Happy Holidays dear readers! I hope that you all had an enjoyable Christmas break and that you continue to revel in your time off to end 2013. I know that I’ve been absent from the site for a little bit–for reasons that you’ll soon see–and, to those of you who have been anxiously awaiting my next post (Hi, Mom!) this time has been filled with an anxious, ridiculous, soon-to-be-ludicrously-euphoric feeling that is the same one I felt during my holiday travels. If this does indeed sound familiar to your holiday travails, then maybe you too engaged in the frivolity and Kafkaesque cheer of long distance train travel on Amtrak!
Flying is quite expensive these days. It seems especially expensive to fly out of Austin in a northerly direction. So when plans were made to spend Christmas in Chicago, we weighed all of our options according to price and amount of time spent traveling. Driving is probably the cheapest and takes about 18-20 hours. Flying is the most expensive but would, with a direct flight, only take around 7 hours (including arriving early and waiting for baggage). The third option, the little pig in the brick house, is Amtrak.
Turns out Austin is on the Texas Eagle line, a direct route from San Antonio to Chicago. It was about $150 cheaper, round trip, than flying for a coach seat with a stated time of only 28 hours. What everyone will tell you is that you don’t take the train if you are worried about being somewhere, only if you want to go somewhere and enjoy the journey. So because driving means you have to stay awake, and kind of sucks, and because it was relatively cheap, we decided to embark upon the great American rail journey knowing only that it would be some sort of adventure, whether good or bad.
It did not disappoint. So many things, small and large, happened during this trip that I’m almost not sure where to begin. They continue to happen as I’m writing this an hour outside Austin on the return leg. For instance, right now the elderly Japanese man in the booth across from me is blowing a ridiculous amount of blood into his handkerchief. I am now seriously frightened about the plague which I have likely been infected with many times over on this train.
I should probably start at the proper beginning because it sets the mood of the entire train trip. It was a bright, cool Sunday morning in Austin, Texas…
Part 1: Time Is On My Side
The train was leaving at 9:30 in the morning and Amtrak recommends that you arrive an hour in advance if you’re going to check luggage. Unlike airlines you get to check two bags for free and carry on two bags plus whatever “personal items” you have. This meant that I was awake by 7:30 having packed the night before, needing only to put all of the cold food into the cooler before my brother picked Erin and I up in his cop car around 8:15. The Austin Train station is somewhat hidden in downtown, right off of N. Lamar, right on the river, and there’s not much to it. The tiny single room, downtrodden building right across the tracks from a sizable, derelict warehouse covered in graffiti gives off a real rust-belt vibe absent in most of Austin.
Having well and thoroughly prepared, we were able to drive around in circles for 10 minutes trying to find the entrance to the station, which is almost as hidden as platform 9 and ¾. Finally finding it, we grabbed all of our bags out of the car, said our farewells to my brother Jaron, and walked into the station as he pulled away. Now, being a bit of a stickler when it comes to punctuality, I had been checking my newly downloaded Amtrak app to ensure all morning that the train was on time. And right up until we stepped up to the window to check bags, it was. Giving our bags to the Amtrak guy, he informed us “You know this train is delayed until 1:05, right?” Well, no, guy, I didn’t. In fact, neither the Amtrak app nor the “text alerts” I had signed up for seemed to function at all.
(The Japanese man across from me is now staring down his bag of chestnuts and chewing them more intently and with more focus than I’ve ever given anything in my life. If chestnuts are a life’s purpose, he is winning.)
Luckily, for us and a few others, it was Sunday and we had someone to come pick us up. Dropped back off at home there was time for breakfast now, so we cooked and dawdled and then were standing outside waiting at 11:55 for my dad to pick us up. I checked the website and, of course, the train had been delayed again until 3:45. Unfortunately, my father doesn’t own a cell phone so it was too late to keep him from driving to pick us up and then having to go home again. This precise scenario happened twice more, the timing working out with ridiculous perfection.
3:45 turned into 4:15. 4:15 to 4:50. I had time to watch the whole Cowboys game against the Redskins, another thing I can blame Amtrak for. I was calling their customer service, checking the website, and refreshing the app constantly and every time I got a different number from each. One of the Amtrak agents informed me that the train had been delayed coming down from Chicago the previous day for 13 hours and that the turn around had been slow. The train sat, uncleaned in San Antonio waiting for its crew and a spit shine.
Finally, at around 5:20 pm, we received word that the train had finally left San Antonio. At 5:30 I got a text alert telling me that my train was delayed and wouldn’t be leaving at 9:30 am. Wow, thanks Amtrak! Arriving at the station, again, at 5:45 pm we saw the same people that had been there at 8:30 am that morning. What herculean patience that 8 hour wait must have taken!
Now, I studied abroad while I was at UK in Germany. German trains are the height of efficiency. If a train is more than 5 mins late, it’ll almost be a national news story. You get onto the train, put your bags up and then once you’re moving they check your ticket. Once a train there starts towards a destination, it rarely pauses and generally moves at a heady pace. Amtrak is the film negative of this description.
When we got to the station we sat down and, as we did, other people started forming a long line by the tracks. I laughed and told Erin that it was ludicrous to line up, “there are at least 5 cars and each car has 2 doors!” I said. “You get on and then you find your seat, it’s easy!” says I. Cue the McLaughlin Group, “WRONG!!!” Eschewing all modern forms of efficiency, Amtrak in Austin waits until the train gets there and then checks every ticket and ID of every passenger. We were, obviously, in the back of the line.
Part 2: To Infinity… and Beyond!
Yet, finally, we got on the train and were headed north. I had been tweeting at Amtrak since that afternoon, trying in vain to get some comped drinks out of them, but even though my ploy didn’t succeed we were finally moving. Getting settled in my seat I was ready for a leisurely and scenic ride through the heartland of America. An hour later we were still in North Austin. And still no drinks.
@KalanKucera We are so glad you are moving. Contact Customer Relations at 1-800-USA-RAIL after your travel, about your trip.
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) December 22, 2013
.@Amtrak how bout dem DRAAANKS?!?
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 22, 2013
To call Amtrak slow would be an insult to turtles. The train, at least on our ride up there, was frenzied. We’d be moving, then we would stop. We’d go, then we’d stop and back up. I have a theory that this is because Amtrak doesn’t own any of the track it uses and must give right of way to freight trains. I back this up with the fact that EVERY FREAKIN’ FREIGHT TRAIN IN AMERICA got to pass us on the way up. This has to be the reason that we stopped for an hour in Ft. Worth, and hour in Dallas, and even longer elsewhere. Because we were already running 9 hours late so you’d think that they wouldn’t stop for no reason at all! Right??
(The old Japanese man, bag of chestnuts vanquished and returned to the phantom zone, has just fallen asleep with his face smashed flat against the booth table. I’ve never seen a human being sleep like this.)
We pulled into Dallas around 12:30 or so, and after a few hours of playing Rummi, Egyptian Ratscrew and the iPad app version of Settlers of Catan (of which I am Lord), I was ready for sleep. Having not brought a pillow, this proved to be harder than it seemed. There was enough leg room to sort of stretch out, but little enough that I had to bend my ankles slightly in order to fit. This hurt in the morning. I had to bend my neck slightly to rest it against the window of the carriage. This also hurt in the morning. So when I was awakened, sore and tired, at 3:41 am by the children alighting in Texarkana screaming at the mother, I was not very happy.
People, and mainly children's, voices are so much more annoying at 3:41 AM.
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 23, 2013
When they sat right behind me, I was less than not very happy. They blabbered on and on for an hour and when they finally got to sleep around 4:45 I got back to a very fitful sleep. This lasted until about 6:15.
On our way up (and back down, but that’s later) there was a very annoying family sitting next to us. These people were, purportedly, lawyers though I’ve never seen any self respecting lawyer wear pink elephant pajama pants and an off-pink raggedy t-shirt out in public. Throughout the entire trip this lady and her husband, both gargantuan in girth and volume, argued on the phone, argued with each other, argued with their children and argued with Amtrak agents. They were insufferable. We had avoided them most of the night by hanging out in the lounge car. But at 6:15 am I was suddenly awakened by the shrill voice of this lady talking to her mother on the phone.
“Are you awake?” she asked.
I certainly am now. I thought to myself. Drifting in and out of sleep I was able to ignore her until she began to speak more and more loudly. About 10 minutes in we got to this delightful bit of conversation (Firstly, this is more or less what was said I don’t remember exactly. Secondly, if you don’t want your conversations blogged about, don’t scream them at grumpy sleeping strangers at 6 o’clock in the morning.)
“Oh yeah, I slept great! I’m a really heavy sleeper!”
“You remember when I had (insert one of her kid’s names), I slept through her/him crying all night! They didn’t have to give me a sedative or anything!”
Not only was I now awake, I was having to listen to stories about this lady’s personal life. Not interested. Please let this stop! Probably my own fault because I was so unprepared for this trip that I forgot to put music onto my phone and headphones. My penance was the chalkboard scratch of this lady’s voice. Throughout the rest of the day she and her husband would argue about everything from what they were going to eat (earlier in the day they’d been bragging about how much food they’d brought along, later they were lampooning Amtrak for running out of snacks), how they were going to get to her parent’s place in Ohio, and about which one of them their 9 mo. old baby loved more.
Additionally, they stopped every Amtrak agent that passed by the entire second day, trying to find out about their connecting train and threatening litigation if, and I quote, “my babies have to sleep on the cold train station floor.” She referred to “my babies” multiple times in each sentence.
When I start paying attention to something that annoys me, I have a really hard time stopping. So when I started actually listening to these idiotic conversations, I could hear them from everywhere! Their voices penetrated through time and space to make me want to claw my ears from my head.
But it wasn’t only them. Nor was it the poorly behaved children behind me, proverbially kicking my seat. (Do I sound like a grumpy old man yet?) The trip took soooooooooo long. When we were woken up, we were in Little Rock, AR. To drive to Little Rock from Austin takes 7 hr and 40 min. We had made it in just over 12 hours by train.
Austin to Texarkana takes a car 5 hr 33 min. We can double that. We're Amtrak.
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 23, 2013
As we hobbled along through NE Arkansas and SE Missouri, it actually started to get pretty hilarious and, as little as I can say for Amtrak’s service, their crew was pretty funny. Somewhere in Arkansas they informed us, tongue-in-cheek, that even though our delays were reaching over 10 hours, and they were really sorry, that we should, “look on the bright side! We are, after all, traveling through Northeast Arkansas and Southeastern Missouri, some of the most beautiful country America has to offer!”
What landscape is the conductor looking at? pic.twitter.com/ZkXWUA6qS9
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 23, 2013
A landscape only a mother could love.
At least they were in a decent mood though, and it wasn’t their fault the train was running late. Sometimes though, I had to keep myself in a decent mood. Like when we accrued another hour’s worth of delays while we had the toilets pumped in St. Louis.
I just made up a song called "How Long to Pump the Poop?" while we're delayed again in STL. It's a reggae track. #10hrDelayAndCounting
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 23, 2013
It took out train 1.5 hrs to drain the toilet tanks in STL pushing back our delay to almost 11 hours late. What did Amtrak eat last night?
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 23, 2013
I can’t for the life of me remember the tune I came up with for the song, but it was a chart-topper, I promise.
A telling sign, I thought, was that we sped way up once we crossed into Illinois. I don’t know what is different about trains as you go north, but they seem to go faster and with more purpose. The 5 hour stretch from St. Louis to Chicago actually wasn’t that bad. We went through Springfield, Lincoln, Pontiac and Joliet, cruising towards Union Station at a pretty reasonable pace. It was finally a train like I’d remembered!
That’s when they dropped the best part. The trains Amtrak employs haven’t been updated in a while. Probably not since Amtrak was founded in 1971. And the people who enjoy Amtrak’s service (as you might gather from what you’ve read already) are unique in both temperament and appearance. It, along with the basic fact that you’re on a train, gives the trip a very ramshackle, hobo-y feel. So when they announced that, because of the myriad delays and because they’d run out of food, they were going to give everyone on the train a free bowl of beef stew, I couldn’t do anything but laugh.
It was snowy outside, I was on a train, I have a beard, and I was being given free beef stew. I’ve never felt more like my depression-era, hobo self. To me, this also begged the question, “If they’ve run out of food to serve, from whence did the beef stew originate?” Sadly, this might never be answered. But the beef stew did flow, and the masses were satiated.
So it was 37 and 1/2 hours later, eyes deeply sunken, heads pounding, and bellies full of stew that we arrived in Chicago at midnight. As a Texan, the cold that greeted us was shocking. All of my stored up boogers from my tissue-less trip instantly froze.
From there on it was Christmas. Gifts were opened, liquids were imbibed. I had my first Italian Beef at Beef Villa in Elgin, IL–an experience I can highly recommend. We saw Anchorman 2 on Christmas Day, and it was truly vile and pointless. Shame on you Will Ferrell. And yet as the days went by, at the back of our minds we knew that the return trip lay in store. It haunted our dreams and stole from us our sleep (though that, in part, can go to the pillow I was using. No matter how often I scrunched all the stuffing together, as soon as I laid my head onto the pillow, I found the miracle hole in the stuffing).
After a hearty 7 days in Chicagoland (where I opened up the debate about whether Elgin is actually a suburb or not, opinions?), it was Sunday afternoon. Time to re-board and go. Signs were less auspicious this time around. The Bears game was moved back to the afternoon slot, sparing us traffic, we didn’t have any baggage to check, and the weather had spared us the oncoming snow for the time being. After lining up in the Great Hall for what I was sure was going to be a long delay in boarding, we actually got onto our train and left Chicago on time.
Part 3: There and Back Again
In fact, the ride back was–for the most part–a lot better. The families were all seated in the back, so we had only adults around us. We started out in Illinois and the train moved a lot faster. We made it to St. Louis in time to get a good view of the Arch, which we hadn’t been able to do the first time. All in all everything was going smoothly. I went to sleep, with a pillow this time, hoping that when I awoke we’d be in Texas.
Well, we were in Texas when I was awakened by the seemingly normal woman sitting behind us. At 7:00 am in fact. Like the sun’s rays slowly rising over a hill, the sound of this woman’s cackles grew slowly louder and louder. Her laugh sounded like a mixture between Woody Woodpecker and Salacious B. Crumb and it got bad. After half an hour of that laugh, every 10 seconds or so, I finally got up to go elsewhere and saw the source. She was watching an episode of Reba. Now, I can’t claim to have ever watched an episode but can anyone tell me if it’s actually funny enough to laugh every 10 seconds? Was she a former member of the studio audience or something?
I was awake though, and we were in Texas. We got to Dallas and had to wait an hour and a half because we were so early. Now if you’ll allow for a small tangent, the station is right next to Reunion Tower and two blocks away from Dealey Plaza, so Erin and I got out of the train and walked over to the corner of the book depository and stood on the grassy knoll. There were a lot of tourists there. There’s also an ‘x’ drawn on the street at the exact spot where JFK was shot. For some reason these tourists were running out into the street, with traffic zooming past them, and taking pictures of themselves looking silly while standing on the ‘x’. Not-train-related, and far be it for me to judge (a cue for exactly what I’m about to do) but should we really be taking silly selfies on the spot of JFK’s assassination? I might sound like a codger, but I really don’t think so. Grumble, grumble, rabble, rabble.
People running out into traffic on Dealy Plaza to take a pic where JFK was shot. That's… Weird… pic.twitter.com/XoF8YSmnSv
— Kalan Kucera (@KalanKucera) December 30, 2013
After walking back to the train we sped off across the Metroplex to Fort Worth. After being delayed by being early, it was nice to be moving again. We roll into Ft. Worth and **GUESS WHAT**? We were early and had to stay there for 2 and ½ hours. Far be it for me to question the logic of Amtrak’s scheduling, but does it make sense to anyone that they build in 5-6 hours total of time that they have to stop so that just in case they run late they can make up the time and pad their numbers?
NO! It’s silly! We sat on the tracks in the Metroplex for almost 4 hours. 4 hours that, if scheduling were done differently, we could have been on our way south and moving. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if, upon leaving Ft. Worth, we hadn’t been immediately delayed for another hour and a half.
The cause of this delay was apparently a freight train. The conductor of our train came over the intercom and told us that the freight train was passing and that now we had to wait for the train dispatcher to “determine our route.” Now I don’t know much about rail logistics in North Central Texas, but where we were, right outside of McGregor, I imagine it looks something like this:
And it took an hour and a half to decide. I imagine there was a lot of flipping the line over and over and over again. So we’d waited 4 hours doing nothing and now we were going to be an hour late anyway. I don’t know why, but that was annoying beyond all else! Which meant I was in the proper mood to start writing this post! I sat down in the lounge car, across from a very bizarre old Japanese man, and the rest… is history.
It’s true that if you’re going to take a long Amtrak train, you probably shouldn’t care about when you’re going to get to your destination. People on the train told us the delay was unusual, but everyone I’ve ever talked to who used Amtrak had the same issues. I love taking the train, I love being able to watch the countryside go by, to play games and drink, to walk around with impunity and to not be in a 700 mph bullet 30,000 ft in the air (I’m not a huge fan of flying).
The delays were ridiculous, the people were ludicrous, and the food was at best mediocre. I slept like crap and all of my limbs are sore. But you know what? It was an adventure. You never knew what was going to happen, what city along the route you’d get to spend an hour exploring, whether or not the people who got on were going to be crazy or normal. And I’d do it again tomorrow. … … Well, maybe not tomorrow, but some other time for sure!
Post-Epilogue (Is that a thing?)
PS. Shhhhhhh…. I had to tell you I liked the train. Amtrak is always watching you!
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) December 29, 2013
PSS. Happy New Year!!