Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A More Human Way to Travel - Part 2

Climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe we ran into snow flurries so I didn’t get great view out the window for the prettiest part of the trip, but the falling snow was a treat in itself. One thing I’ve really come to appreciate about train travel is the quiet. In my compartment with the door shut, it’s quite peaceful. Unlike an airline, there’s no engine noise and unless you’re moving between cars you don’t even hear the “clackety-clack” of the tracks. Even though I bring stuff to read and typically make plans to use all that time on the train to get work done, I usually end up just sitting, staring out the window, watching the world go by. Before I realized it, we had crossed over Raton Pass and into Colorado. It was already getting dark again.

After dinner I retired to my roomette, worked a little more on my presentation then found Rene to get the room ready for sleeping again. Knowing I would lose another hour overnight I set the clock on my Blackberry ahead to Central time and turned in.

The tracks were a bit rough through Kansas overnight. As I rocked in my bunk I dreamed I was riding the luge down the Olympic course at Whistler. After breakfast we stopped in Kansas City for about 40 minutes. I had time to walk around and take a few pictures inside the beautiful Kansas City Union Station. If you’ve ever been to Union Station in Washington DC, it’s a bit smaller, but similar. As I stepped out front to get a few exterior pictures I saw Barb. Her trip was over and she was waiting for her ride. I told her it was a pleasure traveling with her, wished her a safe journey home, and made my way back to the platform.

Leaving Kansas City we crossed the Missouri River. The rest of the way to Chicago, I saw a lot of snow. It was everywhere - on the ground, in the trees. It blew past my window as the engine stirred up whatever was lying on the tracks. We passed countless farms and rolled through several small towns as we made our way across Missouri. At one stop in La Plata, MO I noted that you know you’re in rural America when the only vehicle waiting at the railroad crossing is a John Deere.

At Fort Madison, Iowa we crossed the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. My last meal on the train was with a couple from Kansas on their way to Chicago for a little vacation. She was a retired Kindergarten teacher. Funny how I keep running into teachers. We shared school experiences and I talked about ways education has changed over the years (and how it hasn’t). I also explained some of the things I planned to teach in my ICE presentations.

Passing through Princeton & Mendota, I knew my journey on the Southwest Chief would soon be coming to an end. As I gathered my things Rene came by to help. Naperville was the last stop before downtown Chicago. Since my conference was in St. Charles, it made sense to arrange for transportation from there. I found my way downstairs as the train slowed to a stop. Rene opened the door and placed my bags on the platform and I thanked him for making the trip an enjoyable one.

As the train pulled out of the station on it’s way downtown, I meandered toward the front of the station where my friend Anne was waiting for me. My 42 hour Amtrak trip to Chicago was now officially over.

The train arrived in Naperville, Illinois 15 minutes early. My flight back to California the next Saturday was over 2 1/2 hours late due to mechanical problems. As I stood in the security line at O’Hare with my shoes off, laptop out, and carry-on ready for inspection, I noticed ads for Amtrak pasted to the bottom of those plastic bins at the x-ray. The modern day equivalent of “Next time, take the train.” You don’t have to tell me that.

A More Human Way to Travel

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit another online journal of another train trip across the country. This time I used the 2010 ICE Conference in St. Charles, Illinois as an excuse to ride the Southwest Chief.

When you ride the train they know you by name. At least your sleeping car attendant does. Rene was in charge of car 430. “Mr. Dennis”, he called me looking at his passenger list as I boarded the Southwest Chief in Fullerton, California eastbound to Chicago. He lifted my large bag up onto the lower baggage rack and directed me upstairs to my compartment. I was in roomette #5. The roomette is a small compartment with two seats facing each other and a sliding glass door & curtain for privacy. By the time I set my backpack and coat down on one seat and plopped myself down on the other I realized we had already started moving. I barely noticed. “They’re still serving dinner.” Rene advised, “You should go get something to eat.”

It was 7:20pm. If I had known they would be serving dinner that late I wouldn’t have eaten that burger before arriving at the station. Meals are included in when you purchase a sleeping compartment. Entering the dining car, Annie, the dining car steward directed me to my table. Amtrak dining cars are community seating, so you get to know your fellow passengers during meal times. Next to me sat Barb, who got on with me in Fullerton. Her compartment was right across the hall from mine. She was traveling back home to Kansas City after visiting her grandchildren in San Diego. The gentleman who sat across from us was a businessman “training” his way to back to the East Coast. We introduced ourselves and shared about our occupations. The ribs and chicken looked good, but since I had already eaten I opted for just coffee and slice of cheesecake. Over the meal we had a lively discussion over ways deal with the glut of information online, the need for "fact-checking", and how to teach kids to determine bias. We agreed that the loudest opinion is believed and shared more often than the actual truth.

By the time dinner was over we were already past San Bernardino and heading up Cajon Pass. I was about ready to turn in for the night and before I could ask, Rene was there. In less than 2 minutes he had converted my two seats into one bed. When the sleeper is made up it’s about as wide and long as a standard sleeping bag. With the slider to the compartment shut and curtains pulled I had about 12 inches of space between the bed and the door. Not much room to change, but I managed. I suppose I could have used the changing room downstairs. Maybe tomorrow. This was my third overnight train trip, but the motion of the car and the unfamiliar surroundings still took a little getting used to. I woke up several times but eventually found my way to dreamland.

Shortly after 5:00am it was still dark when the train stopped in Flagstaff. I woke to look out my window and see snow - lots of it. I snapped a couple of pictures and debated going back to sleep, but then realized my time was wrong. Blackberry’s don’t update the clock when you change time zones. It was already after 6:00am. Time to get up.

Showering on a moving train can be a challenge. Each sleeping car has a changing room with a shower. It’s like a glorified RV shower. Amtrak provides towels & soap. You set the temperature and press the button for about 45 seconds of water. It took a few presses to get hot water - I never really got the temperature right. The water pressure was pretty weak but after several presses at least I felt clean and somewhat refreshed which is more than I can say for my fellow passengers in coach. One man who got on with me at Fullerton was headed all the way to Rhode Island in coach. All I remember thinking was, “Good luck, pal.”

The dining car opened at 6:30am for breakfast. The sun was just coming up as we rolled East across Arizona. Barb was at my table again for breakfast. She had travelled on the Southwest Chief several times before so I asked her to advise me where the prettiest part of the trip might be. She told me my best photo opportunities would be climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe and into Colorado. While we ate, the train made a quick stop in Winslow. I did a quick check to see if I could see anyone standing on a corner - taking it easy. Nope. The train moved on.

9:00am. Crossing into New Mexico there was snow on the ground once again. After passing through Gallup, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the coffee & juice station at the center of my sleeping car and tried to get some work done on my presentation for the ICE Conference - my excuse for taking this train in the first place. Rene had already changed my room from a bed back into two seats. Each room has a power outlet so I plugged in my computer and was able to get online by tethering it to my Blackberry. I tried pushing my luck to see if I could Skype with Jen Wagner so she could give me some advice on my presentation. We got a few words in, but the connection kept dropping, so I went back to texting.

Lunch time. We pulled into Albuquerque 20 minutes early. That gave me over an hour to explore before the train was scheduled to depart. I walked around for a bit but got hungry. “Back so soon Mr. Dennis?” Rene asked as I climbed back into car 430. “The dining car is empty if you want to eat lunch.” My thoughts exactly.

This time my meal companions were a couple of seasoned train travelers, one a retired college professor, on their way to New York. Teachers always have stuff to talk about and before I realized the hour was up and the train was moving once again.

Go to PART 2