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Fall 1998 Amtrak Trip
by Kathryn Armstrong

This tale is not a travelogue as much as it is a travel essay.

The Fire is Sparked

My first experience with Amtrak was in its infancy, way back in 1975. My grandmother decided to take the entire family on a Grand Tour of which the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco was a leg. At that time I fell in love with train travel and vowed to take another, longer, trip one day. But life has a way of catching up with you and that goal took a back seat to finishing college and starting a career. While the dream was still in the back of my mind, the burning fire dwindled to smoldering embers.

In November 1997, I was part of a company group that traveled on the City of New Orleans from Memphis to that city and back. As the train speed through Mississippi, the winds from the train fanned the train travel smoldering embers into a blaze.

Planning the Trip

With the Train Schedule and Travel Planner in hand, I begin to plan my trip. In early January 1998, after looking at several itineraries, I made my choice and picked my dates for mid-October 1998, where I would enjoy the Fall Foliage of the Rockies and upper Mid-West.

I would take the Amtrak Air-Rail Vacation, flying from Memphis, TN to Seattle, spend a few days in Seattle, and then take the train from Seattle back to Memphis via Chicago. (Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, then the City of New Orleans from Chicago to Memphis.)

The trip actually began on Feb. 20 when I booked the trip. And that is also when the adventure began. I had already talked to my travel agent a few weeks prior to this and had researched exactly what I wanted. It took a few minutes for the TA to connect to the Amtrak Vacations. We had finished everything and I made out my check for my deposit when she looked at the check with my name L. Kathryn Armstrong imprinted and asked, "Please tell me that Kathryn is on your Drivers License somewhere?" (I have always used my middle name.) Of course it's not, so we had to re-book the tickets. The problem was not the rail portion of the trip, but the air section of the trip. Lesson 1: No matter if you have never used your first name since you were christened, ALWAYS book your travel in the name on your drivers license.

NOTE: I will sometimes use the phrase "but then I camp," to explain how certain features, items or events do not bother me while they might bother the typical traveler.

Preparing to Pack

Since the last time I had new luggage was over 25 years ago, this was a good excuse to get new luggage. I bought a two piece set with a duffel bag and a wheeled airline bag. By packing rather light, everything for five days fit in the smaller wheeled bag, with books and clean underwear in a carry-on knapsack.

Serious packing planning began in late September. I had watched the current conditions for my destination, but when the temperature is near 90 degrees and the humidity equally as high, it is difficult to think of warm clothing.

Departure Day Draws Near

The tickets have arrived and I now really feel as if the trip is a reality.

It is one week from departure and there is this fear in the back of my mind that I will have to stay at work and cancel the vacation. There are so many ends to be tied up prior to leaving, or at least shoved in a drawer until I return. The biggest task looming is to find out if there actually is a desk under the piles of papers.

Of all the people I told about my trip, only two were not envious when I said while on the train "I would do absolutely nothing." Think about that. Often we are snowed under at work, have an equally heavy workload at home plus all the other details of our lives. To sit back and do nothing for a few days does sound wonderful. And this is one group I think Amtrak marketing is overlooking. Market to the "overworked, stressed out, too many things to do and too little time to do it in" person.

It is now the day before I leave. It is also Columbus Day. While I knew there would be no mail deliveries today, it somehow did not occur to me that the banks would be closed also. This means I cannot get the Travelers Checks I had intended to take. It also means I can not have a supply of $1 and $2 bills for tips. Lesson 2: Always check for bank holidays and how they may affect your trip.

There is this strange thing on my desk. It kind of looks like the desk top, but it has been so long since I have seen it, I am not really sure. My files are almost where anyone can find things while I am gone. My voice mail and e-mail are set up with the "I am out" response. Quick, run before anyone hands me work to take with me.

The First Leg of the Journey

My roommate dropped me off at the airport at 6:30 a.m. It was two hours before my flight, but I figured I could check in and find a coffee stand and drink coffee until I left. Not! The United stand in Memphis did not open until after 7 a.m. I really could not go to the gate area since that meant dragging my bags through security then back to check in when United opened. But finally everything opened, I checked in and departed for Chicago.

On the flight from Chicago to Seattle, one of the channels available with the headsets was the Air Traffic Control channel. Maybe that is something Amtrak might look into. Put the scanner on one of the channels in the rooms.

I had originally planned to take a few tours while in Seattle. Instead, I lounged around the hotel, spending time in the whirlpool and sauna. I did do a little shopping, including cleaning out the rest of the tray at a Cookie place. (I needed something to eat on the train.)

Leaving Seattle

About mid-morning I departed for the King Street Station in Seattle. I had originally thought I would check in, find a locker for my bags and wander around Pioneer Square for a few hours. That morning the weather was cool, cloudy and a little rainy. For this Southerner, used to warm, sunny weather, that was a sign to stay in the station and read -- and eat cookies.

I watched the Coast Starlight depart and the Westbound Empire Builder arrive as well as some of the local train both arrive and depart -- and ate cookies. I had planned to buy a few Amtrak souvenirs at the station, in particular a much-needed tote bag similar to one pictured in the Travel Planner, but I could not find Amtrak souvenirs for sale anywhere in the station. Instead I continued to drag around a sack from the hotel.

They were in the beginning stages of refurbishing the station in Seattle. They had signs showing what had been done and what was planned. According to the signs, they plan to return the station to much of its original design. "Forward into the Past!" That can be Amtrak's motto!

The call for sleeping car passengers came about 4:20 p.m. I grabbed my wheeled bag, knapsack and hotel sack and headed for the train. I checked in with my Car Attendant, Gul, started up the stairs -- and almost pulled my arm off in the process. I was trying to take everything up the stairs at one time. I was carrying my wheeled bag like a suitcase and it caught on the stairwell sideways and stopped me short. Lesson 3: The stairs on the Superliners are narrow. It can be difficult to try to take your bags up the stairs sideways or even all at the same time. Leave a few downstairs and come back for them.

I had read on Trainweb and in Jim Loomis' book that the Standard rooms were small, so I was prepared to spend three days in a closet. I was amazed at how large my room was, or seemed. But then I camp. I have spent over a week in a tent smaller than my room. (Of course I am 5 ft, 115 lbs.)

The Superliner II cars have changed the closet to a shelve/coat hook. And I think that works better. I was able to stow my wheeled bag in that space and looped the holding belt through the handle to secure it. My knapsack fit in the area under the bedside stand and for lack of a better place, I chunked by hotel sack on the other seat. (Darn, I really could have used that Amtrak canvas tote bag.)

I was a little surprised to NOT find any gifts/amenities, especially since the Amtrak marketing materials promote this. I was kinda looking forward to the Empire Builder glass and especially the bottle of wine since this was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. (Okay, there is the whine!)

Gul (pronounced Gool), came around and told me about both the train and room features. The train soon started up and we were slowly on our way. The Chief of On-board services came and took my dinner reservation. I took the one for 5:30 since other than cookies I did not have lunch and my body clock was two hours ahead of me.

My dinner companion was a lady from Whitefish, MT. I had baked salmon with dill sauce. As we ate dinner the train skirted Puget Sound and we watched the sun slowly set. After dinner I went back to my room to settle in a little more. The drink area only had coffee and water from the fountain. Since I had reserved so early, I had room #2 and was right across from Gul. It took a little while to realize that the soft ping I kept hearing was the attendant call bell.

I stared out the window at the Cascade Mountains until it became too dark to see. As Gul put my bed down, I made my way to the lounge car to see if it had any Amtrak souvenirs. I was disappointed to find the only Amtrak merchandise they carried were postcards and playing cards. Amtrak is missing an opportunity here. I realize storage of these items can be a problem, but items such as t-shirts and tote bags can take up little space.

I bought a couple of cartons of milk in the lounge car and went back to my room to have milk and cookies before I went to sleep. I had read in several places that occasionally some of the noise from the car can keep people awake, but since I camp I already knew of this neat invention -- earplugs. With those the noise did not bother me.

It did take a little while to adjust to the mattress but the movement of the car was relaxing and long before we reached Spokane I was sound asleep. I barely woke enough up in Spokane to be aware we were moving cars around but that's about all. I remember looking out the window and seeing a double row of windows. It took a little while for it to register that I was seeing another Superliner car, not the station.

The First Full Train Day

It seemed strange to not wake up to a ton of dogs jumping on me. Needless to say, I slept a little later than I expected, getting up at almost 7 am. My original plan was to grab a quick shower, eat an early breakfast and head for the lounge car to stake out a good chair to have a better view when we went through Glacier National Park.

So much for plans. I did make it early for breakfast -- sorta. I had biscuits and gravy with a side of bacon, which was more than my usual breakfast of a pot of coffee. It was early dawn and I ate breakfast while we were in the quaint village of Whitefish, MT.

I did reach the lounge car in time for spectacular views. One of the people in the lounge car had actually worked on some of the tunnels we went through. He said that there was scarcely an arm's reach between the train and the side of the tunnel.

The scenery kept getting better and better, especially as the sun rose over the mountain peaks. The leaves had begun to change, and the higher peaks still had last winter's snow. (At least I assume it was last winter's snow.)

As we started to come out of the mountains I made my way back to my car to vegetate a little more, drink coffee -- and eat cookies. Somewhere at this point, I put down my notebook, never to pick it up again, so the rest of this tale will be very vague.

Though I currently live in Memphis, TN, I was raised a little to the east, in the foothills of the Smokies. I have never really found beauty in the flat lands. Until this trip. As we went across the plains, I kept staring out the window amazed at its beauty. It is true. There is a BIG difference between seeing the country out of a car window and a train window.

All I really remember of lunch was good food and good conversation. After lunch, I made my way downstairs for my first Amtrak shower. It was much larger than I expected. Based on what I had read both here on Trainweb and Jim Loomis' book All Aboard, I thought I had a good idea of what to expect. The water at first came full force but quickly turned into droplets. I decided that this was a bust and turned the water back off. But as soon as I started to turn the water nozzle in the opposite direction it came back on full force. Lesson 4: Yes, the nozzle can be tricky. Don't give up, but play with the nozzle until you get the pressure and temperature you want. Besides, it beats the solar showers I use camping by a long shot.

Note: Solar Showers are 5-10 gallon plastic bags made out of a clear, tough plastic with a hook on one end and a hose attachment at the other. They are left out in the sun to warm the water. The bag is then hung from a hook and you use the hose end to shower with. Compare this with the Superliner showers and you will find, there is no comparison. The Superliner wins every time.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was pretty much a blur. I just sat in my room and stared out the window at the passing scenery of fields and small towns. At one point I though I saw some cats near the tracks but as the train drew nearer I saw that it was a pair of red foxes. For dinner I had the fish again, then later went to the lounge car for another two cartons of milk. I quickly went to sleep that night and again slept very soundly.

The Next Day

I woke the next morning just before we pulled in to Minneapolis / St. Paul. While we were still in the station I grabbed a quick shower this time knowing what to expect. We were still in the station when I finished, so I went outside to walk around, with a wet head of hair, wearing just jeans and a T-shirt, in 40-something degree weather.

After another enjoyable breakfast, I settled down to read the Minneapolis paper and drink coffee -- and eat cookies. At a conference I had attended, I picked up a travel mug at the vendor fair. I took it with me on the theory that since it had a lid, I would not spill it. Wrong! I guess I can knock over anything, anywhere, at any time.

About mid-morning the train skirted a lake, offering a spectacular panorama. Later the train began to enter more urban areas as we neared Chicago. At lunch I had some of the liveliest conversation yet as we discussed the business aspects of professional sports in today's world.

There were two ladies in rooms #3 and #4 who were traveling together, a woman in her eighties and her niece. They were traveling to South Carolina where they would embark on a three-month cruise.

As we passed through the towns surrounding Chicago, I managed to stuff everything in either my knapsack or suitcase so I was able to ditch the hotel bag. (And yes, I still needed/wanted that Amtrak tote bag.)

Gul told me that I seemed to have caught the spirit of train travel very much by totally relaxing. I said that was not normal for me. Especially for the last year my life had been non-stop. I was completely snowed under at work, many times working 12-16 hour days. When I was home, after a short time, the chores that needed to be done around the house would get to me. The only way I knew I would get some rest and relax was to plop myself down on a train for three days with absolutely nothing to do, at all.

Central Station - Chicago

My first impression of Central Station in Chicago was masses of people. It even seemed more crowded than many airports. I checked into the lounge and tried to find a seat. It was as crowded as the rest of the station and there were few available seats. The first thing I did was find a phone so I could call my roommate and tell him approximately when to pick me up the next morning.

I decided to take a walking tour of the station and when exploring. I hoped that Amtrak would have a store that sold its items but the only thing I found that resembled an Amtrak stand was a display case with a few items geared towards children at the McDonalds on the upper level.

I would have thought that if any station would have Amtrak items for sale, it would have been Chicago. With as many trains that pass through Chicago, this would be an idea place for an Amtrak Store. But evidently the only way to purchase Amtrak items is through mail-order.

The two ladies who were next to me on the train were teasing me that they would be leaving much earlier than I would. They were connecting to the Capital Limited, but the Southwest Chief was delayed so my train was announced before theirs was. As I grabbed my bags, I teased them about leaving first but they retorted that Monday morning when I was back at my office, they would be boarding their ship for the cruise.

The City of New Orleans

This time when I went up the stairs, I only took one bag at a time. I quickly settled into the same room that I had left a few hours earlier. I understand Amtrak's concerns on liability, but I really wished I could have left my bags in my room. Especially since I was in the same room on both the Empire Builder and the City of New Orleans. All anyone would have found in my bags at that point would have been dirty clothes.

My car attendant on the City was James. When he came around to tell me about the room, I told him I has just spent two days in that same room. On the Empire Builder, the only drinks offered in the sleeping car were coffee and fountain water. On the City of New Orleans, James was unpacking a variety of soft drinks and bottled water.

I had wondered that with leaving at night if dinner would be served and it was. Two of the three companions at my table and I had an animated conservation that lasted quite a while. One was a woman from New Orleans that regularly used the City for business travel to Chicago. She said she preferred it over air travel.

I really did not settle into my room very much since I would be leaving it at 6:25 the next morning. I only unpacked what was necessary, then ate the last of my cookies. I had this fear of sleeping too late the next morning so I did not sleep well that night. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. Because it was early, coffee was not made yet so I grabbed a soda instead. (And the only time I usually drink sodas in the morning is when I am sick but caffeine is caffeine.)

James got up a little later (about 5:45 a.m.) and when he made up my bed, he commented that I was probably the neatest sleeper he had seen since my covers were barely mussed. We slowly pulled into Memphis so I gathered my things, bid good-by to James and departed.

Arrive Home in Memphis

Jack Swanson, in his book Rail Ventures describes the Memphis train station as dismal in a bad part of town. But when we pulled into Memphis, it was brightly lit, there was a covered paved sidewalk down the tracks, a brightly lit parking lot and a portable building at the edge of the parking lot. They have shut down the old station while they renovate it. Hurray!

In addition to the new station, this section of Memphis is improving. Cab drivers meet the trains and will take you anywhere in the city. And if you are planning a trip to Memphis, consider coming during May when Memphis in May is held. Every weekend in May, something exciting is happening including the Beale Street Music Festival and the Barbecue Championship. (Imagine a several mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River, four deep in BBQ booths.) Life does not get much better than sitting on the bank of the Mississippi River on a warm spring evening, eating BBQ and drinking a cold one.

I was walking toward the building when my roommate pulled up in the van. Sticking out of the windows were four happy heads with tongues hanging down and wagging tails. My babies missed me.

My Views on How to Improve Amtrak:

Marketing!!!! Amtrak is one of travel's best kept secrets. It has only been recently that I have begun to see Amtrak ads, either in print or electronic media.

Amtrak services most of the largest Conference and Convention cities. For those involved in the conferences, it is often a frenzy to pull everything together in time. Until the last attendee leaves and the last box is packed to be shipped home, conferences are non-stop action. So promote the Air-Rail to these people. "Fly to your conference, then take a relaxing train ride home." Or trying to prepare a presentation while constantly being interrupted is nearly impossible. In this case the promotion would be "Tired of being interrupted while trying to prepare that major presentation. Then take Amtrak to your site, then fly home."

This would open up not only the market to the traveler, but the co-workers as well. I know that after my trip, another co-worker has taken a train trip and my doctor is planning one as well.

Promotional Items:

As I said earlier, I had been a little surprised to find that the "little amenity" advertised in Amtrak's marketing materials was absent. For some people this can be a cause for distress. I understand that on some routes, such as the Empire Builder's wineglass, the item can get pricey. However, if you advertise something in your marketing materials, you should deliver it. If you change your policy, wait until you change your marketing materials.

Also, promotional items can and do serve a positive purpose. That is why companies spend as much as they do for them. Having ordered similar type items I offer an opinion. First, instead of route specific items, have several "generic" Amtrak items. They can be changed periodically. And they do not have to be expensive. Several items that come to mind include tote bags (yes, I am stuck on that), travel coffee mugs (with tops), and/or squeeze bottle sippers. Each of these items would not only be used during the trip, would have a useful life afterwards. And when it was being used afterwards is another opportunity for Amtrak to have a little more positive recognition. (Provided the traveler had a positive trip!) Having ordered similar items the costs, especially in the quantities Amtrak would order, range from $1 to $3. This can not be much more than they currently pay for their items.


When people travel different routes they begin to notice differences in the trains. I am not talking about promotional items or menus but general inconsistencies. On the Empire Builder the only drinks offered were coffee and water from the fountain but on the City of New Orleans they had soft drinks as well as bottled water. On the Empire Builder one woman had asked for bottled water but was told Amtrak no longer offered it, however bottled water was available on the City of New Orleans. Consistency across the trains is important. Amtrak must have the same standards for all of its routes.


Overall, I enjoyed my Amtrak trip and I am eagerly awaiting my next journey. I had interesting conversations at every meal and enjoyed good food. I was able to completely relax and refresh myself. I have told anyone and everyone who may be interested about Amtrak.

However, train travel is not for everyone. For those who have to be entertained every minute of every day, sitting back and vegetating may not be appealing. If your vacation must be action filled and you must be constantly on the go, then you may not want to travel by train.

But if you relish the idea of relaxing and staring out the window with nothing to concern you, then you may definitely want to look into Amtrak. If you are unable to sit down and rest unless you have no option, then look into Amtrak.

Train travel is not a cruise ship or a four-star hotel either. Sometimes I feel as if some of the people who write about their train travel have their expectations set too high.

Trains are transportation. True, they are a comfortable means of travel, but they are still transportation with limited resources. I have read some of the gripes where I feel as if these people are never happy and can never be pleased. Yes, there are legitimate problems. There will always be the bad experience.

If you travel often, things will go wrong. Sometimes the problems could have been helped, sometimes they can't. Two different people can take the same trip and have the same experiences and problems. One person will have a terrible trip while the other had a fantastic trip with a few inconveniences. It is merely a matter of attitude and perspectives.

You just have to "kick back and go with the flow." Schedule your trip so you have time if not only the train is delayed, but the plane also. Be prepared to wait if the train is crowded. Don't whine and pitch a temper tantrum if things go wrong. And do not look down your nose at your fellow travelers.

A train trip is supposed to be relaxing, so relax!

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