all. That’s confirmed by the people who, in spite of being awakened by car attendants, sleep through the stops anyhow. But they are the exception, not the norm.

DAY ONE

Since we were late pulling out of Denver, we missed breakfast in the dining car. Consequently, we cobbled together enough items from the Snack Car to get us through. For hours we climbed, along rivers, streams, and canyons, through multitudinous tunnels. But none longer than Moffatt Tunnel (the second longest rail tunnel in the United States). The giant bore was the realization of the dream of David H. Moffatt, a Denver banker, who began in 1902 to construct a railroad west through the towering Rockies. It soon became clear that deep winter snows would bring travel to a halt unless a six-mile-long tunnel could be drilled through the heart of James Peak. Finally, in 1922, the Moffatt Tunnel commission was appointed, and bonds were issued to finance the work. Originally, it was assumed that since the mountain had a granite core, $6,720,000 ought to be enough to complete the project. Once inside the mountain, however, engineers discovered they’d also have to dig through muddy shale, every foot of which would have to be timbered. Result: the price-tag tripled! Even with the tunnel, the elevation is 9,094 feet. To passengers today, it seems to take almost forever to get through it.

Coming out finally, there below was Winter Park Ski Area, one of Colorado’s largest. Passengers had front-row seats as they watched hundreds of descending skiers, and more coming from the far distance. It would be a winter wonderland for some time to come.

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No one wanted to surrender a seat in the Observation Car during the gradual descent through Gore Canyon, following the Colorado River; at Dotsero Junction, where the Eagle River joins the Colorado, the train turns west again, and soon, sheer walls towering over a thousand feet above Glenwood Canyon, almost stops conversation in its tracks. Easily one of the greatest scenic sights in America. In the middle of it, Connie and I were called into the Dining car. What a view! Our entranced table-mates were retirees from West Virginia; a lovely college freshman attending Mesa State in Grand Junction completed our fivesome. Daughter of a professional artist, she was majoring in art herself. So fascinated was she by our travel-related conversations that her eyes widened in wonder as we took her with us all around the world. I shall return to her before I complete this Amtrak series.

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By the way, the highway through Glenwood Canyon took close to twenty years to construct, disrupting traffic for an entire generation.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped briefly in Grand Junction, the state’s fruit-growing heartland. Its Palisade peaches are known nationwide. Also more and more vineyards are being planted here.

Night fell, as we rolled through the Utah mountains. Then came a delicious vegetarian repast in the dining car. Since we’d left home at 5:00 a.m., we were very tired and decided to call it a day at 9:50 p.m. Because we’d gain an hour when we entered the Pacific Time Zone, it meant it was 8:50 p.m., making for a very long night. For even with two seats for each of us to stretch out in, it most certainly was a long ways from our king size bed at home. Our dreams were haunted by the sound of the horn at every railroad crossing and road intersection. Surprisingly, it didn’t keep us awake but rather filled the interstices of our dreams.