I didn't sleep well on Day 1. I was still recovering from jet lag from arriving in San Francisco a few days ago.
The train journey to Chicago was progressing into Day 2. We entered Nevada, Utah and Colorado, chugging along the ever-changing scenery of the countryside. A recap to those who didn't read Day 1 of mrbrown's Great US Train Adventure: on a whim, I am taking a four-day journey from San Francisco to New York City — three days to reach Chicago Union Station using the California Zephyr train, and then one more day from Chicago to New York City's Penn Station via the Lake Shore Limited train.
Some tips to make this trip easier for anyone contemplating this trip on Coach class (meaning not Sleeper or First Class):
1. Bring a pillow of some sort. It helps a lot. The seats are wide and recline quite far but a pillow will be more comfortable for sleeping.
2. A blanket is also useful but I got by with my Icebreaker merino wool cardigan. The air-conditioning on the train can be cold at night.
3. There are no shower facilities onboard except in the Sleeper cabins. So you need to clean up some other way. I used wet wipes a lot and that worked for me. If you like, you can take a leaf from your National Service days and take a talcum powder bath, but I don't recommend it. Because you'll leave a trail of white powder around.
4. I know, it sounds a little hard to live for 3+1 days on the train without a shower but it's not a big deal, really. You don't sweat much while taking the train so you never get very grubby. Unless you spill coffee on yourself, then yes, that may be a problem. And besides, you are kind of saving two nights in a hotel with the price of your ticket.
5. Pack some food and drink for the journey and you don't have to be at the mercy of the Dining Car prices.
I had breakfast with Rudy, Betty and Ethel, three lovely elderly African-Americans from Denver. They were coming back from Reno and Las Vegas. They experienced a four-hour delay on the way from Denver to Reno but this happens a lot because Amtrak doesn't own their own track in many places and often has to give way to freight trains belonging to the freight companies who own that stretch of track.
Rudy, Betty and Ethel were fun to talk to. Rudy highly recommended visiting Denver, where they come from. "Take your family too," he said.
The Scrambled Eggs dish I had wasn't very good value. Scrambled eggs with grits, and a side of pork sausage patties for US$15. Ouch.
But — pro tip —the Continental Breakfast with fruit, cereal, Greek yoghurt and a croissant is much better value. I added two pork patties for an additional US$4.25. What can I say, I like living the high life.
Some folks didn't want to pay the higher Dining Car prices and either brought their own food (see tip number 5 above) or they bought food from a supermarket to feed themselves for the journey.
Having an ever-changing roster of mealtime companions helped make my journey less lonely. And also having fun buddies in the same car as you, going on the same long journey to Chicago, helped too.
You can either get out of your comfort zone and make conversation with new friends in the carriage or dining car, or you can keep to yourself for three days. I opted for the former.
Every time we were near a station, our patient conductor, Jimmy, would make his announcements to remind folks who were going to get off the train at the next station to get their stuff together, and get ready to disembark.
Occasionally we would get announcements by the Dining Car crew that Breakfast was being served "on a first come first served basis" or that "We are operating at full capacity now so please leave your name on the waiting list" or "Party Number 5, your table is now ready".
You can tell I have memorized the train announcements quite well. They are like markers of your hours and days, helping you keep sane on the train.
Some of the station stops were longer and passengers could step out to have a smoke or stretch our legs or even buy something if the station had a store. I only encountered one store in the entire route to Chicago was at Grand Junction, Colorado. There was a tiny store at the station and we had about 25 minutes for a break.
I grabbed two muffins for US$1.50 each, and a peach that cost a US$1. I needed some backup food for the night. That peach was sweet and nice but such a pain to eat, dripping everywhere. One must be careful on a 3-day train ride without shower facilities.
One time, we got this announcement: "Please be reminded that this is a no-smoking train. This extends beyond tobacco products. If you smoke weed on this train, you will be asked to leave the train and you may be subject to criminal persecution. So please be considerate to our other passengers and we can all get to where we're going. We have detected some weed onboard and we are now looking for it. Please do not smoke weed."
Apparently, even though it is legal to smoke marijuana in the state of Colorado, it was illegal to smoke it on the train. I explained to my train buddies that pot was a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act in Singapore and the possession or consumption of weed can result in up to 10 years of imprisonment or S$20,000 fine or both, and trafficking in more than 500 grams can lead to the death penalty.
That's a stronger penalty than being kicked off the train, I reckon.
Some stretches of the train ride are such empty stretches of land that you have no cell phone signal or if you do, there are no Pokestops or Pokemon to catch. I know this because I opened my Pokemon GO app to try.
The viewing car is also a place for minglin' and socializin'. I went there a few times just to take a photo or two, and to listen to the volunteer guides tell you stories about Dead Man's Curve as seen in the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege 2, or the history of the Rockies.
I miss the old Steven Seagal. When he had less chins and really looked like he could kick ass.
I slept a little better on the second night. But I was still waking up a few times. "Go to sleep, buddy," Malik would say to me, at 3am, when he saw me on Facebook, my face lit up by the light from my iPhone.
I did catch up on my sleep eventually, during the day. But I really snored when I knocked out in the late afternoon. And my train buddies made a video of my less-than-glamorous sleeping position and sounds. I hope they don't release that video when I become famous one day. It would destroy my fledging movie career.
I called the Wife and kids when we were in Grand Junction, CO. Our FaceTime video call was a little laggy because my internet connection was probably spotty. But at least it worked.
Very often on the train ride, I would experience No Service on my cell signal. Kind of like flying economy on an American airline. After the initial withdrawal symptoms, I learned to cope with the stretches of zero Internet access. I used some of that time to read, or stare out the window, or think of what I was going to eat at the next meal time.
I decided to give lunch and dinner in the Dining Car a miss on Day 2. I just had a muffin for lunch and an Angus burger from the cafe car for dinner. The sad little microwaved burger was a little cheaper than a $22 dinner entree but I think they should spell it without the letter "g".
On Day 3, I had a Continental breakfast and shared a table with Malcolm from Toronto. He was on a vacation by himself and went to California to visit family and Nevada for some festival. He also took the same journey as me, from San Francisco to Chicago, where he would stay a night and then fly back to Toronto. He told me I had picked one of the nicer train routes to travel on. He has taken quite a number of Amtrak long distance routes like the Coast Starlight (from Seattle to Los Angeles), and the Empire Builder (from Chicago to Portland) and he thinks the California Zephyr is one of the best for scenery.
After three days of living out of seat 37, I finally arrived at grand old Chicago Union Station, the same station where that scene from The Untouchables was shot, you know, the one with the pram rolling down the stairs in slow motion, and Kevin Costner trying to save the baby while shooting the bad guys.
In three days, I had crossed two time zones and seven states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. I've seen parts of America I've never seen before. Miles of desert, miles of cornfields, and the fabulous Rockies.
Sure, the Amtrak trains are not as nice or as punctual or as fast as the Japanese Shinkansen, but the views are pretty and the company I had was diverse and chatty. On Japanese trains, I never had anyone to talk to (probably the language problem and the fact that Japanese passengers tended to keep to themselves). Not so on American trains.
I have five-hour layover till my Lake Shore Limited train to New York City so I'm chilling at the Legacy Lounge (US$20 for a day entry) because they have a Happy Hour and a roomy toilet that isn't the size of a cheap IKEA wardrobe.
As I queued at the Amtrak counter to ask about the next part of my journey, I met my lunch companion from Day 1, Levi, a young man who took the train from the West Coast like me, who spoke with a strong Southern accent. He showed me his bag with US$10,000 of pro fishing equipment that he was going to use at the bass fishing tournaments in Michigan.
"Ah have never fished in the Great Lakes before in mah life, so Ah came down here to give it a trah. I can catch anything with mah rods, just gimme an hour in them waters."
Some of these tournaments have prize money up to US$100,000, and a new car, he told me. But you have to work your way up the tournaments system which can cost princely US$250 each tournament.
"This is mah cheapest rod, but I have mah more expensive gear comin' in the mail," Levi said.
I tell you, the people you meet on a long train ride in America is as diverse as the scenery across the continent. I also learned about the challenges of driving and delivering RVs (recreational vehicles) and trucking from my other friends.
That is an experience I won't exchange for the luxury of a shower or a bed in a three-day American train journey.