My Experience with the (Not So) Great American Train Trips
Years ago, a growing sense of wanderlust found me longing to embark on a long-distance train ride. Whether it was traveling from country to country in Europe or “getting a chance to see the real America,” embarking on one of the American train trips seemed like a good way to go.
I envisioned long-distance and overnight train travel to be a delight. As I saw it, some of the top reasons for taking such a ride were:
- the chance to view nice scenery
- the opportunity to meet all sorts of people and build camaraderie with other travelers
- a rare opportunity to do nothing more than sit back, contemplate things, read, write, and watch life go by
Over the years, I have taken a variety of overnight trains: on the beaten path from Paris to Rome and on the not-so-beaten path from Berlin to Vienna and, most recently, from Belgrade to Bar. While these European trips were a convenient means to an end, none of them matched up to the adventure I had on my lone overnight train trip in the United States.
At the time, the only other overnight train ride I had been on was the Paris-Rome trip mentioned above and the dreamer inside of me was hoping to have some sort of iconic train experience.
Recently, I was telling a friend the story of my great American train journey and it occurred to me that January marks the anniversary of this trip. It is almost 20 years to the day that I boarded the train. Here is the story.
It was winter break during my last year of graduate school at University of Wyoming. I had spent some time on the east coast visiting my family, and my cousin Carolyn and I caught Phish’s 1995 New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. I was to board the train a day or two later so I could get back to Laramie, Wyoming and make a big dent in the proposal for my Master’s thesis before the semester began.
In an effort to save money, I decided to take the cheap route for my trip. The plan was to share a ride across the country on the way east and take the train from New York City to Laramie for my return. As I reflect back, the reality is that I probably chose this route in an effort to have what I thought would be an adventure and a memorable experience. My parents paid my airfare in those days and the only reason to go the slower route was for the experience. While I wasn’t eagerly anticipating the car ride, I looked forward to the long train trip. At the time, the only other overnight train ride I had been on was the Paris-Rome trip mentioned above and the dreamer inside of me was hoping to have some sort of iconic train experience.
The Lake Shore Limited was to take me from New York City to Chicago and the Overland Route, which ran from Chicago to Seattle, was to drop me off in Laramie. Day one had the train departing New York City at around 6:30 pm. Day two had the train arriving in Chicago in the morning where there was to be a three-hour layover. After transferring trains that afternoon, I was scheduled to arrive in Laramie late the next morning on day three for an elapsed travel time of approximately 32 hours.
The train departed New York City as scheduled. Since it was an early January evening, it was already dark when I boarded so item one on the list of reasons to ride a long distance train, enjoying the scenery, was not to be. I would not get the chance to gaze upon bucolic upstate New York as the train rolled by. Not a big loss, as I had passed through the area many times and still had to look forward to the second reason for riding a long distance train, meeting people.
I decided that the dining car would be the place to engage. One young woman was going on and on comparing major world religions (perhaps she had just finished a comparative religion course?), but it was more of a monologue or lecture rather than an actual conversation with other passengers. Overall, hanging out in the dining car was not very lively.
The night passed and in the morning the train slowly came alive as people were roused from their slumber. I revisited the dining car and the scene was much the same as it was the night before, but a crazy rumor was circulating.
So the experience of conversing with other train riders did not meet up to my expectations. No worries, for I still had reason number three to enjoy: taking the time to really sit back and relax. I settled in to read and looked forward to reclining my seat back as the night wore on, lulled to sleep by the click clack of the train as it rolled along the tracks.
Sleep came easy but I woke up a few times during the night and each time the train wasn’t moving. I concluded the stillness of the train must have been waking me. I thought nothing of it.
The night passed and in the morning the train slowly came alive as people were roused from their slumber. I revisited the dining car and the scene was much the same as it was the night before, but a crazy rumor was circulating. Once again the religious studies girl dominated, but this time it was more of a conversation as the other passengers seemed to know something about it as well.
If I were to believe what I was hearing, the train was delayed in upstate New York. Apparently, some folks were playing a snowmobile game that involved dodging the oncoming train and the results were not good. Yikes! Could it be true? No other rumors had circulated and we were behind schedule. What was I to believe?! The religious studies girl had a lot to say about the karma of the train driver.
Then realization hit. We were six hours late. I was going to miss my transfer by three hours. Wyoming isn’t exactly a major transportation hub—what would it take to get back?! Fortunately, Amtrak had it all worked out.
Before arriving in Chicago, an announcement was made that we were behind schedule. Passengers with connections were instructed to head to the Amtrak customer service center where they would receive further information. I didn’t expect them to be too accommodating, but lucky for me I was wrong.
At the customer service center, I was issued an envelope with my name on it and instructions and tickets for my ongoing travel. In short, a shuttle van picked me up at the train station, drove me to a small airport where I boarded a plane and upon landing in Nebraska took another shuttle van that drove me to some random location where I caught the train I had missed hours earlier. Exactly as planned, I arrived in Laramie late in the morning the next day.
Many of the details are lost in the mists of time. I don’t remember how long I waited for the shuttle vans or the plane. My only memory of the plane ride is that there was a posse of Nebraska football fans on board, all decked out in the school colors. The pilot felt compelled to announce repeatedly that he wanted to welcome those passengers and congratulate them as Nebraska had just won a bowl game. As you can imagine, the fans we ecstatic.
I recall that it was cold, dark, and quiet as I boarded the Nebraska train. If it were daylight, I expect I would have seen cornfields for as far as the eye could see. I don’t remember there being an actual train depot or other passengers waiting and I don’t remember if the van driver waited for me to board, but I don’t recall being all alone in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska either.
It was an adventure indeed, albeit not the one I had anticipated.
So there you have it. My one (not so) great American train ride also involved travel in two vans and a plane. Although it wasn’t overly enjoyable, I’m glad I did it. With train travel in the United States dwindling, there might not be many chances take a trans-American train ride again. Of course, Amtrak’s Empire Builder route runs from Minneapolis to Seattle and makes a stop in Whitefish, Montana, right by Glacier National Park. The romantic in me thinks that sounds quite idyllic. Perhaps I’ll take the chance and board another overnight train in America. Who knows what sort of adventure awaits!