I recently traveled in an Amtrak “roomette” from Boston to Denver. It’s not a choice I would have considered but, my younger brother’s wife, sensing that a slower trip West would be less jarring than a faster one, suggested it. Since I was still reeling from the shock of re-entering the United States after walking el Camino de Santiago, I pondered the possibility. But, as my memories of Amtrak are not especially fond, given its penchant for delays, squeaks and groans, and erratic electrical service, and since it lacks the speed and panache of European rail, I was inclined to hop on a plane. But my brother bequeathed me his current balance of Amtrak points which was almost enough for a one way ticket in a sleeping cubicle, all meals included. Might it be an American Camino, a trip in the slow(er) lane that is not mainstream? I bought the extra points and booked my “roomette”, which I considered to be an albergue on wheels. The sleeping car even has an attendant, or hospitalero.
The Camino prepared me well for this adventure.
It taught me how to maneuver in odd spaces. If you’re in a “roomette”, not to be confused with a European “couchette”, there is not much wriggle room in the 3’6″ x 6’6″ space. On the first leg, from Boston to Chicago, the cubicle included a toilet and pullout sink, whose surfaces double as steps to the upper bunk. Though the room is built for two, I felt squeezed with just me and my backpack, which sat across from me. Those two chairs fold out to form the bottom berth.
Like on the Camino, the menu is limited and, like at some albergues where dinner was served, seating is communal. “Sit with a stranger, leave with a friend,” intoned one Amtrak announcer. It’s easy to strike up conversations: most people are curious about why others have chosen the train when faster and cheaper options are available. For some, their size or health problems makes air travel difficult if not risky. Others dislike the hassle of flying and have time to ride the rails. Still others need to slow down to process loss or changing life circumstances; I met a NY artist who lost four years of artwork to Hurricane Sandy.
At lunch the first day, there were two choices: a vegetarian salad and a salami sandwich. Of the desserts listed, cheesecake and a chocolate peanut butter torte, only the latter was available. Just as in Spain, the printed word is not always accurate. While I was finishing up, a retired couple from Matapoissett, MA was seated across from me. They asked me what I had eaten. I explained that the salad was my only option and that, alas, there was no cheesecake.
“There will be cheesecake tonight,” said the cabin attendant, a plump apple cheeked woman with blond bangs who at that moment, was doubling as the server. It reminded me of the albergue I stayed in Ages, Spain, a small village where the hospitalero also ran the restaurant. “We’ll pick up the regular dining car in Albany.”
I stayed to chat with the couple while they ate and I noticed that my Amtrak drink cup was emblazoned with: “Change How You See the World”. I wasn’t expecting Amtrak to serve up inspirational messages, especially one similar to the encouraging graffiti along the Camino. Despite the progressive mantra, many items served, especially drinks and condiments, were downright traditional, a parade of American brands laden with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives or simply uninspired, food I’ve largely stopped eating. I feel little affection for Smuckers jellies, Lipton teas and Kraft dressings, but I wondered if foreigners aboard Amtrak might fall in love with these brands much as I became fond of the coffee vending machines in Spain?
I learned that this pair had ridden the rails across country multiple times, thanks to their careful accumulation of Amtrak points. They’ve memorized the menus and how the sleeping cars change depending on the route. Like experienced Pilgrims, they gave me pointers.
“Coach can be odoriferous,” said the wife, a birdlike woman with wispy white hair. I didn’t want to believe her but, later that first day, as I traversed seven coach cars to reach the dining car, I got a whiff of what she meant, with body odor and fast food fumes hanging like invisible clouds in the stale air. The amount of walking I did was hardly enough to justify the food I consumed. The promised cheesecake was dense and sweet, and the dining car, with its bright lights, white paper table cloths and a goofball server who maneuvered his large tray as if it were an airplane coming in for a landing, surprisingly festive.
Like on the Camino, I had low expectations for sleep. While I didn’t hear anyone snore, and there was no bunk mate to rattle the bed, the train squealed and squeaked as it rolled towards Chicago. The stopping and starting lurched me into dazed wakefulness. And, just as in the albergues, which turn the heat off at night, when I went to bed the temperature was toasty but I awoke shivering under the thin train blankets; I was sorry I hadn’t used my silk sleeping bag liner. After clambering down from the top berth to use the toilet, I discovered that, even though I pressed the black button to flush, it no longer worked. At least, unlike many Camino potties, it had a lid I could close. Given the morning chill and the lurching train, I was not motivated to use the cubicle shower at the end of the sleeping car. Instead, I sponged off in my “roomette”. Perhaps this makes me just as fearful as the unwashed who, on the Camino, could quickly stink up a dorm.
To Amtrak’s credit, the train arrived 30 minutes early to Chicago. During a four hour layover, I left Amtrak-land to have lunch with an old friend, then boarded a different train, this one with double-deckers and a scenic car with swivel chairs and wall-to-wall windows. Since we were traveling through the plains, the American meseta, I thought there would be nothing worth seeing; the most dramatic scenery is west of Denver. Still, I decided to join others in the viewing car rather than stay in my “roomette”, this one sans toilette. As we passed flat fallow fields, punctuated by the rare farmhouse, wind turbines, silo or small town, I noticed a woman with her iPad pressed to the glass, eagerly snapping photos as if this landscape were the most fascinating in the world. Later, I heard her Australian accent. Not long ago I had been her, taking picture after picture of rolling farmland along the Camino and the three-pronged wind turbines that, in Spain, had delighted me. Yet, sitting there, I felt little urge to take out my camera. Had the spell of the Camino worn off? Was it impossible for me to see Illinois and Iowa through a joyful lens?
Before long the sun started to set, and the vast sky turned yellow, then orange. I returned to my “roomette” where the colors blossomed into bright pinkish orange and red, the boldness and intensity rivaling that of Spain. That’s when I took out my camera and knocked on the “roomette” across the corridor, whose occupant was the artist.
“You must see the sunset!” I exclaimed. Suddenly, the joy was back.