Since childhood it has been my dream to ride the rails out west. I finally got the chance in the summer of 2010 when the American Council of the Blind held its national convention in Phoenix, Ariz. I had to start planning in February in order to coordinate my dialysis treatments in Phoenix, but this trip was worth all of the planning.
My friend Gary and I, both completely blind, reserved our accessible sleeper tickets back in March, and even then it was difficult to get the days and times we wanted due to other reservations. Amtrak will only hold reservations for seven days without payment, so we paid and hoped nothing would go wrong, with the assurance they could refund our money if cancelled seven days prior to our departure. Let me tell you right now, this trip is expensive, about a third more per ticket than flying. You are paying for the experience and the included meals.
I was really surprised at the number of passengers waiting for our train when I arrived at the station in East Lansing, Mich. to meet my friend Gary on the morning of July 8, 2010. I was wondering, does the government know about this? The first leg of our trip was via coach to Chicago where we would meet our sleeper to Flagstaff. About halfway there I got up to explore and found myself heading into the café car. There were plenty of vertical and horizontal bars to hold onto along the way. This was pretty liberating. I figured I'd better prepare my train legs for the three nights we would be on the train coming back home.
Gary and I arrived at Chicago's Union Station around noon Central time. Amtrak staff picked us up at our train car with a Red Cap tram to take us into the station to the Metro Lounge for first-class riders. This seemed to be the only part of Union Station which was air-conditioned.
Riding a train is a real adventure. Upon our departure to our next train in Chicago's Union Station, an elderly man began to get very angry at our Red Cap who was told to stop his cart by another staff member. It was a safety issue and the man was asked to go around the tram on the other side. His wife tried to stop him as he began to spout out menacingly at the Red Cap who was trying to tell him he was asked to stop there. Finally I yelled at the man, "Hey, you are starting to scare us!" The man turned around and left, still angry, but griping as he walked away. Unfortunately the Red Cap told us this happens about once per hour. Call it rail rage.
Next we boarded the Southwest Chief into our private car. Our attendant who served the rooms in our cars was extremely helpful, explaining the features of our room and orienting us to areas outside the room. Soon it was time for dinner and we decided to try the dining car. When you travel this way you sit with others, that is, if you don't have four in your party. We sat with a very nice woman who was on her way to California. She was a very seasoned rider, having taken the trains for about nine years. She said she wouldn't fly ever again because the train was much nicer. I am beginning to agree with her. Only the dessert was appetizing, though; the rest of the food tasted microwaved. That was disappointing because of all the hype food gets on the Amtrak web site.
When night arrived the attendant made the two bunks in our suite. I chose to sleep on the top bunk. It was difficult getting in and out of bed, despite the two steps up. A harness is available in case the train's motion dumps you out of bed. The bed was very comfortable, but I had a hard time falling asleep. I think I was a little claustrophobic. Once I pushed this out of my mind I slept pretty well.
In the morning we were in Colorado. I used the shower which was just a few steps from our accessible room. It was nice and roomy with a separate place to get undressed. My breakfast sandwich and grits were as disappointing as our dinner the night before, though. We sat with some people who were Amish, but they talked about driving to the station in Chicago, so I asked them, "I thought you didn't have cars?" The man replied, "We hire a driver." I couldn't stop myself while smiling, "Isn't that cheating or something?" They did not respond, but I thought this was rather witty!
In Albuquerque the conductor explained the track ahead was washed out and we would have to wait for an hour before traveling again. Once we did begin to move we had to go very slowly on the wet track. This put our arrival time behind an hour. We arrived in Flagstaff in plenty of time to get a taxi to the bus station where we caught the Greyhound bus to Phoenix which was also running an hour late. We arrived in Phoenix around 2:30 a.m. After getting into our room, I fell into bed and slept until 1:30 p.m. It was now Saturday, July 10th.
Before we knew it, the convention was coming to a close. On Friday, July 16th, we took a shuttle from our hotel to the Maricopa Amtrak station, since the scheduled train to return via Flagstaff really didn't work out well. When the Sunset Limited train arrived, it took over 30 minutes to board the large number of passengers waiting. Again, I am thinking to myself, does the government know about this, or do they even care? Is the American government so committed to automobiles that officials can't see the need for expanded train travel?
This leg of our trip was very rocky as we were the last car on the train. It was hard to sleep due to all of the jerking back and forth. The rails seemed to be in poor condition as we wound our way through Texas and into Arkansas, stopping along the way to drop off and pick up more passengers. This was made up by the delicious food we got on the Sunset. But someplace in Texas our car separated from the Sunset and the Texas Eagle took us on later that night. The noise from coupling the cars together woke me up. It's a sound similar to two cars colliding, and they don't always link on the first try.
Gary had decided to ask to sleep in coach instead of the upper bunk. All other rooms were full. When we scheduled our trip we were left with the impression the accessible sleeper would have double bed bunks, but that was the deluxe suite on the second floor, not the accessible sleeper. The Amtrak conductor was very helpful finding Gary a more comfortable place to sleep.
There are a lot of eccentric people riding the train. Once we ate lunch with an interesting man and woman who weren't related. She acted like a person addicted to pain killers or something and I argued with the man who didn't believe some people are born with perfect pitch. Of course, this discussion was in response to some incorrect assumptions he had about blindness. Eventually he got so fed up with me that he left our table. As he left he said, "Ding . . . G." I was amused by this, as was the woman who seemed high. For the most part, we were all having a great time eating and sharing our trip with ordinary strangers.
I did not see one hobo on our trip, even though we constantly had to stop for freight trains. Amtrak sold the tracks to the freight industry years ago. My overall impression about the train was a good one. It is slow, but more fun than flying. The meals are good on some trains and not so good on others. It felt safe, but we locked our door at night. The attendants were very helpful, but also very busy. When you walk on a traveling train, keeping your balance can be tricky. Bumping into people is much more accepted than when you are on the street. And I caught myself with a little train lag from the three time changes. All in all, it was a really great time I would recommend to anyone looking for a bit of American adventure, and worth every penny.
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