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