Friday, 12 October 2012
Amtrak Journey One
As I talked about here, one of the things I was looking forward to doing in America was taking some trips on the Amtrak rail system. I've spent the last couple of days on the train from Minneapolis to Seattle as the first of two journeys I'm planning to make. (The other is from Los Angeles to Houston so I expect it will be different in many ways). If you like you can see more details of the Empire Builder route that I took on this trip.
Arriving at the station in Minneapolis was a bit of an adventure in itself - the Americans haven't quite cottoned on to the fact that the advantage of train travel is that you can arrive and depart right from the city centre - the station is out in the middle of nowhere - not the most fun when you need to be there at 11pm! Luckily my Servas host was kind enough (on her birthday no less!) to give me a lift out there. There was the usual chaos that you come to expect at a station (itinerants wandering about, people missing trains etc, etc) with the added excitement of some unsupervised toddlers wandering about that I had to stop from exiting the station out onto the busy main road outside. Never did find their mother.
I had made sure to book a sleeper car and was very glad that I did when I walked through the 'coach' standard accommodation - it really didn't look like a comfortable place to spent nearly 36 hours. That said, the 'Roomette' accommodation that I had been allocated wasn't exactly palatial, especially for someone who's 6'4"! But the service that came with it was (as you would expect for America) excellent. Dorothy was the allocated steward for our car and the adjacent one and she was fantastic - not least at being able to remember something like 20 peoples' names, destinations and dinner reservation times.
I was pretty tired and the light wasn't very good, but this an attempt to show the size of the sleeping accommodation - bear in mind that I was standing half-in-half-out of the door in the corridor...
Having managed to get a reasonable night of sleep and shower in the swaying train bathrooms it was time to experience the food available. It's all included in the price of your trip so I was going to maximise my opportunity... It was an ok breakfast, a triumph of quantity over quality really but the highlight was sitting with three other random travellers and hearing their stories. Over the four meals I sat with people from all over the US and also one intrepid traveller from New Zealand. It was really interesting in particular to talk to some people from Charlotte, North Carolina which I hadn't realised was the second largest financial centre in the US after New York - and so has been hit very hard by the economic downturn.
But the real highlight of the trip was just watching the scenery. I didn't even leave my cabin to go to the dedicated viewing car as I could see everything I wanted from my seat. I was sad that the length of day meant that it was dark when we went through Glacier National Park but the rest of the day was hour after hour of the relentless plains of north Dakota and Montana - it's not called 'Big Sky Country' for nothing. I found it hypnotically interesting just to watch it all roll by, the photo below doesn't really do it justice at all.
And then every-so-often this would be broken up by the appearance on the horizon of a small hamlet or settlement (either based around farming or more recently in ND, oil/gas drilling) on the horizon and then the slow recession of that hamlet behind you. Like I say, hypnotic...
There was also the opportunity to take part in a wine and cheese tasting which I couldn't pass up - you can see the selections here. The day after that just drifted along and before I knew it it was time for bed and an arrival in the morning in Seattle. Incredibly for a 36 hours journey we arrived in Seattle 25 minutes early and even better I was able to leave my bag at the station and wander into the city to check it out.