Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Riding the rails and seeing America

If you want to see and appreciate 'flyover country,' you have to stop flying over it.

This summer, I took a spectacular journey via Amtrak. This is what I imagine an old-school whistle-stop campaign may have been before politicians joined the jet set.

Indeed, my travels took me through two dozen states and I marveled at the scenery while I crossed time zones, regions and even mountain ranges. And I did not go it alone. Thanks to social media, this solo traveler brought friends and family into his summer adventure.

This leads me to why I am writing this blog post. The most common question that I was asked upon my return:

"How did you do it?"

It was quite simple. I purchased a USA Rail Pass from Amtrak. There are three options for travelers: 15 days (8 segments) for $459 30 days (12 segments) for $689 45 days (18 segments) for $899

As you can see, the USA Rail Pass affords travelers a chance to get around quite a few places for a fairly reasonable price. I don't know if I would be able to fly around the country in two weeks for less than $500. And it's not like I would want to, either. Part of the magic of traveling by train is that I can savor the trip as much as my destination.

But what about the segments? That is simple. Long-distance trips will require changing trains. For example, I used a USA Rail Pass to travel to Kansas City, Missouri a few years ago. My first segment took me from Jacksonville to New York. My second segment began in New York and ended in Chicago. My third segment went from Chicago to Kansas City. With the help of my Amtrak agent, I managed to schedule my segments so I could get back home within the two week window.

The next frequently asked question that I get is about sleeping accommodations. It costs extra to get a sleeping car and it is more economical to share a compartment with friend or family. It has the added benefit of including the cost of all dining car meals (except alcoholic beverages). I have traveled by sleeping car before but I do not mind riding coach. There is plenty of legroom in coach and the seats recline quite nicely, thank you very much. I don't mind catching some shut eye in the upper deck of observation car or the lounge car as there are seats that allow for such relaxation. Just remember to be considerate and wake up around dawn as it is not your personal bed chamber but a common area for your fellow travelers (Amtrak crew will gently alert you to this).

To be honest, as a teacher who has summer vacation, I do not see why I have to rush to my destinations. If time is no object for you, I highly recommend taking the train to get where you want to go.

Ten years ago, I took the Sunset Limited train to Los Angeles. This was not via the USA Rail Pass, but it inspired me to venture on as many Amtrak routes as I can. I am glad that I opted to go transcontinental when I did. That same summer, Hurricane Katrina struck and the Sunset Limited service has been suspended since then (With no apparent plans from Washington to revive this service past its truncated New Orleans to Los Angeles route).

Well, if it sounds like I am shilling for Amtrak, I probably am. [Grin] I remember when I was taking a public relations class at the University of North Florida. What did I choose as my class project? You guessed it. The National Passenger Railroad Corporation, affectionately known as Amtrak.

Over the years have gone on short trips from Jacksonville to Tampa and on longer trips to Portland, Maine. It has always been in the back of my mind that I needed to share my experiences so others would know about the fun of riding the train. Well, here are some highlights of my most recent train trip.

1. The City: I knew that I would have four hours to spend in New York while I waited for my train to Chicago. I dropped in at the Four Seasons restaurant on the Upper East Side. I recently read that the Four Seasons will be closing next year. I was not disappointed as this swank place treated this sweaty, hungry visitor like a high roller. Having read about their jacket policy, I asked for a coat to wear upon my entrance. The gentleman at the coat check smiled and said not to worry as it was a scorcher of an afternoon. Gazpacho, Maryland crab cakes, and Chardonnay were my posh lunch for the day. Thank you, Four Seasons! 2. The Emerald City: The International Youth Hostel in Seattle is a great lodging option. The college dorm-style rooms are a bargain, are safe, and they have a great deal of amenities (Free continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free group walking tours, clean bathroom facilities, etc.) I liked the fact that this hostel is within walking distance of the Seattle train station and is on a transit line that will take you into the central business district. If you opt to visit Seattle, I highly recommend purchasing a CityPass for affordable access to the Seattle Aquarium, the Space Needle, Argosy Cruises, and other attractions. 3. The passengers and crew: The train creates a sense of community when traveling long distances. I talked about philosophy and science with a seatmate who was from Bangladesh and was working for Microsoft. There was a pair of women named Linda (and one husband) who were returning from a convention for women with their name. They were amazed that I knew quite a bit about Johnny Ray and other singers from an era 'before my time.' I met Amish people from Ohio, parkour performers from San Jose, a retired art teacher, a Russian immigrant, and a woman and her grandson who were on a 30-day USA Rail Pass. On my Sacramento to Chicago segment, I liked visiting the cafe car where I talked with an engineer who moonlighted as a musician and the cafe car attendant. Our conversations ranged from James Bond to the Simpsons. I even found myself part of a bachelor party. I have never been to one, so I had no qualms with sharing my booth in the cafe car with a very boisterous gang headed to Portland. I even got a Crown and ginger ale from one of the attendees for being part of their festivities. 4. Making connections: Thanks to Facebook, I met up with a classmate from elementary school in Seattle and also had dinner with a former student and his mother. I was reminded of how small the world feels at times and how it was nice to renew old ties. It was during a layover in Sacramento, waiting for my connecting train to Chicago, that I experienced very friendly service at a local Starbucks on a Sunday morning. I was able to have breakfast, read the Sunday paper and charge my phone. I left a nice note and a tip with the baristas for allowing me to rest up there. 5. America: This was the main attraction of my trip. Through my window, I was able to see the landscape from the perspective of someone who did not have to worry about keeping his eyes on the road. My sightseeing ranged from the Hudson River north of New York to Lake Erie outside of Toledo to the Mississippi River in Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River in Washington State. I made a point of keeping my Instagram filled with as many images as I could. I am especially glad that others were able to experience vicariously what I hope they will soon see for themselves by train. 6. Guides: On selected routes, including the Empire Builder and California Zephyr that I rode this summer, there are volunteer guides who will narrate parts of your trip. In the double-desk observation car, these guides share the stories behind the sights. Our guides alerted us to Chihuly works gracing an Oregon bridge and also the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that replaced 'Galloping Gertie.' Even the terrain that we saw had its own backstory - like the area still coated in ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.

I know that this blog entry only scratches the surface of my trip and I know that I will expand upon it when the feeling strikes me. The bottom line is that I love riding the train and highly recommend it to others.

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