The first leg of my train journey across the US was aboard a train called the Lake Shore Limited, which runs from New York’s Penn Station to Chicago; stopping at Albany to attach to a train from Boston.
Preparation was intense, because I was giving up my apartment in New York and packing my entire life into suitcases to bring with me to the west coast; which will be my next home base for a while. If you ever need to make a cross-country move, seriously consider doing it by train, because when you purchase a train ticket, Amtrak allows you a) two carry-on bags up to 50lb ea b) three checked bags up to 50lb ea and c) three additional bags up to 50lb ea for $10 per bag. So for the grand total of $30 plus your train ticket, you can move an incredible 400lbs of ‘stuff’ clear across the country. That’s pretty hard to beat.
Amtrak customer service leading up to the journey was great, responding promptly to any queries I had via phone, email and Twitter. Ticket booked, cases packed, I was ready to travel. The day of my trip arrived, and a friend came down to the station to see me off. All aboard the Lake Shore Limited.
One thing I noticed about booking train travel in the US was the inability to reserve a seat. All seating is billed as unreserved; you get assigned a car depending upon your destination and then it’s a free-for-all when choosing your seat. At least this is what I was told ahead of time. It was not the case on the Lake Shore Limited, however. As I went to board the train, a rather surly attendant thrust a scribbled ticket in my face and barked “Here’s your seat.” I took the ticket, surprised, said thank you and then made the mistake of asking which side of the train I was on. This, apparently, was not a question she was prepared to answer, because the response was an extremely brusque “I don’t know. That’s your seat. Sit in it.” That put me in my place, literally and figuratively. Startled by the discourtesy caused by a seemingly harmless question, I boarded the train, keeping my ears open to responses to other passengers’ questions. To my delight, they were met with similar displeasure so I relaxed, safe in the knowledge that the rudeness wasn’t directed solely at me, but at anyone who dared disturb the distribution of tickets with a question.
After all passengers had been stuffed into their assigned unreserved seats, said attendant popped cheerily on board and delivered a ‘Welcome to the Lake Shore Limited’ speech that belied any of her earlier gruffness. As soon as the speech was over, however, and someone asked a question, it was greeted with a withering look that could have frozen red hot lava and a dismissive answer that was to become very familiar during the nineteen hour journey to Chicago.
I had been assigned an aisle seat and the person with the window seat had pulled the curtain shut and fallen asleep before we had even left the station. He was obviously a hardened Lake Shore Limited traveller who was forearmed with the knowledge that the smartest option was to be unconscious for as long as possible. I considered for a moment asking the attendant if there were any window seats I could move to, but reconsidered, not wanting to be on the receiving end of one of her glares. Words fail me when I try to describe the devastation in those glares. I briefly considered employing the term thinly-veiled hatred, but that would only have worked if there had been an attempt to veil the hatred. I resolved to keep a low profile, instead wandering down to a corridor window at the end of the car to watch the passing scenery. New York was pulling out all the stops for my departure, populating a cerulean sky with hundreds of marshmallow clouds over the Hudson river as we sped along the tracks, heading north into upstate New York.
My spirits, already lifted by the sight of those puffy little clouds, were brightened even further when I walked through another car in the direction of the dining car, and observed a second attendant, male this time, suffering passenger inquiries with even less patience and even more disdain than his colleague working in my car. Suppressing a few pangs of guilt, I rejoiced inwardly. It wasn’t just our car that was being brow-beaten, it was every car; this was modus operandi for the Lake Shore Limited. It was a shared experience; we were all in this together.
Entering the dining car was like breaching the walls of a parallel universe. I was greeted with a cheery smile and a welcome that made me want to hug the complete stranger who showed me to my table. The food and service was excellent and the atmosphere was wonderful, but I didn’t linger too long, because my dinner companion was the marrying kind. He had been married on several previous occasions, but was currently in between marriages… the dot dot dot was implied. I passed on coffee and excused myself graciously, wandering back to peer out the windows as the last tendrils of daylight let go their grip on the world and darkness prevailed.
The Lake Shore Limited takes its name from Lake Erie, whose shores the train tracks hug for a large portion of the journey. The train also skirts New York’s Finger Lakes and Lake Michigan. The description on Amtrak’s website speaks of ‘some of the prettiest shorelines of the USA’, continuing ‘You’ll travel along the south shore of Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, and the Erie Canal, following a famous Native American Highway.’ I’d like to add an addendum to the description, which is: “You will do all of this in complete darkness.”
Distant lights twinkling in the black of night are only interesting to watch for so long, so I left my spot in the corridor by the train window and ambled down to the lounge car which had been attached at Albany, along with several cars from Boston. I had overheard a lady asking about Wi-Fi connection earlier. She’d been told there would be Wi-Fi in the lounge car after the car was connected in Albany, so I figured I could while away a few hours online. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Amtrak does offer Wi-Fi on selected routes, but the Lake Shore Limited is not one of those routes.
The lounge car attendant slammed a coffee and sandwich on the counter, snatched the signed credit card receipt from my hand without even looking at me and walked off to chat with his co-workers. For the first time in my life, I thought about asking for the tip back. There were several other travellers huddled around the tables in the lounge, swapping stories about the rudeness they’d been witness to on the journey. A woman holding a sleeping baby sat facing a teenage boy at a table across the aisle from me. As we rocked and swayed along the tracks into the night, the boy took out a harmonica and started playing.
It was a beautiful, mournful wail in the dead of night, and as I listened, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were headed west along the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon… and not all of us were going to survive.
The long days leading up to my embarkation were taking their toll. My eyelids were heavy and my bones cried out for sleep so I headed back to my assigned seat. Try as I might, there was no position I could adopt in my seat that would allow me to drift off into blissful unawareness. I glanced over at the chap in the window seat, still sound asleep, and coveted whatever medication he had taken that had knocked him out so completely. It was useless. I headed back to the lounge car, now closed down for the night. Passengers getting on board along the way staggered into the lounge in search of coffee only to be told there was nothing open anywhere until 6am. It was going to be a long night.
The harmonica player struck up another aching tune and I gazed at the sign of the railway station we were pulling away from – Buffalo, New York. I checked my watch. It was 1am. I’d been on board almost 9 hours and we still hadn’t left New York state. Chicago seemed so very far away, and the thought of another two days and nights on a train to Seattle seemed suddenly bleak. Even if I survived the Lake Shore Limited, would I make it through the next leg of my journey on the Empire Builder?