Amtrak Across the USA – Day 1 of 3

My trip would take two train routes, the Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago and the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco.  I boarded the Capitol Limited on a Tuesday afternoon for a 4:05 pm departure.

Sleeper car accommodations are considered 1st class which meant I could wait in the Executive Lounge with its comfortable chairs, TV, and separate boarding gate.

The Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge

The Sleeper Car Attendant showed me to my room.  It’s a two story train car so I had to ascend a flight of stairs to get to my room.  This would mean a better view because I was 10 feet up and could see over small trees and bankings.

Although it would be plenty comfortable for the trip, it was initially shocking to see how small this room is!  Would I be able to sit in here for three days?  The room consists of two seats facing each other beside a large window to the outside.  A small fold-out table between the chairs can be used for a computer or book. 

Could I sit in here for 3 days?

The inside wall has windows to the center hallway of the car, and a sliding door.  It is private however, as there are curtains that close off both the windows to the center hall.  At night, the two seats slide down to become a bed.  If  traveling with a companion, one person gets the decidedly less comfortable upper berth which folds down out of the wall.  There is a tiny closet that holds two hangers, and a single electrical outlet.  Bathrooms and shower are down the hall.

The closet held 2 hangers!

It made me smile when I heard that they still yell “All Abooooard!” before departure!  I settled in and we were on our way.  One thing that is hard to get used to and contributed to a surreal quality was that the sleeper cars are toward the back of the train and very well insulated.  The result is that it is practically silent in my room!  I could not hear the locomotive, and the tracks are continuously welded now so there is no longer a clickety-clack.  Often we would be gliding along at 80 mph and all I could hear would be the rolling of the wheels on the track; and, if I was wearing headphones I couldn’t even hear that!

The ride is lulling and the body immediately adjusts to it.  There is a side-to-side motion, a front-to-back motion, and a degree of up-and-down, like the suspension in a car.  For the next three days I would fall into this rhythm somewhere between rocking chair and hammock.

We’ve all heard the saying that someone is from the “wrong side of the tracks”, but from what I can tell, the bigger issue is to be someone who lives anywhere near the tracks!  This does not appear to be prime real estate!  Still, I was so excited to be embarking on this journey that I sat for an hour and a half just enchanted as I passed through the less attractive side of suburban Maryland, in towns like Kensington, Rockville, and Gaithersburg.  I chatted with a few friends on the phone and created a text message group of people who I thought would want to chart my progress across the country.  I couldn’t use Facebook because I was headed, ultimately, to a surprise party.

The Old Woodward & Lothrop Bldg in DC

The city quickly yields to rolling countryside and I started seeing things one doesn’t see from the highway.  As the sun was setting we rode along the Potomac River and I looked out my window to see  a huge group of deer, perhaps 20 of them in a field beside the track.  In the distance was a large power plant which I think is in Dickerson, MD.  The thing about it was that the cold weather created this giant plume of steam coming from the stack and the whole landscape, although a bit industrial, just looked pristine.  We crossed over the Potomac and glided into Harpers Ferry, WV just as the sun was setting.

Even the steam coming from a power plant looked pretty.

Around 6:00 I went for a walk to investigate the restaurant car, and the lounge car.  The train’s chef was sitting for a break before he began the evening’s dinner service so I sat down and chatted with him for a while.    

I told him that years ago I worked for a railroad trade association thus earning Railroad Retirement for 7 years and that someday I needed to find a railroad job for 3 more years to become fully  vested.  He then told me exactly what I would make at either 7 or 10 years of RR Retirement, and that it was still the best retirement program around.

Harpers Ferry

I also told him I had been to culinary school and had my own catering company for a while.  He said his job was not particularly rewarding as a chef since most of the food is mostly prepared in an offsite commissary kitchen and just heated on the train.  He did, however, have a grill and in the morning did make omelets to order.  (Overall the food was decent, and in spots excellent.)

Nonetheless, his job was pretty interesting.  He works 3 days on and 3 days off as a one-man kitchen, cooking breakfast lunch and dinner, and doing whatever dishes there are.  He goes DC to Chicago and back twice in the three days, sleeping on the train at night, and then be off for three days, and every 6 weeks getting 4 days off.

I went back to my room to have a cocktail before dinner.  My wife had given me a Christmas stocking filled with airline bottles of fine scotches and they had come along for the ride…but would not return.  I reached into the side compartment of my suitcase and pulled out a Glenlivet, excellent start!  As I began writing this account, drinking the scotch, and watching western MD pass by, I realized that I would have no trouble at all sitting in this room for three days!

At 7:00 I went to the Diner car for dinner.  I sat in the center of a booth and the server said, “Honey you’re going to have to slide over all the way to the window!”  and the next thing I know she seats two other people with me at my table.  I would learn that the train uses “community seating” so you are seated as you arrive with other passengers.

Angus was Scottish in his late 60’s.  He lives in Alameda, CA and travels back and forth to visit his wife of 5 years in Virginia.  Something about not wanting to sell the house in CA because they hope to retire there. 

Casa is 65 and lives in Oakland.  Both Angus and Casa make frequent train trips.  Casa kept referring to her “partner”, so of course I assume she’s gay.  Then she says something like “My partner is always  leaving his clothes around the house!”

“Your partner’s a guy!?” I ask.  At this point she goes into what I presume is a familiar speech that at 65 she’s not comfortable calling him her “boyfriend” and she really doesn’t care whether people think she’s gay. 

So we laughed and talked over braised short ribs and a California Zinfandel.  When we were all done eating we continued to talk for another hour.  It was nice because we all had nowhere to be, and could just enjoy the moment.

Finally we called it a night and each went to our own rooms.  Tomorrow we would pull into Chicago at 8:45 and have to immediately de-train.  Since I would be using the 6 hour layover to visit a customer, I would have to shower and get breakfast before that.  One nice thing is the fact that every night on this trip I will would set my clock back one hour and effectively get an extra hour of sleep!  Tomorrow, Central time!

Sleeping was great!  It was quiet, and the gentle lulling of the train’s motion made me want to come home and invent a bed that recreates that motion.  When it was time for bed, the Sleeper Car Attendant came in and made up my bed.  Not only does he fold the seats down into a bed but then produces a mattress made up with clean sheets and blanket.  I was lying in bed looking out my window as the moon came up over Pennsylvania.  As I slept we would pass through Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Toledo.  By the time I woke up we would be in Ft. Wayne, IN.

There is only one shower per Sleeper Car but fortunately there was not a line.  This would be an experience!  There is an ante-room to undress and put your stuff, and then you step into a rather small tube and press a button for 20 seconds of water.  You can push it as much as you want, but it does heighten your awareness that the train must carry its water.  I quickly learned where the handrails were since it was a bit of a rough ride.  It was also somewhat disconcerting to look at the floor drain and see outside! 

Coming into Chicago

I dressed and packed and went to breakfast where I was seated with Jack and Dottie.  They were from southern VA.  They were in their 80’s and he had been a civilian employee of the Navy, and she worked for Univ of MD.  They had lived in the DC area several times, Australia, San Diego, but now were in Newport News, VA.  As we ate, we were going through a remote desolate area of Indiana and Jack pointed out a tiny lonely town and told me that this was where he was born!  He too seemed to find it remote and desolate.  As we ate our breakfast we passed through South Bend, IN.

We pulled into Chicago and everyone de-trained.  I went to the Metropolitan Lounge and stored my suitcase, and got a cab to Westchester, IL, about 15 miles due west of downtown Chicago.  I met two sales people from my company and visited a customer for whom we are in the middle of a large project. 

The meeting went about an hour and a half and then my colleagues drove me back to the train station.  I got some lunch and waited in the lounge to board the next train.


The Great Hall, Union Station in Chicago


  1. I absolutely love reading your stories. You make me, the reader, feel as if I’m right there along with you and you make me crave the adventure and the friendships that you come in contact with.

    Thanks so much for sharing!!

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