We decided to take the Amtrak to Colorado for Christmas. I just didn’t relish the thought of another 1000 mile drive, mostly through ice and snow, and not having adequate heat in the trailer. Also, the cost of tickets was more affordable than the gas this time around because I was able to tweak our dates around the heavy holiday travel times.
The commuter train station is a short drive from my dad’s, so he dropped us off. We took the commuter train, transferred to an express bus and got to LA Union Station with a couple hours to spare. Sure beats LA traffic. At the station we relaxed in ancient but comfortable chairs and read (I read, the boy played video games) a rare treat these days. I thought about food. The train ride from Los Angeles to Colorado is over 22 hours. That’s dinner, breakfast and lunch. We were packing light, not only because Amtrak has a strict 2 carry on limit, but also because we were schlepping all our luggage everywhere with us. So instead of packing food from home, I just filled some water bottles, grabbed my coffee cup and had the bottomless pit (boy) pack some snacks.
Breakfast was easy, the station convenience store offered our usual of bananas, yogurt and OJ for a somewhat reasonable price. They also had steamed buns filled with bbq pork, a favorite I had not had for years. I threw a couple of those in for an immediate snack. I thought about dinner. I have eaten in the dining car before and although it is okay, it is not spectacular and certainly not worth the splurge of $20-$30 per person. I got a salad and the boy chose flatizza (pizza) from Subway to eat on the train for dinner. Onboard, we checked out the cafe car and I decided we would go ahead and splurge on lunch in the dining car. By this time we were ready for a change of scene, anyway.
Amtrak is great for long trips. It’s nice to stretch one’s legs while the train keeps moving; sleep while the train keeps moving; eat, use the bathroom, write, do schoolwork, check schoolwork, all while the train keeps moving. No traffic. The observation car is nice, but our seats were so roomy and comfortable and had plug-ins for our computers, that we really didn’t feel like hanging out there this time. Fortunately, the rowdier passengers chose that option, so the coach seats were quiet. The dining car is a somewhat formal affair. White linen tablecloths provide the surface for cloth napkins, stainless ware and – desk blotters? Stacks of large table size paper covered the tables. Good for making notes, doodling and quickly changing the “tablecloth”. Amtrak also likes to fill up the tables, so you may find yourself dining with a friend you hadn’t met yet. In the several times I’ve eaten in the dining car, I have had enjoyable companions. This time was no different. Our luncheon companion was a retired computer engineer who is now a book publisher. There was no lag in the conversation as we discussed writing, video gaming, building video games and travel. The food was rather less than exciting. Now I remember that train salads are not so fresh. Should have had the hamburger.
So, conclusions about train food: avoid buying on the train, if possible. If you do the dining car, do it for the company, not the quality of the food. Bring your food on, if possible. Some ideas are – fresh fruit and veggies, bread, cheese, cold roast chicken or beef, cold steamed veggies. If you have a lunch box and thermal bentos or soup thermoses, you could pack a few hot foods. That will add to your stuff, though. Stops will not be long enough to run to the store or the restaurant. Your trip will probably only be a day or two, so it is entirely possible to pack enough to get you through without having to buy much on board. For the return trip, we packed: water bottles, coffee cup, tea bags, crackers, bread, cheese, fruit, steamed and fresh brocolli and carrots. We got to our stop 1-1/2 hours early and the train was an additional 40 min. Late. You read it right, it’s a stop, not a station. So we went across the street to Habanero’s Mexican Grill for breakfast. Boy had taquitos and his dad and I had stuffed sopapillas with green chile. All fresh, all homemade, all yummy. We took the leftovers on the train for dinner. So we really had plenty to eat this time, all in a small reusable shopping bag. I don’t know if they technically consider “lunch” a carry on, but they let us get away with it.
The Great Train Adventure began with booking our trip. In the past, I had reserved our Amtrak seats online and had our tickets mailed to us. Always sitting on pins and needles until they arrived. Now I can print them out or store them on my smartphone. I opted for the printout, since I am new to the whole smartphone thing.
Packing was the next step. Amtrak has a strict 2 carry-on limit, so we wanted to pack as light as possible, not only because we would be hauling our luggage everywhere, but we also did not want to leave it unattended as we wandered around the train during our 39 hour ride. Our seats were in coach, so there would always be other passengers around us.
My dad dropped us off at the park and ride and we took public transportation, the commuter train, to the express bus that stops just across from Union Station. Inside, we found comfortable seating for our 2 hour wait, and checked in to get our seat assignment. Yak worked on some school lessons while I caught up on reading newsletters and books.
Before boarding I decided we’d better get some food, or we would be stuck with several expensive meals of not so good quality. Fortunately, Union Station has some nice, reasonably priced offerings, so we got some fresh fruit, snacks, yogurt and veggie juice, as well as a hot meal for our dinner.
Soon enough we were walking down the tunnel to our platform and boarding our train. Squeezing up the narrow stairs to the upper level is always a challenge, but we made it and stowed our gear. We settled in, ate our dinner and waited for the conductor to check our tickets. Later, we explored the café car, the observation car and the menu for the dining car. Pretty much the same as the last time we rode, several years ago.
Back in our seats, we broke out the gadgets and played video games (the boy) and read (me). No movies on the train anymore. Guess everyone brings their own now. That’s sure what it looks like, anyway, with tablets and smartphones blazing away at every turn.
Sleeping in coach is not too bad. We had our pillows and blankets (Amtrak no longer provides them) and were plenty cozy in the reclining seats. The movement of the train lulled us to sleep. I woke up just before the café car attendant announced coffee and I had my travel cup ready! It felt good to stretch my legs and walk around a bit. Back at our seats, the boy was beginning to stir and I retrieved our breakfast from the overhead rack – fruit, yogurt and juice. The train ride itself became a pilgrimage as I quietly had my morning devotions and said my rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet.
The long day of slow travel allowed for schoolwork, correcting schoolwork, writing, reading, playing video games and getting off the train at one of two 30 minute stops, to stretch our legs and inspect the wares of local vendors set up in front of the station. We also treated ourselves to lunch in the dining car. The food was not exciting, but the conversation was nice. Amtrak tries to fill its dining tables, so we had a luncheon companion we had previously not known. Conversation ranged from publishing, to video games, to Flagstaff, AZ and several subjects in between.
Dinner was cheese and crackers and after reading some more and wishing we had brought a dvd or downloaded some videos to watch, we got out our blankets and pillows and slept almost all the way to Colorado.