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To Florida By Rail

Travelogue - January 30, 2015

January, 2015. Reasoning that tragedy can't possibly strike the same line again so soon - an ill-founded assumption at best - we journeyed by rail from the Great Basin to the east coast, back-tracking America's westward expansion, following its settlement in reverse. The journey took three-and-a-half days total.

California Zephyr

January 12, 2015. We picked up Amtrak's California Zephyr in Salt Lake City at 3:30 a.m., and awoke to see the rocky scrublands and desert of Utah and Colorado streaming past the window. The rails traversed canyons that the state and interstate roads had bypassed, and stopped in towns worth visiting in their own right. Above right, Rick stretches his legs in Grand Junction. The line features excellent smooth rails, delightfully friendly fellow travelers, and considerate staff.

The cars are on two levels. In the passenger cars the upper level features accommodations - where we had reserved a miniscule berth cagily designated a "roomette" (imagine a phone booth lying on its side) - and the lower level supports restrooms and a shower room, luggage storage, and staff lodging. In the dining car the lower level is the kitchen, the upper level is the dining room. And in the lounge car, the lower level is a snack bar and the upper level is the observation car with an array of soft cushy chairs and enormous windows (above left).

We spent most of our time in the observation car, retiring to our roomette only to work, check email, and watch scenery when quiet was preferred.

The train hove into Denver in time for dinner. The dining car requests reservations, first choice given to those of us with accommodations. Each cloth-covered dining table seats four, and staff will fill a table before seating the next. So - unless you are traveling with three friends - you always dine with your fellow passengers, whoever they may be. Our dinner companions the first evening were a pleasant couple traveling home to their farm after buying cattle at auction in Denver. Note: other than service animals, none are allowed on board. So, the cattle were not stashed with the luggage.

After dinner was over it was too dark to see outside, so we retired to our spacious suite to read.

Surprisingly, the roomette was comfortable. There were two cushy chairs opposite each other with a small pull-out laptop sized table between, and a tiny hanging locker which barely held Rick's puffy down coat. There was a shelf/arm rest on one side which served double duty as a ladder at night: the steward slid the two seats together and slid their backs down to make a single bed, and pulled the magic handle above to reveal - surprise! - a second single berth which pivoted out of the ceiling. I got the upper berth, and faithfully used the safety straps to keep from pitching overboard in the night.

January 13, 2015. We nearly missed breakfast the next morning because we forgot the obvious - the train would be crossing time zones with regularity. We were still finishing our hasty meal in the dining car when the staff settled nearby to fold napkins and complete paperwork - and our steward sat down to keep them company and sang to us in a fine tenor while they worked.

We saw the heartland's back yards - and yes some of its grass is weedy and some of its paint is peeling, and someone should really see about straightening its fence. But we liked it very much: there was no posturing. No billboards extolling the virtues of one identical exit over another, no big box stores adrift like hulks in seas of asphalt, no pressure to hoard.

What there was, was a fascinating panorama sliding past our windows, with occasional snapshots standing out vividly: patterns of snow and shadow in fallow fields; a white horse in a red lean-to; faded old trucks parked cheek-by-jowl at a siding; a wind turbine next to a silo on a hilltop; the pattern of thin ice on a river, a fragile white shell suspended over black water. The juxtapositions of contrasts were endlessly fascinating.

In the middle of the afternoon the train pulled into Chicago's Union Station (left) and we had a brief layover - it was too bitterly cold for a scenic stroll, so we headed straight for a small neighborhood coffee house. Rick was reassured that his assessment of mid-westerners as polite and friendly to a man was proven correct yet again.

We returned to the station in time to admire its arches and galleries and carvings (left). There is Rick, far below, checking messages. And then all aboard the Capitol Limited in time for dinner, then darkness, as the trail rolled eastward through the night.


Capitol Limited

January 14, 2015. We awoke with a limited (indeed) view of leafless winter trees, a slowly moving river, tidy villages, and no internet.

This stretch was, as we'd been forewarned by our cattle-buying dinner companions of the previous train, a rougher ride on older tracks. And, not that anyone else mentioned it, but as we traveled further eastward it seemed people demonstrated somewhat less interest in and talent for friendly conversation. But we established ourselves in the observation car and we enjoyed the conversations we did have.

By late afternoon the woods gave way to the relics of industry.

Again, Zoellner's Train:

"...we crept away from the city through double-tracked veins where garbage cluttered in little piles. Security lights pooled against walls, revealing sinister-looking hollow spaces where pallets were once stacked for loading onto boxcars. Here is our hidden nation: best seen through the windows of trains... The America seen from a moving train is a weird parallel America - a forgotten place, an ancient slash-line, a phantom remnant of our younger selves..."

And then, abruptly, we arrived in D.C., disembarked, and gawked for awhile at its very lovely station (left).

We checked our luggage and, with the receipts in our hands and trust in our hearts, we headed outside. Just a block away from the station was the Capitol, its dome buried under scaffolding. We dutifully admired it, shivering and stamping our feet. Despite the cold we were determined, and we walked the Mall (below, right) from end to end: we snickered at the Washington Monument (puh-lease); admired Lincoln in hushed whispers (footsteps echoing on marble); visited the stirring VietNam memorial (dead leaves in drifts along the base of the walls); took our selfie in front of the White House (faces pinched with cold); and finished our loop back at Union Station.

Silver Meteor

As the proud possessors of tickets to another luxury roomette, we were privileged to wait in the VIP lounge. Finally an attendant corralled the proper herd and we tramped through hidden corridors and underground hallways until at last we emerged on a dark and freezing subterranean platform. Where we waited, shivering in unison, until we were finally allowed to board the Silver Meteor.

This train was of a different style than the previous two, being all on a single level to accommodate older bridges and overpasses. And in our roomette, when one pulled down the riser of the top step of the arm rest/ladder, a sink was revealed! It drained with a gurgle down the back wall when you closed it up again. And when one lifted the lower step of the ladder - voila! - an en suite toilet. Which prudence and consideration prevented us using, except in the middle of the night when we were both up anyway so we each decorously stepped out into the hall to wait in turn.

January 15, 2015. By the time morning came we had missed the Georgia coastline, unfortunately. At breakfast our jaded table mate went out of his way to avoid so much as eye contact. But later in the snack bar I heard a group of people discussing common problems and common solutions, and they invited me to join them for an hour of shared experiences - so there you go.

The scenery was pretty consistently thick with semi-tropical vegetation, growing without mercy up to the very limits of the railway grade. And all my shots are of blurry green whipping past. Here is a nice station, though (left).

At last we stumbled onto the platform in Sebring, Florida and, in company with one of my new friends from the snack bar, we hopped a ride to the Enterprise office. Rick and I traveled the last miles of our trip in a rental car with the air conditioner blasting.

"All in all," Rick said, "The train is a much more civilized way to travel than flying."

We wish you all smooth sailing and calm seas!

- Pat and Rick


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