LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK – Part One

BLOG #33, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK
Part One
August 19, 2015

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Once more, we heard the haunting “All Aboard!”

Once more we were shown to our aptly-named “Roomette,” and shoe-horned ourselves in. And once more, we felt forward movement—another adventure begun.

Sadly, air travel offers little adventure anymore: cramped seating with only inches separating passengers and no leg room at all. Food-wise: maybe crackers, pretzels, or cookies. Only on transcontinental flights do you receive more than that. And once you climb to cruising altitude, all you see are clouds below you.

Not so, train travel. Comfortable seats with plenty of space between passengers and more than adequate leg room. Large windows; and in the Vistadome cars, glass overhead as well. A café car for snacks and a dining car for meals. For those who travel in sleeping cars, all meals are included. For travelers with families, larger sleeping quarters are available.

Children love it for they are not strapped down and can roam the train at will. Once they experience train travel, they can’t wait to get on another train. They are mesmerized by the scenery outside their windows: the mountains, plains, rivers, lakes, oceans, cities, people, animals, birds—entranced, they watch as the scroll of America unwinds before their very eyes. But adults too are fascinated at being able to really see America.

It is travel as it used to be. No driving hassle, jockeying with traffic; no toll booths, no road-work.

Equally significant: on trains travelers from all over the world get the opportunity to really get to know each other. In the dining car, you are seated in groups of four or six, facing each other; thus everyone gets acquainted. One hears much laughter for, once introduced to each other, they share their personal journeys with each other and become friends. Since many of the seats in the Observation Car are set at angles, this too encourages conversation. Others gather around tables conversing or playing table games.

At night, room attendants convert roomette seating into bunk beds. Admittedly, the beds are narrow and the overhead mattress is thinner than the one below, but even so one can sleep far easier than those on coach seats. There is something sleep-inducing by lying down on a train bed. Once the train is in motion, the gentle rocking is akin to being rocked to sleep as a child. You tend to awaken only when the train stops. And in the interstices of sleep and waking is the haunting sound of the engine horn far ahead drifting past you.

For this particular trip, we left our home on the top of Conifer Mountain, 9700 feet in elevation high in the Rockies, drove down to Golden as dawn broke; there we boarded Light Rail for the brand new renovated Union Station, already the hub of downtown Denver. Here we boarded the California Zephyr that had departed from Chicago the day before.

No sooner were we ensconced in our roomette when the train left the station. Shortly afterwards, on the intercom, we were invited to head up to the dining car for breakfast. Then we’d ricochet down the weaving cars like drunken people, laughing all the way. After being seated by another couple, we gazed out the window as the train began the long ascent to Moffat Tunnel in the Great Divide (from which all Front Range rivers run to the Mississippi and the Caribbean and all rivers on the other side empty into the Colorado and Mexico’s Sea of Cortez/Pacific Ocean).

We’ll continue this saga on Wednesday, August 26th.

 

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.