A few days before taking the train from Chicago to New York City I panicked a bit and looked into booking a room. The room would have cost an extra $500. Ouch. I also tried using my meager media connections. A definite no-go.
So we stuck with the original plan and left our Edison Park home with three backpacks (mine ridiculously huge and weighing in at close to thirty pounds), a wheeled suitcase, and a small cooler also on wheels. We also each carried pillows, had jackets tired around our waste, and gripped an odd assortments of stuff we grabbed at the last moment as we headed out the door. What I imagined was us walking to the Metra train station in a carefree manner, waving to the neighbors as we marched toward Iceland via the Edison Park Metra Stop, Union Station, Penn Station, and then LaGuardia.
Instead we lumbered along at a snail pace dropping items along the way which resulted in Keystone Cop antics (I bend over to pick something up and in the process swing into Corey who then steps on Henna’s foot and yells at me). Waiting for that first train I had my first bout of backpack envy as the woman standing next to us had a small, perfectly contained one. She was headed to Antarctica (probably not, but she was the first of many people whom we met with minimal backpacks, clean clothes, and a smile headed out for a delightful jaunt somewhere far away).
For the twenty minute Metra ride we mostly had the car ourselves. We also met a nice Metra employee with a deep southern accent. It was like his second or third day on the job (and by his polite manners probably his first hour in Chicago). He was a great help to us later in getting off the train which bruised my ego but was also greatly appreciated. Outside the Ogilvie train station we looked lost and vulnerable and had only a vague sense of where to go. A panhandler approached us, told, without us asking, which door we needed to reach (a good three large city blocks away) and then asked me for a dollar. With my backpack snug, my hands filled, and worried about cars whizzing by I could not reach into my pocket to get that dollar.
At the end of Union Station there is a door with a small sign for Amtrak. One advantage of taking the train is that each passenger is allowed two carry-on bags up to fifty pounds each. You also are allowed to check, free of charge, another two bags (again, up to fifty pounds), as well as two additional bags at $20 a pop. So the three of us could have checked close to a ton of luggage for only $120. Waiting to check our backpacks (which we actually did not have to do) we saw families seemingly moving the entire contents of their apartments across country with humorless bureaucrats tagging it to go (I say humorless because they never smiled or really acknowledged anyone they processed and for us they reprimanded us for not knotting our straps then groaned when hoisting our backpacks to the conveyor belt).
The waiting room is filthy and disorganized. A few vending machines, not a lot of information given, and then confused shouted directions asking people to enter another room. Train travel is a popular option for the Amish and sitting with us where several generations with a few teenage girls, infants on their laps, staring intently at us. Everyone had really cool worn down luggage from an era far past ours. Dressed in heavy clothes a few had obviously not bathed in some time and we shifted away from them. Later we avoided sitting with them on the train and sometimes had to hold our breath when walking past them in their train car.
On the train you have large seats with comfortable leg room and outlets. No wifi on our train but most do offer free wireless. The train left on time and a few minute later the snack room was open. This room, one of a few set aside for dining, was one of my first disappointments in the trip. What I imagined: Humphrey Bogart serving drinks at a bar, the patrons with felt hats, a lot of miles under the belts, and a few stories told with gin and tonics. What it was: a no-frills kiosk with a microwave for heating up hamburgers or popcorn tended by a tired woman who became a lot friendlier after we tipped her. There were only a few tables we could sit at and some were filled with Amtrak personal maybe on break (or maybe they were working, who knows). We tiptoed back to our seats and had our drinks. Later I walked back to fetch a second round.
Outside the scenery was industrial and ugly. I had both seats to myself and slept curled up in a ball. I woke frequently and noted things like two men drinking beer both standing behind pickup trucks in a parking lot. In the early morning light I woke up for good outside Cleveland. Corey and Henna slept a little better with their heads touching each other. From Cleveland to New York City the scenery improved to quit woods and sleepy towns with the more spectacular mountain scenery a good ways north and unseen.
In the morning we made friends at the snack room. There were a group of step-cousins traveling west to east then back again with stops at the Grand Canyon and other places. Most of their trip was consumed by the train and by the time we met them they were like hoboes. They had hoped to spend a few hours in Chicago but an earlier breakdown meant a change in plans and they never left Union Station. We also met a worldly gentleman from many places but more recently Vermont (Grayson) who entertained us with bad jokes and better stories including some involving famous writers. Everyone on board was killing time and together the train was a fun pursuit (favorite highlight was us playing poker with wadded up napkin crumbs for money; Henna took us for all the napkins we had). Two Amish teenage boys hung out in the snack room as well and patiently answered questions about their lifestyle while surfing the net on borrowed smart phones (they mostly looked up pictures). Other interesting people met or observed at a distance included an older African American with a cowboy hat and his arm in a sling. Talking to the person next to him (a middle age man with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Shirt not worn ironically) he described how the horse he was caring for became jealous when he reached down to pet a dog which resulted in an injured arm. Later I heard him on his phone reassuring someone that his arm was fine and that he could still do the job.
The food in the more affordable snack car is as good as it is packaged. Per Corey and Henna the microwave chicken and veggie sandwiches were disgusting. But the microwaved pizza tasted as good as any other microwave pizza. The coffee was brewed well, the bagged pretzels were fine and cold pop is cold pop. In the dining room (whose food is included in the cost of a sleeper car) the grub looked to be of a slightly higher quality.
Our train broke down somewhere in upstate New York. Amtrak trains do that a lot. Or they have to pull over for freight trains (Amtrak leases the rails and must give way to other commerce). Or maybe there is an issue on the line. Or maybe they just want to rest the train for a bit. Besides breaking down the trains look their multi-decade age. For example, each car has a different temperature with some ice cold and others a sauna. One person I met complained that in his sleeper car the air conked out leaving him miserable. For our breakdown very little information was given and it lasted for more than an hour.
Miraculously our train was only about ninety minutes delayed. All our checked luggage was returned to us (in a kind of ceremony with the workers laying out our bags behind a curtain then revealing it all at once as if they were for sale). Through our deft use of Amtrak points (most of which were gained by opening a charge card) the trip cost us less than fifty bucks not including what we purchased on board. Tickets purchased well in advance would have been about $100 a piece and also fully refundable up to a few days before departure. If you have the time and do not mind a bit of discomfort then traveling Amtrak is a good option over flying. For all our grumbling we are already planning future Amtrak trips out west. We just do not expect to be on time.