Choo-Choo-Chooing the Time Away


It's about time!

That's what we told ourselves, literally and figuratively, when we finally pulled the trigger on the cross-country train trip we'd paid lip service to for years, but never quite got around to booking.

It's also what we realized, by the time we headed home, that made the experience such a refreshingly therapeutic, hush-instead-of-rush throwback.

It was, when you come right down to it, a form of time travel. We felt that we had temporarily returned for a visit to the more leisurely, less electronic, smell-the-coffee-and-gaze-at-the-trees era in which we used to reside, a place where "space" doesn't always follow "cyber."

It's called the "Empire Builder." Our vehicle of choice was Amtrak's Chicago-to-Seattle train, a superliner that leaves from the Windy City in northern Illinois, travels through southern Wisconsin, cuts diagonally across Minnesota, whooshes past the plains of North Dakota, then takes your breath away as it glides through the Big Sky landscape of majestic Montana.

Then it heads for the West Coast; but my wife, teenage daughter and I disembarked at East Glacier Park in Montana on our way to an extended-family camping trip in the Rockies. We also planned a side excursion to Calgary in Alberta, Canada, as a pamper-me respite in between roughing-it jaunts in the various lakeside camp sites in Glacier National Park, where grizzly-bear sightings and cougar alerts occur just often enough to keep you nervous but stimulated.

But the major question we pondered and found ourselves discussing as we flew from Philadelphia International Airport to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, from there to proceed to Union Station, was: Why would anyone in their right minds sit on a train for more than 30 hours one-way when they could fly the same distance in about two hours?

'An Hour Till the Next Stop'
It wasn't really a money issue because, when all is spent and done, it isn't that much cheaper, if at all, to train it than plane it.

The answers lie elsewhere. To wit: Because flying over something isn't the same as seeing, experiencing, appreciating or encountering it. Because, on a vacation – as opposed to skating over thin ice – speed is not of the essence. Because, for a family, quality time on a train can begin immediately, as opposed to "upon landing." Because a train is smoother and roomier and more predictable and punctual and luxuriant and more full of discovery than other vehicles.

On a long-distance train trip, your sense of time changes, stretching like a Turkish taffy so that a day feels like an afternoon, six hours like two, and "an hour till the next stop" starts sounding like "around the next corner."

As the casually spectacular scenery parades by your window – or, even better, by the domed observation car windows – you feel like an ostrich that's pulled its head out of the ground for the first time in years and finally noticed all the nearby natural beauty.

Outside, the lush forests, vast prairies, shimmering wheat fields, winding rivers, rolling valleys and clear glacial lakes – as well as herds of cattle, horses and buffalo – dazzle like the components of a greatest visual-hits montage.

Meanwhile, inside there's a dining car serving meals, a lounge for snacking, and playing card and board games (as well as for watching movies), and a pretty darn comfortable seat with ample legroom for reading, napping or even – heaven forbid – doing electronic laptop work.

The dining car menu isn't exactly sumptuous, but it isn't skimpy or dispiriting either. There's a decent amount of choice over the course of a day-and-half trip, and the meals are priced reasonably, if not economically, given the captive-audience situation. Breakfast (omelets, quiche, pancakes) will cost you about $7, lunch (burgers, sandwiches, salads) about $10; and dinner (steak, pasta) about $17. Dining-car movies (Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint – "North by Northwest") are free.

As for the expected sleep-deprivation element, the day-plus trip involves just one night, so we decided to test the no-one-can-really-sleep-in-a-chair warning by not opting for a presentable and comfortable, if understandably claustrophobic, sleeper compartment.

Why not? Because of what they look like.

And what do they look like? They look like an additional thousand bucks, that's what they look like.

One overnight seat coming up!

(And for the record, anyone who claims to have gotten a good night's sleep in a passenger chair on any vehicle is playing Pinocchio to your Geppetto.)

At a time when the American rail system might be coming off the track – and you sense the political football that Amtrak has become by listening to insecure, disgruntled employees who do their jobs, but complain of understaffing and the possibility of imminent unemployment – it's surprising to discover that nearly half-a-million passengers rode the "Empire Builder" in 2004 alone.

So it seems a shame that long-distance train travel may soon be a thing of the past. Especially when the past is the very particular destination that you seek to visit in a manner that allows you to … take … your … time.



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