Crossing the USA by Train
Subject: The train that whistled in the night
Place: Chicago, Illinois, USE
All Aboard the Empire Builder
“Welcome aboard the Empire Builder,” said the sleeping car attendant, a young, fresh looking man in a neatly pressed shirt, bright blue waistcoat and tie. He studied our tickets for a moment.
“You guys heading all the way to Chicago then?” he asked brightly.
I nodded wearily, holding the boys back as they tugged at my arms to get on board and explore; the prospect of two whole days cooped up with these two energetic and excited toddlers filled me with dread.
The attendant broke into a welcoming smile, “Hi there little guys. My name’s Bryan and I’ll be looking after you for your journey. Now if there’s anything you need, you just let me know, OK? You’re in cabins nine and ten, so why don’t you just climb aboard and make yourselves comfortable.”
We climbed up onto the enormous silver sleeping car, leaving behind the industrial clamour of Seattle station. Our two little air conditioned cabins felt cool and calm after the heat and hassles of the previous hour; stuffing belongings into backpacks, returning the car to the rental depot, and battling the rush hour to find the right station, track, train and carriage. Once on board the boys kicked off their shoes and ran around spiritedly, making a nuisance of themselves among fellow passengers searching for seats and stashing bags.
“Look Dad. Water Dad. Tiny water bottles. This one’s got cartoons on it. Is this my one? Is this my water?” said Cameron as he ferried bottles of mineral water back and forth between our cabins.
“No, that’s your one Cameron. And this is my one,” said Matthew firmly snatching a bottle off him.
“Can I see your one Matthew? Has it got cartoons on? It has. It has. Oh look and pillows. We’ve got pillows. And leaflets. With trains on.”
The intercom crackled into life relaying the disembodied voice of the conductor into our cabins. “Good afternoon and welcome aboard train number eight to Chicago. We’re just about to depart and I’d like to remind all passengers that for your safety and security we ask you to wear shoes at all times whilst moving around the train.” Her announcement sounded personal and pointed and as the loco whistled and pulled us slowly out of the station another battle in the shoe wars with the boys began.
Time for tea
The evening sun slid slowly down the clear blue sky, casting ever longer ripples of light across peaceful Puget Sound. In the world outside the window, people gathered around barbeques on sandy beaches, paddled in the sea or cooled off swimming out in deeper waters. Aboard sleeping car 301, the new residents organised their cabins, gazed out their picture windows and engaged in the rituals of small talk with other passengers filing through the narrow corridors.
“Good evening everyone, this is Tina here,” crackled a friendly voice across the intercom. “Would anyone wanting dinner this evening please make their way to the dining car.”
“I’m hungry,” said Cameron.
“I’m hungry too,” said Matthew, “Can we go for dinner?”
It seemed as good a way as any to pass the time.
“Only if you wear shoes,” I said spotting a moment of leverage.
The boys complied unusually quickly then disappeared down the corridor, keen to explore and find the mysterious ‘restaurant on a train’.
“It’s just like a café,” said Matthew loudly as we arrived at the diner.
“It’s got seats and tables and it might have toys like the M place” gibbered Cameron.
Tina came to greet us, a large bespectacled woman with short hair set in loose curls. She welcomed us with a smile and led us efficiently to a table for four, neatly laid with linen napkins, polished cutlery and a vase of flowers. The chatter of polite conversation filled the diner as strangers sat down to meet and eat with one another.
“So, where are you guys from?”
“And where are you heading?”
“Aren’t the islands beautiful?”
“How’s your meal then?”
We savoured the food and the views, a fresh green salad with a drizzle of dressing, a succulent steak with a mountain of mash, a chocolate bombe topped out with fresh whipped cream; we left nothing but dirty napkins. Outside the window the sea faded into the sunset as the train whistled, turned inland and headed East towards the Cascade Mountains.
The magic of bedtime
“Hey someone’s turned my chair into a bed,” shrieked Matthew as he slid open his cabin door after dinner.
“And it’s got sheets and blankets, and pillows, and blankets” added Cameron twitching the curtains open and shut, open and shut, open and shut.
Kirstie helped the boys into their pyjamas, tucked them into their beds and told them a bedtime story.
“Now you close your eyes and the train will rock you to sleep,” she whispered as she closed the door on them half an hour later.
We sat across the corridor, shared the Cabernet Sauvignon left over from dinner and waited for their bedtime babble to subside. But the silence of sleep could not descend while there were switches to flick, lights to adjust, curtains to pull, and magazines to take apart, not to mention the magic yellow button that lit up and summoned the genie. After three visits Bryan was running out of patience and thankfully the boys finally ran out of energy and nodded off. The train bounced and rolled gently into the dark, the soft smudge of its’ whistle marking each crossing and lulling us deeper and deeper to sleep.
Good morning in the mountains
A familiar voice woke me. It was close, almost in my ear.
“Good morning. This is Tina,” crackled the little speaker next to my head, “It’s now seven o’clock mountain time and I’m making first calls for breakfast in the diner.”
I set my watch an hour forward, squeezed out of bed, crossed the corridor and peeked in on the boys. Still there. Still sleeping. They looked so sweet. I picked up a paper and a coffee from a tired looking Bryan and crawled back into my bunk. What luxury. Breakfast could wait. Or so I thought. But Tina’s call had stirred the boys too and slowly but surely they came to, hungry after their late night antics. The cabin door slid open, the curtains twitched and two cheeky faces peered in at me, “We’re hungry Dad, want breakfast.”
“How are you doing this morning?” asked Tina with an air of familiarity.
She led us to the same table as the previous evening.
“What can I get you? Cereal, fruit, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, yogurt, juice, coffee?” she asked sounding just a little less fresh than the night before.
“Sounds good ,” I replied.
“Want sausage and bacon,” said Cameron.
“Want yogurt and juice,” said Matthew.
“Want coffee,” said Kirstie drowsily.
Around us the dining car filled with the relaxed chatter of diners picking up conversations from before, no longer strangers but not yet friends. We sat for an hour picking our way through a leisurely breakfast while the loco climbed slowly but steadily through the Rocky Mountains, through cuttings and canyons, on high trestle bridges over raging rivers, pausing to draw breath at pretty Alpine-style stations where the visual feast of snowcapped mountains more than matched the feast on the table in front of us.
Playtime in the cabin
Back in the cabin, the boys created their own playroom, spreading crayons, lego and K-nex around until it spilled into the corridors, settling into a pattern of happy solo play interspersed with spats of sibling warfare. Meanwhile Kirstie and I settled into the hypnotic rhythm of life aboard; ever repeating cycles of sitting, reading or staring; stretching, walking and swaying; chatting, nodding then snoozing; waking, eating and boozing.
In good company
When you ride the railroad across America, it’s a historic journey, on tracks that carried early pioneers and settlers to the Great Plains and Wild West; created new jobs, towns and communities; opened up new territories to foresters, miners and farmers; fashioned new businesses and economies. The railroad connected East with West for the first time, and forged new social, economic and political ties which helped bind disparate states and create a sense of one nation between people separated by vast distances. Travelling by rail across America brought strangers together on a long and extraordinary journey across an amazing landscape, and it still does the same today.
Our travelling companions were a motley bunch; pensioners on a last great train journey, sharing memories of travels in the glorious days of steam; trainspotters on the holiday of a lifetime scribbling down the details of every loco, wagon and car; tourists of every class snacking, snapping and videoing their way across America; history buffs following the trail of legendary pioneers Lewis and Clark; and a few real travellers heading cross-country to see friends or family. But on such a long journey the train works a kind of magic on disparate groups like this, the confinement of carriages, enforced conversation at mealtimes and social gatherings in the sightseeing car forging a small travelling community that rubs along affably, at least until the journey is done.
Lunch time already?
Just two and a half hours after finishing breakfast Tina was back on the intercom, inviting us for lunch. “But my tummy is still fat mum,” said Cameron as we made our way back to the dining car. I knew what he meant; the interval between meals seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. Still, we couldn’t refuse, our ticket included all meals; besides it was good to get out of the cabins and get a change of scene. And as we grazed on lunch the scene began to change; jagged faces of rock giving way to soft carpets of pine, boggy ponds and quiet rivers. Then as the foothills of the Rockies receded, the boundless, flat grassy plains of Western Montana came into view and a growing feeling of monotony began to take hold.
“What can we do Dad? I want to do something,” whinged Matthew as we returned to the cabins after lunch.
“Why don’t you take the boys up to the sightseeing car?” suggested Kirstie. “There’s entertainment and interpretive commentary up there.”
“Want to go to the seeing car, Dad,” said Cameron.
“Come on Dad, let’s go to that car.” said Matthew.
Musical interlude in the sightseeing coach
We made our way to the sightseeing lounge through the Armageddon of Coach Class. Bodies lay contorted on every set of seats, some concealed under blankets, others staring vacantly into space, looking up at passers by or down at empty coffee cups rolling up and down the carriage floor. As we picked our way through the carnage, the expense of our 1st class cabins seemed much more justifiable.
Matthew pressed the big plastic button to open the door to the sightseeing lounge. The door slid open with a mechanical hiss and a blast of hot air sucked us into the travelling greenhouse. We made our way up to the middle of the car, where a large man in a checkered shirt was holding court.
“This one’s an old favourite of mine,” he said in a mid West drawl, “hope yous all like it.”
He picked up his fiddle and slid it under his bearded chin, holding it lightly with hands that looked too big for the instrument, then scratched out a fine country tune, raising a tiny cloud of resin as he sawed happily at his strings. Around the car, feet started tapping and the monotony of the landscape and journey was lifted for a while by the sweet drone of his music.
Times – they are a changing
On and on and on we rolled across the country, from afternoon into evening, Mountain time to Central time, Montana to North Dakota, from sightseeing car back to diner. Tina looked hassled as she dealt with an old couple in front of us in the queue for the diner.
“I’m sorry,” she said to them, “I know you reserved for eight but you’re working on Mountain time and like I told you I’m keeping the diner on Central time for dinner. You’ll need to come back in an hour.”
“But there’s an empty table there,” the husband protested.
“That’s taken,” said Tina firmly. “You need to come back later.”
The couple retreated hungrily and Tina showed us to the empty table, letting off a little steam as she did, “People just don’t get it,” she ranted, “If we start a service on Mountain time we’ve gotta see it through on Mountain time. I can’t just change time zones in the middle of a service. We’ll do breakfast on Central Time so make sure you put your watches forward or you’ll sleep through it. There’s always a few who do and I can’t do anything about it.” She turned and steamed off, “I’ll be back to get your order in a little while.”
We reviewed the menu, made our choices and waited for Tina to return. A freight train thundered past, the colourful smear of its red, blue and white wagons a welcome relief from the endless green of the wide open prairies.
“Shall we play I spy?” asked Matthew as Tina scuttled busily up and down the car. “I’ll start. I spy with my little eye something beginning with G.”
“Is it an Air New Zealand flight?” asked Cameron.
“No, you can’t see one of those Cameron. It’s got to be something you can see,” Matthew scolded his brother.
“Is it grass?” asked Kirstie.
“Yes,” said Matthew, “How did you know?”
“Just a guess.”
“Now what can I get you? We’re out of pasta, chicken, white wine and chocolate bombe.”
She paused with her pen poised.
“So what would you like?”
There was tension in the diner tonight and it wasn’t just with Tina. The polite conversation of earlier meals had given way to more controversial fare; a couple of young evangelists trying to sell a new religion to two bored pensioners; a family disagreement about what to do in Chicago; a heated argument about the politics of George Bush. But as the sun set and the sky darkened once more, we kept things light at our table.
“I spy with my little eye something beginning with G,” said Kirstie.
“Is it God?” I asked, causing the nearby missionaries to look our way.
“Is it a Virgin Cove flight?” asked Cameron.
“That doesn’t begin with G Cameron,” said Matthew.
“Is it grass?”
And so the game continued until Matthew and Cameron had ice cream and chocolate sauce all down the front of their T-shirts and it was time for bed.
The bedtime routine was rudely interrupted by Bryan, crackling into the cabin on the intercom. “Hello again folks, I’m afraid there’s a problem with the toilets. It seems to be taking twenty minutes for the tank to charge between flushes and I need your help in organising things so there’s a twenty minute interval between toilet visits. Just until we can get an engineer to look at it at our next service stop.” He went on to explain a complicated system he was devising to achieve this but it was already clear to me it was not going to work for us.
“I need a wee. I need a wee,” said Cameron desperately.
“I need the toilet too.” said Matthew.
“Can you wait twenty minutes?” I asked.
“No I need it now Dada. Right now.”
I trooped the boys down the corridor in their pyjamas and we sneaked into the toilet which now had a “temporarily closed” sign on it.
“Dad, this toilet stinks of beavers,” announced Matthew loudly as I locked the door.
“Did someone do a fart?” giggled Cameron pulling his pants down. “Yuk…yuk.. this toilet is already full Dad.”
We tried the flush button but there was no flush. Not even the sweet almond scent of the Amtrak liquid soap could conceal the horrible smell. “Quick boys, do your thing and let’s get out of here. We won’t bother with brushing your teeth tonight.” They looked quite relieved. As we snuck out of the toilet we bumped into Bryan trying to get in with a plunger and some air freshener.
He looked irritated, “Didn’t you hear my announcement?”
“Sorry, the boys were desperate,” I said meekly as I shuffled the boys away.
And so to bed, the train rushing on, whistling its way aggressively into the night, crashing, rocking and rolling its’ way into Minnesota while we all did our best to grab some sleep before the next meal service began at first light.
“Last call for breakfast. This is your last call for breakfast,” squawked Tina down the intercom. “We have a lot of people getting on at the next stop so you’d better come now or you’ll miss your slot.”
I looked at my watch and wondered what time zone it was reading and what time zone Tina was working on. It didn’t really matter, it was now or never. The boys were already awake and busy colouring in their sheets; Kirstie was busy scolding them and trying to remake the bed so the damage was not obvious. We made a quick dash for breakfast before the train stopped.
Tina welcomed us to the diner, “You’re just in time, you can sit here.” Her curls were tight, the tiredness in her eyes magnified by her glasses. “So, what can I get you this morning? Coffee? There’s no grits, omelettes or hash browns left. Strawberry yogurt but no blueberry and no Krispies. I’ll fetch some coffee first and let you have a think for a moment.” There didn’t seem to be much left to think about.
The train slowed as it approached the station and Tina returned with some coffee.
“Right, ‘fraid we’re out of sausages now too, so, what can I get you?” she asked, pulling a chewed up pen out of her pocket ready to take our order.
The train came to a standstill, the power went off and the car went silent as the air conditioning fans slowed to a stop. Tina turned to address the whole car.
“Don’t worry now. It’s routine. Power will be back in due course but for now breakfast service is suspended. We can’t cook anything. You folks might want to step outside for some fresh air or a smoke for a few minutes until we get started again.”
Then she joined the rest of her team at an empty table for their own coffee break.
A breath of fresh air
Stepping outside was a shock after nearly two days in our air conditioned cocoon. Up and down the train, car attendants stood by sets of little yellow steps helping passengers down onto the platform and greeting those just joining the train.
“Don’t go too far now,” said Bryan wiping his brow as he helped me down, “We’ll be on our way again soon.”
He looked tired and hassled, his waistcoat and tie now gone, his shirt creased, hair tousled and face unshaven, the price of forty hours of service.
The sky was grey and overcast and the air hot and humid. I walked up and down the train, stretching my legs to try and relieve the dull ache of inactivity. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and trickled down my face. Along the platform irritable looking smokers grabbed a quick fix of nicotine, friends and family said their last goodbyes to departing loved ones while sweaty red caps lugged baggage on and off the hot, shiny train.
There was barely time for two laps or two cigarettes before the loco whistled ‘all aboard,’ power was restored, breakfast was resumed and the final six hour leg of the journey began.
With the monotony of the plains now well behind us, eyes turned to the welcome relief of the limestone bluffs, sandstone canyons and soft tree covered mountains of the trail across Minnesota and Wisconsin. And as we headed along the banks of the Mississipi River, past paddlewheel boats, barges, locks and dams, so minds began to turn to the end of the journey. The strange little community that developed over the previous days and nights, began to ready itself for the separation of onward journeys. Cabins were tidied, garbage bags filled, sheets and pillow slips folded, baggage repacked. And with the journey almost done, a lighter atmosphere began to descend for the final rites of service.
Would you like burgers or burgers?
“This is the last, final and ultimate call for lunch. There will be no more service after this,” announced Tina. We hurried to the dining car for the last time.
“I have burgers and I’ve got ice cream but no chocolate or strawberry sauce,” she said firmly.
“Can we get four burgers and four ice creams then please?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said as she shuttled off to the kitchen.
Around us the other diners munched on their burgers and ice cream. They chattered away, tidying up conversational loose ends.
“So, where did you say you were heading next?”
“You know I really hope things work out for you.”
“Well goodbye, good luck and God be with you.”
And when Tina had served up the last burgers and ice cream she returned to her intercom to do the same.
“Hello everyone,” she announced with notable relief, “The dining car is now closed. We are closed. Thank you for your custom. We are now closed.”
You must really love trains
Back in the cabin, Bryan made his final visit to collect dirty linen, used towels and garbage, finding time for a final chat as his long shift approached its’ end.
“So, where for you now then?” he asked.
“Two days in Chicago, then by train to Washington, three nights there, then train to Boston for three, train to New York and finally fly home to England,” explained Kirstie.
“Wow, you guys must love trains.”
“Love trains,” squeaked Cameron.
“And how about you?” asked Kirstie.
“Overnight here then working this train back to Seattle from tomorrow afternoon,” replied Bryan.
“Wow, you really must love trains.”
He looked over his massive pile of dirty linen and smiled for the first time in a long while.
Welcome to Chicago
Outside the skyline was changing, as urbanity gave way to the first exciting glimpses of the mesmerising Chicago skyline. The boys packed away their toys and sat quietly on the edge of their seats looking out their windows.
“Is this Chicago?” asked Matthew.
“Yes” replied Kirstie.
“It’s a really big city isn’t it?” he continued gawping at the sprawl.
“It’s muckkindatown, muckkindatown,” sang Cameron.
Kirstie and I laughed. “We’ll see about that shall we?”
And as we finally pulled into Chicago after forty four hours and 2206 miles on the railroad, we took a deep breath and launched ourselves into the frenetic cauldron of the first of four big American cities.