Last Spring I spent 19 days traveling to and through 19 states in an attempt to discover America and to learn a bit more about me.
The big question was…could I do it?
I had to wonder. I’m not exactly a kid and I’m visually impaired, so it was going to be a challenge.
Here’s what I heard frequently when I told people during my trip what I was up to:
“Hey, I want to do that too. I’ve always dreamt about taking a long journey on Amtrak to see what’s out there. What you’re doing is so cool.”
Turns out, there is a little hobo in all of us. My trip was an indulgent excursion not only to discover places I had never been to but to revisit places I hardly knew.
But as I’ve said many times, it was the people – more than the places – that made the trip so interesting and worthwhile.
Go For It
The best place to start most Amtrak journeys of any length is Chicago. More trains leave from there than any other city.
If you are going to New Orleans, the City Of New Orleans is your train. Heading to the Big Apple?
It’s the Lake Shore Limited or a more southerly route, the Cardinal.
What about the west coast? You’re on the California Zephyr which I wanted to take. It runs through Denver and Salt Lake. What about San Antonio? That’s the Texas Eagle.
Getting to know Amtrak routes was all part of the fun.
If you have some time and want more than a point A to Point B trip, buy one of the three Rail Pass packages. I got the middle one which allowed me 12 segments (on and off) in 30 days.
All I had to do was call Amtrak and reserve a ticket which I picked up at the station. Could not have been easier.
What’s It Like Dealing With Amtrak?
The phone people were outstanding. I cannot say enough good things about how I was treated when I called Amtrak.
Everyone was patient with me and made helpful suggestions all along the way. No one ever rushed me and all were friendly. All of them were professionals.
What About The On-Train Personnel?
This one gave me a hard time, so I gave it back.
That’s a little different story. Most of the train staff were good. A few were friendly, but most were just doing a job.
What was intolerable was that most conductors would walk about the trains at 2 AM talking in a loud voice waking people up.
That was an almost universal practice and I’m not sure why that was.
Speaking Of Sleeping, Did I?
It was hit or miss, but as the trip wore on I learned how to sleep on a train. Most of the time I had two seats to myself (I was in coach, aka the steerage section).
I learned that there were only 2 or 3 positions that were comfortable enough to get good sleep. I actually had some REM sleep a few times and awoke fairly re-booted a few mornings.
Seems that too many people need to cough at night. I think a coughing car for all those so afflicted is in order. You could also put all the snorers with them. Maybe use an old smoking car.
If you’re thinking you’ll need a sleeper car, that will set you back about $500 a night. The roomettes were cheaper, but did not look very comfortable. I wanted to be with the people and those types of accommodations cut you off from the world.
5 Things You Need To Take On Your Journey
1. A Pillow and Blanket
You’re not getting any night time comforts on Amtrak unless you bring them.
Here are my two most important traveling companions. (My friend Curt told me to take these buddies with me, and they were indispensable.) A pillow, a blanket, and a window seat were what I needed most.
2. Food and Water
The food on the train is pricey and not that good. There is a lounge bar (not open 24/7) which offers a pretty weak and unhealthy lineup of all-American junk food.
My suggestion is to bring your own snacks, sandwiches, and other food on board. If the food gives off an aroma that you may love but may not be what other riders love, consider eating in the observation car.
While there is water on board, you won’t want to drink that. Make sure to have plenty of liquids with you at all times.
3. Portable Re-chargers
If you’re sitting next to a window or are in a dining or observation car, it’s pretty easy to plugin and re-juice your toys.
But this will be a problem if you don’t find yourself in those situations.
A good portable re-charger lets you roam about the train and not be tethered to one place. It’s also great when you don’t have easy access to an electrical outlet or when you’re not next to a window.
4. Google Maps
It was so cool to track where I was in real time using Google Maps. I loved watching a little dot move past towns and villages along the way. It gave me a sense of where I was and where I was going. If you’re into geography and understand distance in a visceral way, then Google Maps is a necessity.
5. Plenty Of Podcasts, Audio Books, and Music
If you’re traveling a long distance, you’re going to have plenty of time to catch up on your favorite ear candy. I binged on the fabulous “Slow Burn” – obscure and forgotten Watergate stories.
But just don’t put headphones on and/or tune yourself out to the people around you. The people on the train were far more entertaining than anything I heard or saw on my cellphone.
Keep Necessities Close At Hand
Your luggage will be stored on the first level of the train while you’ll be sitting, sleeping, and watching the landscape roll on by from the second level.
Just make sure that when you pack, you put your toiletries (and anything else you’ll need regular access to) in an easy to reach location.
The Coolest Part
It was the observation cars by far. They offered expansive vistas of the passing scenery.
I saw it all. From the Mississippi Delta to the Bayous of Louisiana to the Cascades of Oregon, the country is essentially as flat as a pancake – if you leave out the Rockies and the Appalachians.
And The Food? How Bad?
Pretty bad and pricey. Most of the trains offer the 3 dailies. You need to make a reservation to go over to the dining car.
While I think it’s cool to have a meal while you’re riding through beautiful scenery, it was a good thing my mind was on that and the people I was dining with rather than the food.
I believe the menus were the same no matter the train. I figured at $20 for a chicken dinner or $37 for a steak, the food had to be pretty good. Wrong.
You do eat with other people or, as they say, “community style dining.” That was fine for the most part.
I met Kat and Alisha for breakfast in the Texas morning. Only once was anyone totally non-communicative. He barely acknowledged my existence with his headphones on. So I did the same.
What About The Trains?
All of them were great, if not a little long in the tooth. All of them were double deckers except for any train that pulls into Penn Station. Wouldn’t want to see that happen.
On the double deckers you’ll find the bathrooms, storage, and some coach accommodations.
On the upper level are the living quarters including all the dining and observation cars.
The cafe, which is usually open (but not through the night) is downstairs.
Would I Do It Again?
To hear the call of the towns and cities, “All Aboard,” and the whistle blowing as we passed over countless railroad crossings for 8,000 miles is something I need to do again.
While a trip like this was a lot of work – and not what I’d call a vacation – it was a fantasy lived out to the fullest.