Wednesday, April 17, 2013

10 Things You Should Know Before You Ride Amtrak

Last week I broke out of my usual, humdrum, routine existence to take a trip to Seattle with Caleb. To make things even MORE exciting, we took the train, a mode of transportation we've never used  before. I had lots of great advice from local friends on what to do, bring, and expect. This helped us immensely, but not everyone has access to my friends so I feel that an online tutorial would be a helpful contribution to the world.

10 Things You Should Know Before You Ride Amtrak

Number 1: Begin and end your journey at a stop that checks luggage. To save a few bucks, I went to a non-checking station. Believe me, when they say carry-on, they mean it. Your suitcases are your responsibility to get on and off the train. And they don't give you any too long to do it, either. Something about a Train Schedule----it's tuck and roll, baby!

Number 2: Even if you are a good traveler, be prepared for some disorientation if this is your first time on a train. The train is constantly in motion, and not just in a forward direction. It tosses in Up, Down, Back, Forth, and I'm pretty sure there were some spins mixed in there, too. I have a stomach of steel due to years of reading books on tortuous mountain road trips, but even I had to sit and get used to the new sensations before I dared crack a book.

 Number 3: Should your stomach not settle properly, the bathrooms are downstairs and come in small, intimate, and pocket-size. They have a tiny, violent sink that sprays water everywhere and a tiny, violent toilet that gets rid of your, shall we say, "business" with a great sucking roar guaranteed to terrify small children. Hint: Do NOT attempt to potty train on Amtrak. Your progress will be set back YEARS!  As an added bonus, the charming little locks have a tendency to jiggle out of place from the rocking motion of the train. If you are not vigilant, this can lead to some unexpected moments of community.

Number 4: Moving about the train has its own, unique challenges. As I've already mentioned, the train is constantly bobbing around. If you're not careful, you are only one bump away from finding yourself sitting cozily on the lap of a complete stranger. Great for meeting guys, but I decided I would rather stay upright, thank you very much. Turns in the tracks are also loads of fun. If you don't know one is coming, the train will make the turn and you will still be walking in a nice, straight line----right into the wall. This should be avoided during the hours alcohol is served. People might get the wrong impression.

Number 5: Exploring the train is not only allowed, it is encouraged. You are free to walk up and down the cars and visit the viewing car, also known as the Lounge. But in between each car is a Yawning Pit of Doom waiting to claim you as its next victim. The cars are joined by some kind of flexible attachments that move and shift with the train. You can occasionally see gaps of up to 6 inches along the walls, but the floor seems to stay pretty solid. It's still very exciting to cross---like something out of Indiana Jones!

Number 6: You will be happiest if you bring a blanket and pillow. This was one of the handy bits of advice I was given ahead of time. I followed it---after a fashion. Not wanting to look gauche, I brought a light blanket and a small, delicate pillow. Caleb, in the throes of teenage self-consciousness, refused to bring anything. Big mistake. I quickly saw that the more experienced (read: sophisticated)  the train traveler, the bigger the pillow. The people that went back and forth on the train all the time practically had their whole bed sets along! 

Number 7: If you are planning an overnight trip, you would be wise to put yourself through a bit of conditioning first. To get ready for the experience, simply fold yourself up and place yourself inside an envelope. When you can sleep comfortably in there, you are ready for the contortions of finding a comfortable position on the train. And I even had two seats to spread out in! To be fair, it IS more comfortable than sleeping upright in a car all night. After you have developed the ability to sleep soundly in your little envelope, begin having someone come by every couple of hours and wake you up. This will simulate all the stations the train stops at during the night. The conductors do their best to be quiet as they move around helping passengers disembark, but each stop means people moving about the train, getting on and getting off, rustling luggage, and speaking in loud whispers. Not the most restful sleeping situation ever---but if I wanted that, I should have forked out the dough for a sleeper.

Number 8: Be prepared for a very communal travel experience. Not everyone wants to socialize, but there is always someone near you that is happy to chat. In the dining car they seat everyone at tables of four, so you will often find yourself sharing a table with some of your fellow travelers. Caleb and I took only one of our meals in the dining car (dining cars are NOT the most inexpensive dining ever), but we chatted with a very nice gentleman from Oregon who was on his way to Saskatchewan to do genealogical research by his grandparents' farm.

The view from our breakfast table
Our bus.
Number 9: Be flexible. The best laid travel plans can sometimes go awry; our "straight-through" train to Seattle had to end in Spokane because of a landslide on the tracks ahead. At 2:00 in the morning we had to switch to buses for the remaining 5 hours of the trip (And I nearly left our suitcases on the train---remember the whole "carry on/carry off" concept? Only checked baggage was moved to buses by Amtrak employees). After 2 1/2 hours we stopped at a gas station to stretch our legs. Just after we re-boarded, a passenger had a seizure and we had to get back off and wait for the ambulance. That poor man was left in Ellensburg while we continued on to Seattle---his travel plans certainly had some bumps along the way! Thankfully the tracks were open for our trip back because otherwise we would have missed some of the prettiest scenery...

Number 10: Taking pictures on the train is a very moving experience. As in, you are moving along at 70-80 miles per hour. By the time you press the shutter down, whatever you wanted to take a picture of is usually long gone. But if you can catch them, there are some gorgeous views through the Cascades. And a few in the mountains passing back into Montana. But not much after that. So don't even bother. Take a nap or something. 

No offense, Great Plains.


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