People tell me they’ve thought about taking Amtrak scenic routes: Here are my insights
Early October along the Columbia Gorge meets fantasies about train travel. The sky is that beautiful crisp blue, the trees are changing, highlighted by the dark evergreens, the spruce and cedars, and the pine that climb the bluffs.
The train follows the tracks on the Washington state side, across the river from the Oregon interstate highway. I am so close to the water that I can’t see shore when I gaze out my window, only water, and the barges pushed by a tow boat.
The salmon fishing platforms allocated to Indigenous tribes push out into the Columbia River from the shoreline, sometimes from rock faces. One section of the river must be a fishing hot spot, as sports fishermen are sitting along a cove in their boats, or have walked out above their waists in their bib waders, fishing poles in hand as they cast for whatever is biting.
The train rocks and rolls and is running east, away from the setting sun. In the morning I wake up to a sun rising in the Rockies. Aspen is lit as if from within, outlined yellow against the duskier timber. The stream is fall small, but still splashing across the rocks way below, as the train cars travel a span towards Glacier Park that has no other signs of humans — no roads, cabins, or electric lines.
I move from my upper deck coach seat to the observation car. I quietly watch the mountains and changing colors and water, and rejoice that I timed it right, the color is at its peak the first week of October, it’s a beautiful day. The couple next to me turn and smile. We don’t need to say anything, we’re all just looking.
Sightseeing is everything I want.
The Total Amtrak Experience, not so much.
Amtrak doesn’t run on time, ever, it seems. At least it doesn’t run on time in the expansive distances in the west. The train pulls over in the middle of nowhere and stops, not infrequently. I understand this stop is because Amtrak runs on railroad tracks owned by the freight lines, and the freight trains have priority. They pass us frequently, long trains with lumber and oil cars and cargo containers loaded from ships to be off-loaded to trucks. The supply chain is running hard.
Nobody explains why we are just sitting in the middle of nowhere. The Amtrak website, only available by cell phone service when we are close to a city because there is no wi-fi on this train, per email a week in advance, announces on-time arrival. Later, when I am waiting over two hours in a station for the late train arrival, the overhead sign still displays “Train On Time.” I feel like I am in Cuba again, where official information does not share experienced reality.
Amtrak food is gained by putting quarters and bills into a snack machine, which is the only option (if available) at most stations. The “cafe car” is filled with processed food. I had brought healthy snacks to munch on, which is a saving grace, as the choice is chips, hot dogs, and prefab microwavable food. It’s as if I’ve walked into the snack side of a gas station store.
I didn’t know Amtrak is divided by class. I plopped myself into a big, comfy chair on the first floor when I boarded the train. The conductor/train attendant came in and chatted and told us to contact them for anything we might need, they were there to serve us. The conductor then looked at my ticket and said I belonged upstairs, in coach. That was the last I saw of those oh-so-friendly train attendants for business class.
The stairs and the plumbing are the worst part of the train for me. My knees are bad, and the staircase is one person at a time narrow and steep. Lots of us traveling at this time of year are retired, and I see other people with canes and struggling, like me.
Although my seat is across from a water tap, I still don’t have an inch of water in my water bottle after five minutes and give up. The restrooms have similarly almost adequate plumbing, small little closets with the very basics, one step up from a porta-potty.
Dozing in coach is a realistic expectation, not sleeping. I was lucky that so far on my trip I have spread across two seats. The chairs recline more than airplane seats and there is a footrest. Bells and red flashing lights at railroad crossings, the train whistle, and passengers boarding, and deboarding at all hours are part of my dozing ambiance.
The information I read advised taking a blanket. I have a warm coat, spread across my lap and shoulders like a blanket which I need whether the train is over-air-conditioned or under-heated. Traveling through mountains and another terrain at very different temperatures, I get to experience both.
The dining car is currently for roomette customers only and is by reservation. I have heard the dining car experience is far short of its old elegance, linen tablecloths, and fine food.
The cost of a rail pass, which I am doing, is affordable. I am making four stops to visit old friends. Reconnecting with long-term friends from various stages in my life is very sweet now that I have the time. I don’t care about seeing the sites in various cities. I will laugh and reminisce and we will share stories that others might not know or remember. We will share histories, each owning a different sliver of a shared life.
A roomette for my trip, a 3000-mile loop, would be expensive. For those who aren’t penny pinchers, it is worth considering. I am neutral on business class, as I only glimpsed it. Business class is still chairs.
As I write this, I have been off the train for five hours, but I am discovering train travel is a bit like a long boat trip. I am still swaying. I have planned no more than one night sequentially on the train. That is a very good idea.
Sharon Johnson is traveling cross country on Amtrak. She is a grandmother who reads and writes.
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