Monday, October 1, 2007

Chicago Journals: Riding the California Zephyr

Never having been on a train before, I was new to the layout and ways of train travel. When we entered the California Zephyr car, there was a dead end hallway heading one way with a row of bathrooms, another door like what we came in directly across from us and another hallway heading the opposite way of the bathrooms. I turned down that latter aisle which had shelves for luggage on one side. Since I didn't have anything but a small carryon, I walked past and was met with another decision. The hallway led to a small compartment with seats lining both sides and stairs heading to the upper deck of the train. Since the lower compartment appeared to be full and I really wanted to sit up higher where I could see, we chose the stairs as did everyone else that got on with us.

Once on the upper floor, we scattered looking for seats since there evidently wasn't such a thing as assigned seating like in airplanes. We found a pair of chairs on one side of the aisle and sat down. However we were surprised when the conductor told the four people who got on in front of us and sat in front of us that they had to move because those seats were reserved for people already on board the train. He pointed to yellow tickets with a destination written on them hanging over the seat. I quickly looked above ours and saw we had no yellow tickets and soon I learned we were safe. I later learned that the yellow ticket simply allows you to go to the dining or lounge cars and expect to still have a seat when you get back as others board at stops along the way. However, because we got on the train mid-route on the way to Chicago, we missed out on this information.

The seats, although lacking in lumbar support, were spacious. When I sit in an airline seat with my back firmly pressed against the backrest, my knees press hard enough into the seat in front of me that the occupant of that seat can't recline the seat much to their displeasure and my pain. On the California Zephyr, I had a full two feet of space between my knees and the fully reclined seat in front of me, not to mention, a foldout leg support and another leg rest mounted on the seat in front of me. The seats were also much wider meaning I didn't have to elbow joust with the occupant next to me for the armrest. The aisles were also much wider allowing for two people to pass without one having to straddle another passenger sitting next to the aisle to allow the other to pass. If you wanted food or refreshments, you simply got up and bought them rather than having to wait on a cart where you were given four salty mini-pretzels and an ounce of liquid in a tiny class clear full of ice. There was also a better bathroom to passenger ratio by a factor of ten compared to airplanes so I never once had to wait to use one. Although we weren't on the train long enough to try it, the food service sounded much better. The menu for one evening was a choice between steak, half a baked chicken, seared salmon, catfish with stir fried vegetables, large Angus beef burger and a few others. You got to eat off real utensils made from metal and you didn't have to unwrap each portion of your food from plastic before eating it. In fact, the train was almost the complete opposite of everything I dislike about flying. I loved it.

Though it differs greatly from airplanes, riding a train has several similarities. When a plane reaches cruising altitude and the seatbelt light goes off, hordes of people rush the restrooms like they've been bottled up for hours instead of only a half hour. A train is no different except that there are no seatbelts or lights and they rush the lounge/snack car instead of the restrooms. Attendants had to repeatedly tell people to sit down until their tickets were collected and the doors between cars were unlocked before the train was even moving. There were also lots of train talkers and train walkers (more on both those subjects in later blog posts) just like plane talkers and walkers.

The train left our station an hour and a half late and lost even more time at the next train station while waiting for an ambulance crew to offload a patient on a stretcher from the lower parts of the very car we were seated in. Since we had just passed by a brick building with an old painted side on the side that said, "Embalming and Burial Case Co.", I thought the man was in good hands in either likely outcome scenario. Despite loosing even more time and getting out of sync with the Burlington Northern trains that own the tracks and thus get dibs for their trains, we did make up an hour of time after being two hours behind schedule at one point.

The scenery was a lot better from a train than a plane even if our route took us through the central planes of Illinois, which in the words of a passenger behind us "is one giant cornfield on one side of the tracks and one giant bean field on the other". It certainly made going through towns more interesting even if the parts of towns that train tracks run through aren't generally the nicer parts of town. You got to see lots of run down houses and industrial complexes with acres of pavement and buildings. As Redstar could probably appreciate, there were lots of places to film a scene from Highlander.

The trip out ended up taking the schedule five hours to complete but I arrived feeling refreshed and ready to explore Chicago rather than tired and wanting nothing more than a hot and a cot like previous driving trips there. I have fallen in love with this mode of transportation and know that I will be doing it again someday.

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