East to West

Ellie S. Thomas   

© Copyright 2012 by  Ellie S. Thomas

Photo of an Amtrak train.

It was time to start vacation planning once more and while the flesh was willing, alas, the spirit was very weak. Faced with miles and miles of driving and paying strict attention to the road, on-coming traffic, and all the various things a driver must be aware of while simultaneously missing so many other things, well, that could be discouraging. Yet, how could one refuse a hard working spouse who needed a change of pace? It was a puzzle until we saw an ad for AMTRAK. 'Leave your worries behind... leave all the driving to us!' Now that sounded like something we could do.

My 'hard-working spouse' visited the travel agency who gladly provided him with loads of brochures and the following evenings were spent arguing over the values of going one class over going in another one. Finally it was decided and we paid ahead, now all we had to do was GO-O-O!

The first leg of our journey might have challenged a timid soul because we had to drive about 300 miles to catch our train, then we had to board in the middle of the night! We refused to be intimidated and did all that without growling but when we climbed aboard, I looked around in dismay. We appeared to be walking down a long corridor lined with cupboards. Later I found out that this was the sleeping compartments and your accomodations were ready and waiting.

A genial porter/steward led us to our unit and opened the door to display two beds invitingly made up with sparkling bed linen. It could hardly be called commodious but everything was there. Soft lights glowed in strategic places along the walls and there was a sink and a toilet. While we hung up our outer garments, he knocked softly and handed in a tray with two complimentary bottles of wine and crackers and cheese! Way to go!

It had been a long day and we were tired and ready to sleep. It didn't take long to wash up and climb into our beds...and I mean, literally climb because I slept in the upper bunk which could only be reached by climbing. This would not be good for the elderly or the infirm but I managed and when the train slid out of the station, we were already nodding off.

When morning came and we'd done our hygienic thing and smoothed our our rumpled clothes, (thank Heavens for jogging outfits) the porter came to inquire which sitting appealed to us. We had three choices regarding when we wanted to eat and since we were ready as we spoke, he led us down through the coach and pointed out the dining car. We managed the swaying level-changing cars and our noses led us to the aroma of coffee...bacon...all the wonderful odors we associate with breakfast. And it was every bit as good as it smelled...and well served...and beautifully presented!

While we drank our coffee and enjoyed our fruit cup, a second couple was seated across from us. We introduced ourselves and shared our images of the Amtrak way of travel. Their view was much like ours: so far, so good. What was not to like??

When we got back to our compartment, we discovered our beds had vanished and we now had two comfortable divans with a small table between them. The scenery moved across the large windows and it was a comfortable way to see what was going on. All day we compared notes on the people and homes outside, or we read a bit, did puzzles, or just listened to soft music. Lunch and dinner followed the morning's pattern and before we knew it, our first day was finished and the beds appeared once more.

The following morning was not quite so leisurely because we were soon to change trains and the porter promised us a treat: an observation car would be added for the larger portion of our trip across the country. We'd like that!

The change over in Chicago went smoothly and before long we were aboard the Zephyr headed towards California. We would remain on this train as it headed west and it would divide much later, one part going to the northwest and the remaining part carrying us on to our destination at Martinez, Ca.

Now we were settled in for the long haul and we began looking around and noticing more about our carrier. Our tiny unit held only our carry on luggage, the larger portion of luggage was stored on the lower level where the shower rooms and extra bathrooms were located. If there was something we just HAD to have the porter could get it for us, otherwise, it was not available until we left the train.

At the end of the car, there was a large landing where there was a drinking fountain and a place to stretch one's legs. An antsy person could walk up and down the car or do mild stretches in this wider area, or get hot water for coffee or tea. Small travelers met in this area and brought coloring books, or just chatted with one another.

When we walked through to the observation car, we were struck with the numerous people travelling by day coach. Some had pillows and slept in their reclining seats while their children sat on the floor and played. One small girl had a loaf of bread and was making peanut butter sandwiches. I was very happy to have our private compartment.

There was an interesting variety of people in the ob car and one could be as sociable as desired, or isolate oneself with a book or crossword puzzle, the newspapers, etc. Nothing was intrusive. We visited by spells, intrigued by the successful looking ranchers, the teacher leading her students to a 'little theatre' in Salt Lake City, and other 'old timers' like ourselves treating themselves to a effortless vacation. It is a wonderful experience to observe the wealth of the country, see what is enjoyed all over the realm, and taken for granted by most Americans, and really SEE it without stress or having to avoid other travellers.

As we left the Plains, the scenery grew more rugged and much more interesting and before long the melon colored buttes and limestone escarpments enchanted me into trying to take photographs that likely wouldn't 'turn out.' The moon rose high over the looming sandstone cliffs and deer tried to find a way to cross in front of us...or would this be 'behind us' as we were in the last car? Anyhow, we noted the huge fences of mesh that held the rocks back, preventing rock slides on the rails and kept the deer off the tracks. The temperatures dropped as we climbed and it grew noticeably colder.

Before long it was unnecessary to put ice in the drinks; the toilets were freezing up and soon there were only a couple functioning. It was cold out there and one recalled tales of trains being stalled on the tracks for days while snow equipment labored to free them. We were lucky and the train wasn't stopped by the huge mounds of snow that lay every where. We continued on and by the time we headed south, the temps had modified and we were very comfortable.

We debouched in Martinez and continued our journey by automobile. but ten days later, we were back aboard and continuing the same route in reverse. This time it went very smoothly until we reached the Plains and tried to make up for lost time.

We were awakened from a sound sleep by the screeching of brakes and a jolting, juddering halt. Everything was in darkness and there was the smell of something burning. We both asked the same question: 'what's going on?' My husband looked out in the corridor and met the hurrying lantern- carrying men who informed him that the train had come uncoupled. Well, THAT was interesting...and how often did that happen? we wanted to know?

We were assured that the stop was a common occurance and it was computer driven and whenever the computer noted any problem on the rails, the train stopped. 'This was for our own safety' we were assured so we went back to bed and tried to salvage the rest of the night but we didn't have that long before our trip ended, anyway, so we prepared ourselves for the final segment.

We were very happy to leave the train although it had been a learning and comfortable experience. Its always so good to be home and when we got back, I submitted a review of the trip to a travel guide so others could see what its like to go AMTRAKING east to west.

Contact Ellie
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Ellie's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher