Riding the Rails with a Taste for Danger
When you travel alone, weird things happen. Once, I wished to take a photo from the caboose of a moving train and the last car was closed, so the (service-oriented? crazed?) conductor took me back there solo. It became a possibility, at least in my mind, that this was a disgruntled government worker gonna throw me off. When you travel alone, problem is: no witnesses. You take your chances. I whistled a tune, looked him in the eye, and said thank you. Criminologists say this can work. Worth a shot.
Good news about Amtrak: the feds have bankrolled track upgrades, shortening The Vermonter by 30 minutes with plans to add The Montrealer back in. Second, they are dumping the old engines and beater cars from the late 60s and 70s, which have amortized nicely (RIP, doors that won’t stay closed in the can!) Third, that weird, time-consuming three-point turn in Massachusetts is going away. As a friend reflected, “I have to remind myself every time that I’m not in Thailand…or Haiti.”
Because I hadn’t ridden the rails in years, I planned a big, fat, round-trip voyage from VT to NC. What a gas: the train pulling into the station! Uniformed conductors! Union Station in DC! Quaint town of Southern Pines! Dining en train with (paper) table cloths! Looking for spies in the Café Car! Bringing that nuclear cheeseburger back to you seat! Great good fun.
Climate control in the old cars was, not surprisingly, an issue. On one leg the sleeper car was positively brisk (Nutter One: “It’s miserable.”) On another, the coach car was boiling (Nutter Two: “We could do Hot Yoga in the aisle.”) But the service was consistently lovely, and despite some [wicked] late starts, we always arrived…on time. In the Sleeper Car, you can sit on one seat and put your legs up on the other—it even has its own toilet and microsink—or climb onto the upper bunk, prop yourself up on (multiple!) pillows, and watch the world unfold. Fabulous.
Yes, to the lulling chug of the train, you can watch America go by, with all her rivers, forests, factories, farms, graffiti, skylines, and sunsets as you amble around chatting up your co-travelers, read, knit, sleep—try that from behind the wheel. The Quiet Car is strictly enforced, so you can escape rowdy pinochle players and cell phone jawbaggers (not true in Business Class, but there you get free newspapers and all the soda and coffee you can guzzle, which in my case is a lot so I actually made money; you might curb intake for now because the can is definitely the old trains’ Achilles’ heel.) Unlike on a plane, if you get into trouble, you could probably hurl yourself off with some chance of survival. And with Amtrak, you can break up your trip, scheduling overnight stops at no extra ticket cost if you plan it right. On one such “layover” I had a grand time in Baltimore; on another I laughed so hard with a friend and a bottle of premium tequila in Manhattan that our pants broke.
While it wasn’t exactly balmy in North Carolina, I was glad for one last stroll down memory lane aboard the old, roomy, soon-to-be 86’d—yet nicely amortized—iron horse. Old or new, you can’t predict what will happen astride her. You could end up fingering spies or sipping beezers with a Swede with a hollow leg…you just never know. May you make such a journey yourself, complete with the lure of nutters and unknown dangers whetting your dormant taste for adventure. All Aboard! Good day.