Trains and more trains

Trains and more trains

Leaving Essex marked the beginning of my longest train ride of the trip: 31 hours (2 days and 1 night) between there and Chicago, followed by a 20 hour (overnight) ride between Chicago and New York City, with a 6 hour layover in between. The eastbound Empire Builder to Chicago was a completely full train, and I had been hoping for a window seat since I was in it for the long haul, but couldn’t make that happen off the bat. (The car attendants already hadn’t done a good job arranging people so that larger families boarding later could sit near each other, so there was no use trying to find a better seat.) Luckily for me, my initial seat partner got off the train the first day, so I was able to move to a window seat at night, and even though I got someone sitting next to me the next day, at least I was able to sleep relatively comfortably.

This was also the leg of even more new states! We passed through North Dakota and Wisconsin and I was able to get off the train in both states to take a picture, and in North Dakota, pick up a local newspaper. It’s been a 3 1/2 year-long wait to touch the ground in North Dakota (after having a short stopover there back in 2012), so being able to get off the train there was a great moment!

It was also a train ride that was a good reminder to always be looking out the window:

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Rugby, ND

My big lesson from this leg of the trip, though I learned it too late to help this time, was to take advantage of opportunities to get food different from what’s offered in the lounge car or the dining car! After two weeks of train travel and especially after three consecutive days of eating train food, it would have been super to be able to eat something different. But besides the Giordano’s pizza I snagged during my layover in Chicago, my meals during my 51-hour train ride consisted of diner car mac & cheese and cheeseburgers, and frozen microwaveable pizza from the lounge car. Going through eastern MT, there was an option to get a roasted chicken dinner from one of the stops, and though I declined because I wasn’t in the mood for chicken at the time, I now know that it’s a better idea to eat something different because by day 3, eating the same greasy meals for the 3rd, 4th time in the past 2 weeks was getting tiring.

This time in Chicago (unlike when I had a layover there westbound), I realized that I can store my bags in a locker at the train station instead of hauling them around the city with me. I did that, and then also decided to buy a day pass to the fancier lounge in the station (the Legacy Club), which includes free snacks, drinks, and coffee, WiFi, charging stations, TV access, a more private and stocked bathroom, and priority boarding onto the train. The main waiting areas for Amtrak trains in Union Station are crowded, with uncomfortable wooden benches to sit on and limited charging stations. The $20 pass to the Legacy Club was well worth it.

Knowing the stop in Chicago would be my only opportunity to ditch my bags and get some fresh air in 3 days, I ventured outside- maybe not my best decision! It had snowed and then started to melt, it was raining, and it was terribly windy (so bad that the wind actually bent the metal spokes of my umbrella), but I had my mind set on getting pizza and Giordano’s is only 3 blocks from the train station. And in the end, the trip was worth it- I got fried ravioli and a deep dish pizza for dinner, and a magnet and postcards as souvenirs from a drugstore along the way- but I returned to the train station with sopping wet feet as I hadn’t changed from sneakers to snow boots before going outside. Luckily I still had a few hours left to enjoy sitting in a comfy arm chair in the Legacy Club and enjoying my pizza, free hot chocolate and San Pellegrino, and watching TV.

And priority boarding out of Chicago was a great idea considering that the Lakeshore Limited is a single-decker train with, then, less storage space for baggage than the cross-country Superliners. I was glad to be able to store my bags where I wanted them without having to shuffle other people’s things around; and I got a seat near the front of the car, meaning that at the end of the ride I was able to get off the train near the front of the pack.

That ride was not quite the worst of my trip (remember my seat partner who would “rather have both seats to [her]self”?), but a lot of the passengers sitting around me were on the train because their flights to NYC had gotten canceled, and so were (a) annoyed and (b) very not prepared for the differences between air and train travel. And the particular family sitting right behind me entertained me with their complaints for the entire 20 hour ride. (‘Entertained’ used in a loose sense here…) I understand that some situations are unavoidable, especially in light of the winter weather hitting Chicago last week, but I still fail to understand how people can’t just suck it up sometimes.

Anyway…after a long long long time on trains, I made it back to the East coast- Penn Station, NYC! My ultimate options for that last leg were to end up in NYC or in Pittsburgh before heading home to NJ. I have rarely spent a night in NYC- it was usually a day trip from NJ- so even though I spent a weekend there last winter, I decided it was worth that being my end point since it’s difficult enough to get there from Pittsburgh otherwise.

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So, last stop: New York City…stay tuned!

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