Friday, 26 October 2012

Round The World: Amtrak Trains, USA

Hint: I did not take this photo

Where I am

On a train! (Doesn't ring the same in my head as 'on a boat'). I have always wanted to sleep on a train, just something about having a tiny room and a tiny bed and pretending to be in the olden days gets me all excited.  When I found out that I could get the train from New York City to Vancouver, it immediately became the backbone of my North America section.

I didn't do it all in one go, hopping day trains first from NYC to Washington D.C., to Chicago, but the bulk of Chicago to Seattle was a sleeper and a much needed one, too, with a rather delayed journey time of 48 hours.  Still, it was awesome. Train travel is not the routine frustration/depression in the US that it is in the UK.  It still feels like an event and the conductor still wears a pill box hat.  That's a mark of quality in my book.

Where I stayed

In a twin 'roomette' carriage.  It is supposed to sleep and sit two comfortably, but I'm not convinced I believe them.  Alone, I was immensely comfortable.  One chair for me, one for my pile of entertainments.  It was roughly the size of my desk at home, with a fold down table and a wardrobe the width of one jacket.

At night the sleeping car attendant comes and turns down your seats into a bed (or two bunks) and in the morning she turns it back into two seats.  There's a showeroom on the lower level of the carriage.  Not for the faint of heart, showering on a moving train.  I feared slipping over and falling unconscious and having to be rescued, cold and naked, once someone noticed the trickle of water from under the door.

What I read

The route map and accompanying town guide.  Firstly out of curiosity at all the little weird and wonderful places we passed through. Later, out of a sense of 'aren't we nearly there yet' desperation.

The Zest magazine I'd been carrying around since leaving London.

The New Yorker.  I do like it, but I think I prefer the endless weary satire of Private Eye.

I reread my favourite parts of Pride and Prejudice. Siiiigh...

What I listened to

The toot of the train horn, the rolling shush over the tracks, the big wide emptiness outside, the couple in the next carriage having an interesting and heated political debate, the nuns in the compartment opposite me praying, the conductor dryly instructing, "No lollygagging" at fresh air breaks, two National Park Rangers giving an audiotour of the landscapes flying by and the creatures in them: "Look out the window; you might see some stuff."

Frightened Rabbit - 'Sing The Greys'.  Folkiness just seemed to fit with the rolling of the train.

What I ate

Train food.  A small step up from plane food but not a very big one.  All meals are included (not 'free' as a fellow passenger reminded me) in the price of the sleeper ticket, as is infinite coffee and bottled water.

The breakfast pancakes were good, though I got a funny look from the waitress for turning down the 'grits' on the side.  Not the most appetizing nomenclature. I was informed the steak was good and my inforomant was correct. I believe it to be the only thing really cooked from scratch on the menu, which is probably why.  It didn't taste of microwave.

All meals are served in the dining car.  Our reservations were taken by a dining car attendant, a woman from the 'perky to the point of scary' school of US service industry.  It's community seating, so as a party of one I got to sit with whoever had a spare seat, with hilarious results (see below)

On the run into Seattle our sleeping car attendant emptied the remaining food and drink stuffs from her cupboard and distributed them among us.  I excitedly took the proferred cider before realising it was basically appletiser.

What I did

Sat down, for a very long time.  It was excellent having quiet and rest enforced after the previous three weeks of crazy.  There's no real weekends or evenings lying in front of the TV when you travel, so it can be hard to remember to take a rest.  This was delightful, just looking up from my book to see the country changing.

Laughed at Conductor Larry's announcement downward spiral as we fell further and further behind schedule: "We're between somewhere...and..somewhere...  We'll be there...eventually..."

Attended a wine and cheese tasting complete with quiz to win the wines.  All the wines and cheeses were from the areas we were passing through, so they weren't that great, but they were local and sustainable.

Allowed my inner fifteen year old a moment of giddiness as we approached the West coast and all its Twilighty forested glory.  Meadows everywhere.

Was surprised at the poverty in evidence in some of the small towns we passed.  Houses no bigger or sturdier than sheds and old men sipping from chipped mugs on stone steps.  Children in tatty clothes waving at the train.  This is the America we don't see very often.

Saw an actual 'blue moon' on the second night.  Wished I'd had it's namesake beer to toast it, but made do with humming the tune to myself.

Was told I look like Katy Perry again, this time by a small girl child whose father I was sitting next to at dinner.  She then proceeded to ask me if I would marry her daddy and be her new mummy, because "you laugh more than mummy. Mummy's always angry." Awk-ward.  (I should have told her I laugh more than anyone, but was too busy trying to crawl into the seat).

Tried to be patient and kind with the boy from Kentucky who explained this was his first time on a train, but acknowledged I wasn't that good of a person, because he talked so damn slowly I wanted to finish his sentences for him. It hurt too much to watch the words lining up behind his eyes, so I made my excuses and took my leave.

Got into a fierce debate over dinner the second night with a medical insurance salesman about Obamacare and how having universal healthcare doesn't make almost every other developed country in the world 'socialist'.  He told me Obama was trying to steal his freedoms, but was a little sketchy about which ones.  I resisted exclaiming, "Oh my God, I've heard about people like you on the Daily Show!" but only just.

Watched the scenery change from city outskirts, to the wide flatness of Montana's Big Sky counrty, to the majestic and stunning mountains of Oregon.

Suffered internet withdrawal shakes.  Two days with not one scrap of signal was more uncomfortable than I would like to admit.  My whole morning routine of wake-email-facebook-twitter was thrown.  I was really, 100% 'away', off-grid, out of touch for the first time this trip.  It was hard in that way that you know is good for you.

Slept extremely well. The rocking motion of the train was wonderful. Zzzzzz...

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