On the return trip from Spokane on the Empire Builder, all I cared about was how tired I was, how hungry, how anxious to get home. I was woefully unprepared for the excursion. But I’d remembered to pack three Power Bars. Small comforts at times like this are like a hug.
The train carrying us back from Spokane was one of the earliest Superliners. They still had cigarette ashtrays in the armrests, though with plates riveted over them. These cars shook and rattled even more than those on the outbound trip.
It was a blessing, the return train being late. I’d never have seen the spring colors in the High Desert if the train had departed on time. And I’d never have discovered the reason for our constant side-to-side movement north-east of Pasco.
I’m left with a lot of lasting impressions from the trip, and would do it differently next time.
- Sit as far to the rear of the train as possible. The locomotive sounds its horn four times on the approach to each crossing. The farther back you are, the less bothersome those horns are.
- Earplugs or a noise-canceling headset. The train rattles unbelievably at full speed. If you plan to sleep, you’ll need a way to screen out the noise.
- A neck brace likewise. If you’ve got an aisle seat, you’ve nothing to lean your head against. If you’ve a window seat, leaning against the glass will get your brains pounded out.
- Comfort food/snacks. The food service on my trip was abysmally slow. They had a good selection, not too over-priced, but you could have lingered over an entire meal in the time it took to get one. Pack things to nosh.
- Get to know the conductors. My pal Patrick became a font of fascinating info on train operations. He took time to help me capture some stunning photos, like the shot of spillway water blowing back over the John Day Dam.
- Guys: SIT DOWN when you use the toilet. Moving targets are hard to hit. You’ll end up squirting your shoes. Trust me.
- Traveling with children: A passenger left her sleeping daughter to use the lavatory. The little girl woke and panicked. She ran from car to car, tearfully asking for her momma. Those of us who tried to help didn’t know which car she’d come from or which toilet her mother occupied. Someone asked “You don’t think she’s been abandoned, do you?” Trains are huge. Take your kids with you everywhere you go onboard.
- Got a rude passenger? Tell the conductors. On a recent Coast Starlight trip, a passenger parked in a ‘quiet car’ and spent the entire trip on her cellphone. She was finally ejected from the train. You can get kicked off an AMTRAK for being rude.
- Bring something to occupy your mind. Books, puzzles, knitting. The trains have 120-volt outlets for your electronics. The passengers in front of me both had iPads. They downloaded the latest ‘Angry Birds’ app and tried to beat each other’s scores when it got dark outside.
Remember that on your publicly-funded AMTRAK, it’s about the journey, not the arrival. Prepare for that journey. Enjoy your companions, the flocks of birds pacing the train, the stark beauty you can’t see from 30,000 feet away.