Day 16 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Albany, NY where I am now at mile 8028 of this voyage. You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.
Slept, once more, like a baby on the Lake Shore Limited. Awoke on the late side to find us east of Cleveland, west of Erie. Had scrambled eggs in the dining car and for the first time in two weeks my breakfast companion was someone plugged into a device, watching a movie over her French toast who did not wish to have a conversation or engage in any way. I couldn’t decide to be hurt by this (having had so many interesting and unexpected talks in the dining car) or relieved (remembering my breakfast with the Amish who did not approve of music).
Spent much of the day doing office work– wrote recommendations for students applying to grad school. Then read the 100 pages of Falcon Quinn 3, my young adult series in progress; I am about two-thirds of the way through that story. I didn’t do any work on it today, but I did re-read what I’ve done till now, and tried to think about what will like ahead in the rest of the story, which I hope to write this winter and spring.
I’m holing up in a Boston hotel tonight before my final ride home tomorrow on Maine’s “Downeaster.” As we approach the end of this voyage, here are a few tips for other travelers who do long distance train rides in the USA, and my other Amtrak Writers in Residence in Particular.
• Do bring a pair of slippers. In the western trains, the bathroom is down the corridor, and you really want to have something on your feet for that journey. They won’t let you leave the car in your socks. I know: one morning, headed to breakfast, I was sent back to my room for shoes. You can only imagine my mortification.
• Do bring a power strip. There’s usually only one outlet per roomette, and it sits not flush to the wall, but inside a strangely shaped indentation. You want the kind of power strip that will plug in, and then give you three or four outlets on the other end; ideally some of these would be USB ports.
• There’s no wifi on the trains. For vast stretches in the west, there is no cell service either. The station master in San Francisco announced this happily, “So you will have to TALK to each other. Or READ A BOOK.” A mifi device or cell service will work a lot of the time, but not in the mountains, or in the tunnels. And especially not in tunnels in the mountains.
• I brought a terry cloth robe for wearing over my pajamas in the morning. I liked getting up very early out west, going into the observation car to write for an hour or two before sunrise. The robe occupied a large chunk of my duffle bag, but I think it was worth it. So were the pajamas. Mine were covered with little yellow stars, giving my friend Johnny in Seattle the chance to mock them as my “wizard pajamas” but I think he was just jealous he didn’t have any of his own.
• I brought two bags: a small suitcase I kept in the roomette with me, which I then refreshed and re-supplied from a huge duffle when I was off the train. On the western trains, I kept the big duffle downstairs in the sleeper’s storage area; (not the baggage car); on the eastern trains, there’s an area in the top of the berth where you can shove a dufflebag–it’s just about that big.
• In Boston and Chicago, to name two, there are special lounges for the first class/sleeper car passengers, and this was really a lifesaver– especially in Chicago. Folks doing the sleeper should take full advantage of these swanky chambers.
• The eastern trains are “Viewliners” and have single-decker sleepers with an upper berth that raises and lowers. There are both high and low windows int he Viewliners that give the roomettes more light. The “Superliners” are out west, and there is an upper level and a lower. The upper level rooms have a slightly better view. The Viewliners have a commode right in the roomette with you as well as a sink. Some people will like the convenience of this; I kind of liked going down the hall to the powder room, and there was something a bit over-the-top about a commode right next to my easy chair. (Or maybe it’s under-the-bottom.) The Western trains have the observation cars, and why not: there’s more to observe. The Coast Starlight has the coolest cars of all– the “parlor” cars, with swivel easy chairs, a bar, and a movie theatre downstairs.
• But look, these rooms are really small. There are larger ones, and riders will have to decide whether the extra money is worth it. A couple would have to be really in love to enjoy the roomette, but then, lots of couples are. How small are the rooms? A fellow from Texas said to me, “You couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of them things without getting fur in your mouth.”
• My own desire was to get a ton of work done, and I did just that. I finished the last couple chapters of the first draft of a novel; wrote a 4000 word essay for an anthology; wrote a syllabus for a new course at Barnard; did paperwork, and read Falcon Quinn 3. I feel lucky and grateful. Trains really are great places for writers.
• The main challenge to all of this, though, is the great desire to stare out the window going Duh. The best views on the routes, I think, are: crossing the Rockies on the California Zephyr; crossing the Sierras via the Donner Pass on the Zephyr; the view of Mt. Shasta from the Starlight; traversing Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder. The Lake Shore Limited is a more efficient train, but the views are not quite as shockingly beautiful– or maybe it’s just that I’m from the east, and I’m familiar with the terrain.
• The Amtrak staff is kind of amazing. From Lashawna on the Lake Shore going west, to Dennis on the Zephyr, to Alfreda ad Al on the Lake Shore east, the people working on the railroad are enthusiastic and professional and truly seem eager to help. I was grateful for the way they made my voyage easier. I’m also grateful to Julia Quinn at Amtrak HQ for masterminding this whole project.
• You will encounter lots of people doing the sleeper route if you do this journey, but one thing they almost all seem to have in common is, THEY LOVE TRAINS. They will talk your ear off about how great this all is, as if you have joined a very select group of lucky people. Which you have.
• This kind of voyage is not for everyone. The quarters are small. In some ways it will remind you of really elegant camping. This is not the luxury train ride you are imagining from those movies in the 1940s, or perhaps even from trains in Europe. The trains get delayed, routinely, especially out west; if you go the full route expect to be delayed, 2, 4, even 6 hours. The only thing it is better than is any form of air travel whatsoever, and in comparison to that nightmare, it is like staying at the Waldorf. You have an AC outlet, really good food, your own private room, and a window onto some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. There are literally places in this country you will never see if you do not take the train. Would I do this again? In a heartbeat. And yes, next time, my family is coming with me.
This train is bound for glory.