Planes, trains and automobiles
We are home!
Every other year, Jeanette and I make a pilgrimage to Colorado near Christmas to see friends and family. In years past, we drove – more than 3000 miles round trip – and we found that spending more than 18 hours in a car on the drive out left us stiff and sore. Jeanette, remembering her days as an Army brat in Europe and Korea suggested we try the train.
Ah, riding the rails! Sounds so romantic… watching the scenery pass us by as we zip across the country in relatively comfy recliners with the freedom to stand up and move around at will. Go grab a snack in the snack car without making a stop. Go to the bathroom, even.
The reality is a far cry from the dream, though.
The first leg of our trip was from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas to St. Louis, Missouri aboard a train called the Texas Eagle. We made it to the unattended station in plenty of time and then waited. And waited. The train was about 15 minutes late. This would not have been an issue, but we were scheduled to depart at around 1:40 am, so we were tired to begin with. But we still were in good spirits when the train pulled in, and, aside from having specially equipped iPhones to scan tickets instead of pocketwatches, the look and feel of the old time train conductors was preserved. This made me smile.
What didn’t make me smile was the service on this first leg. As we boarded, we were given seat assignments – not together. And, being very early in the morning (or very late at night depending on your point of view), finding a seat in the dark that was not in use by someone sprawled out and asleep was nigh on impossible. Jeanette was luckier than I. Her neighbor was awake playing a game on his phone. My seatmate was draped over the two seats and into the aisle and the porter had to wake her up so I could sit. Not sitting together meant not talking together, and it also meant not sleeping. We eventually went to the observation/club car, stepping over and around bodies laying everywhere, to try and talk and doze. And the snack car was closed until 6:30 am.
We arrived in St. Louis, Missouri with high hopes, though. Jeanette had been here for one of her National Association of Interpreter shindigs and was all ready to show me the sights – and we had an 8 hour layover. We made our way to the terminal only to find that there were no luggage lockers. There was no way to store carry-on bags (which was all we had – 2 each, plus a computer bag for me and a purse for Jeanette). I asked security and they said we had to keep it with us at all times – even if we were to go to the “conveniently” supplied charging stations which were along a wall with no seating anywhere nearby. So we got an overpriced, but tasty breakfast burrito and some coffee from the only open vendor in the station and sat down to wait in some of the most uncomfortable aluminum benches I have ever in my life had the displeasure of sitting in. We had, in a few short hours, gone from being happy and skippy and singing to being miserable and bedraggled and, for me, angry – we paid very good, hard-earned money for this important trip and we were being treated quite shabbily, I thought.
After fuming for a while and finishing my coffee, I walked over to the Amtrak counter to see if there were any alternative at all to waiting in those uncomfortable seats for another 8 hours. The attendant at the window was a ray of light breaking through a cloud! She said we didn’t have to wait here where there was nothing to do and no comfortable seats – we could switch our tickets around and travel to Kansas City, Missouri in about 45 minutes for no extra charge and that there was a lot more to do in Kansas City. Once there, we could also check our baggage to our destination! No more carry-ons! Wow! Needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity and, after a short wait, we were back on the rails, sitting together, in more comfortable seats. Things were looking up.
Kansas City, Missouri’s Union Station was very pretty, and they did let us check our bags, and there was a HUGE mall across the way we could spend some of our time in, but there was still a fly in the ointment: We were travelling on Christmas Eve and most of the stores were closing early and were staffed by people that wanted to be elsewhere. We ate at a very cute place that featured a train that delivered the food to the tables. The delivery was cute, the iced tea was great, the food was substandard. And the mall closed at 5:30 pm which left us with another 6 hours to wait. Said waiting to be done on immovable wooden church pews strategically placed just far enough from any outlet so as to make recharging a phone nigh on impossible. Jeanette managed to get comfortable by using her wool coat as a seat cushion and she sat and crocheted. I found a small slat bench and tried to use it as a cot next to an outlet so I could charge my phone while I tried to doze. Neither activity was terribly successful.
Around 11:30 pm, we finally got the call to board the train that would take us to La Junta, Colorado. We made our way with only one bag a piece to the train where the porter sized us up and assigned us seats at the front of an empty car (more leg room and quiet). Finally, after being awake and on the road and on the rails for more than 30 hours, we were able to sleep for a while…
Before we went to sleep on this last leg of the journey, I went and checked out the train. There was a snack car which would stay open for a while longer and I bought snacks. There was a dining car that would open up at 6:30 am local time – we did get a very nice breakfast seated with other travelers to conserve space as we crossed the time zone. During breakfast I did manage to unintentionally annoy our server by ordering two meals for myself. As if no one ever ate a big breakfast on a train. It didn’t just confuse her, but I overheard her manager asked her why a table of four had five meals. Hey, I was hungry!
During the night, Jeanette began to complain of back pain. Toting bags about the mall tweaked her back a bit. She took a pain killer that made her nauseous. Oh, joy…
We arrived in La Junta, Colorado on time and were greeted by many familiar sights, but not by our ride to Colorado Springs. One of the familiar sights was snow everywhere and it had delayed Jeanette’s parents. Again, there was a small ray of light breaking through the clouds as the La Junta Amtrak agent allowed me into their break room for some coffee. As if to offset that small glimmer in the gloom, we almost missed having our baggage offloaded – I was waiting at the unattended baggage counter while Jeanette went to find someone. And the luggage looked as though it had been strapped to the front of the train in that it was crusted with ice and snow. Fortunately, the remaining wait wasn’t long, and we were soon loaded into Dick and Judy’s warm and comfy Chevy Suburban for the trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Total time since waking up the day we began our trip: 45 hours!
I’d like to take some time to talk about how wonderful it is to visit with family and friends during the holidays. It IS wonderful, after all, but this is about the travel. I’m sure that Jeanette will write a much cheerier post about the actual visits at some point. Or I will. Someday. When I’ve recovered from the travel.
We used Dick and Judy’s wonderful Suburban with heated seats to travel from Colorado Springs to Craig, Colorado to visit with my parents. Kudos to Colorado Department of Transportation for keeping most all of the roads clear. I say most as Rabbit Ears pass into Steamboat Springs seems never to be clear, although it was certainly passable and I saw no accidents.
While in Craig, we stayed at the Elk Run Inn. This little motel in downtown Craig is smallish, but well appointed – each room has a full kitchen – and clean, reasonably priced, and warm. Warm is important as it was about -10 degrees outside. Um, er, sorry about the frozen hamburger I left in the freezer… I hope someone enjoyed it.
By now, however, Jeanette’s back was giving her huge amounts of problems. I had no idea how huge because she rarely complains. There had been no time to really relax and recover since she tweaked it while trying to wander around the mall in Kansas City, Missouri. Instead, there had just been more travel. I knew that she was hurting, though, because she was agreeing to take acetaminophen when she normally just takes aspirin.
The return trip to Colorado Springs by way of Denver was as uneventful as the trip out. The exception was our lunch stop in Dillon, Colorado. Jeanette’s brother Scott had suggested we try a place called SmashBurger. We were a bit dubious, thinking “what? another burger joint…” but we stopped anyways and, wow! I have to admit that, as I sat there eating what was probably the best burger served alongside rosemary garlic fries while Jeanette ate a spinach and goat cheese salad all delivered with near perfect presentation, I was actually excited about a burger joint. There are no SmashBurgers in Arkansas yet, but if you see one on your trip, stop and eat!
The great burger and return to Colorado Springs did nothing for Jeanette’s back, though, and we took her to the Urgent Express Care clinic in Colorado Springs. It was, for being a trip to the doctor, a pleasant enough experience. I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping that they would actually DO something and not just prescribe pills. However, all they did was prescribe pills. What’s more, I knew in advance exactly what they would prescribe. Sometimes I think modern medicine is all about pushing pills and has no concern whatsoever with treating the patient. So far, no one has stepped up to prove me wrong in a long, long, long time… That said, the pills seemed to help a bit.
Pills or no, there was no way I was going to subject Jeanette to a return trip by train. I had initially thought that we might get away with a return train trip if we could get a sleeper car and run straight through to Chicago and then a short hop to Walnut Ridge, but that would have required spending a full day in Chicago and cost another $400 besides! Amtrak was understanding enough, though, to refund 50% of the fare we had paid and I used that (plus about $100 more) to book two tickets on Delta Airlines from Colorado Springs Airport to Little Rock.
Returning to Arkansas by plane was smart. What took us 32 hours of travel time on the way out, took less than 8 hours on the way home. It cost a bit more money, but what’s a few bucks when compared to that kind of time and wear and tear? Learning from our mistakes, smarter. We’ll likely not travel long distances by train again, and had we booked earlier, the trip on the planes – pleasant to begin with – would have only been better (sitting right next to the engine on a DC-9 jet does nothing for conversation or your hearing). From now on we will fly or plan a nice, slow, leisurely drive.