Final FAQs by Courtney Mehlhaff

So, after chugging around the country for two weeks, what did I learn (besides the fact that you can't pump your own gas in Oregon)? Here are a few Frequent Amtrak Questions:

Would I do it again?

Yes. But I'd like to experience the relative luxury of a sleeper on trips that span more than one night.

Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently?

1.  Brought along a full-size blanket. My coat didn't quite cut it some nights.

2.  Brought along something to knock me out.

3.  Brought along something to knock that crying kid out.

4.  Not brought along a book about trains because I thought it'd be interesting. Turns out, once you're actually on one ... not so much.

5.  Loaded up an electronic device with movies. Once that sun goes down, and you can't see anything but your own reflection in the window, and they kill all the cabin lights so people can sleep, there are still several long hours to fill until daylight. Although this could have been avoided by #2.

6.  Spent more time at the beginning hanging out in the lounge car. It's the best way to break up a long stretch of track and meet new people.

7.  Taken more video at the beginning of the trip. This bright idea didn't dawn on me until after CA.

8.  Brought some cans of soda with me, since the cafe attendant will give you a glass with ice.

9.  Opted for more breakfasts in the dining car and never eaten anything from the cafe.

10.  Not said that hot dogs were "okay."

What were the best things you took with you?

A slim notebook, my iPod, my camera, a book light, granola bars, a travel pillow, PURELL, and a "roll with it" attitude.

Were things mostly the same on every train?

Nothing about Amtrak is standard, except for the super wet bathrooms and the semi-crappy food. Procedures vary widely, depending on where you are (and on the quality of the crew). Sometimes they check your ticket at the station, sometimes on the platform, sometimes on the train. Sometimes you get assigned a seat, sometimes not. Sometimes the car attendant comes by to place your destination ticket above your seat, sometimes you do it yourself. Sometimes the conductor tells you where you are or whether you're running on time ... most of the time not. Bottom line: you're pretty much on your own as far as information. Nobody's going to give it to you, you just have to go in search of it.

What surprised you the most?

The train was quieter than I expected, but bumpier. I can't tell you the number of people who made jokes about being drunk as they pitched to one side and staggered from car to car. Of course, some of these people were actually drunk.


Traveling on Amtrak is a bit old school. There's nothing high-tech about it. You're not riding on a bullet train, you're riding on a motel with wheels. But, if you have the time, it's usually cheaper than flying, you can check a ton of luggage for free, there's room to move around, and you certainly see a lot of America and meet (ahem) interesting people.

The most accurate comparison I can offer is that train travel is a bipolar experience. When it's bad (especially if you're tired or cranky or ... trapped) you feel like you're in hell. When it's good, you feel like you're the smartest person in the world for re-discovering this fantastic mode of transportation. At its best, it feels like a real adventure. But medication probably wouldn't hurt.

Day 13: The Empire Builder Strikes Back by Courtney Mehlhaff

Trip Leg #5: Chicago to St. Paul.  418 miles.  8 hours.

My very forgiving friend Deidra picked me up at close to 11:00 p.m. at the station, after numerous (and nebulous, since I had no accurate arrival info) text messages. We were supposed to have an entire day together to catch up, but since I got cheated out of eight hours while trapped on the Zephyr, we ended up with about an hour to chat before hitting the hay. However, we did drive past Millennium Park and Navy Pier and the Art Institute on our way to her condo. It was the quickie tour.

The next morning, I rode back into downtown with her. During this trip, she got pulled over and ticketed for having expired license tags. Thanks again, Chicago. I hardly knew ye. Since she works only four blocks from the station but had meetings all morning, I was turned loose in the city. However, I had nowhere to stash my bags, which limited me to staring up at big buildings, eating a leisurely lunch, and wandering around enormous Union Station to kill the few hours before my train.

2:00 p.m.  After being disappointed on every leg of the trip, I finally had Amish on board! I kept my ears tuned for Low German to see what I could pick up, courtesy of my grandparents.

2:15 p.m.  I realized this would be my first and only trip without an overnight. By this time, I felt like I could do eight hours standing on my head. Before pulling out of the station, I saw a monk in orange robes pause to take digital pictures of the train as he boarded. Who knew? They're tourists, too.

3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The guy across the aisle from me introduced himself as "Kay," a college student from Nigeria, and popped over for a conversation. When he learned I was an editor, he wanted opinions on his English skills. He also mentioned that he was considering moving to Minnesota because Michigan was too cold, which is like moving to the Sahara because Arizona is too hot. I issued the appropriate warning about local winters and considered my work done.

5:00 p.m.  I escaped to the lounge car to journal. During that time, the guy behind me said the following about train travel: "I used to fly airplanes. I've seen everything you can see from 30,000 feet, and let me tell you, it ain't this!" The fields were golden, the trees were red, I had a Mountain Dew and some honey roasted peanuts and only a few hours till home. It was heaven.

6:00 p.m.  Kay joined me at my table with the hot dog he'd just purchased. He asked me if I was going to eat, and I said no, I didn't have far to go, and I wasn't hungry. He then asked if I liked hot dogs, and I said, "They're okay." He disappeared briefly and returned with a hot dog and apple juice (what a combo) intended for me. A super nice gesture, but I really wasn't hungry and wasn't about to choke it down to be polite, so I told him I'd eat it later.

7:00 p.m.  In the course of our second conversation, Kay told me several interesting things. First, that I "look very serious" and like I "don't have many friends." Second, that I would look better without my glasses. Third, that I "look Chinese" in the picture he took of us. Okay. His intentions were good, but the execution could have used some work. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant hour working a word find book together until he got sleepy and I suggested we both return to our separate seats for some shuteye. Of course, I had to take the hot dog with me.

8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.  I pretended to be sound asleep to get some time to myself, since Kay had begun checking in with me for everything. At one point, as I headed downstairs to the bathroom, I heard a voice behind me: "Courtney, are you all right?" I turned to find him on the stairs looking concerned. Again, well intentioned and probably just a cultural difference, but clingy.

10:15 p.m.  That damn hot dog was still sitting on my tray table, and I kicked myself for not ditching it while Kay was napping, because he made a point to remind me not to waste it. So, when I got off the train in St. Paul, I had to zip the stupid thing into my bag to avoid looking ungrateful.

11:00 p.m.  Kay and I bid farewell, and I left with Christian, my late-night chauffeur. When he asked for the details of why I'd been hugging an African dude near the luggage return, I could only reply that it had been an interesting end to the trip. And I had a wiener in my backpack to prove it.

Stay tuned for the epilogue.

Day 12: More Revenge of the Zephyr by Courtney Mehlhaff

When last we left our intrepid traveler, the car attendant had eloquently estimated our arrival time as "ain't gonna be no 2:50." Shortly after that, the conductor announced that he couldn't even begin to make an accurate guess, so we were left to our own devices.

2:00 p.m.  I sat reading a book, while the guy behind me kept making threats on his cell phone. I gathered that he wanted his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend?) to send him money in Chicago, because he knew he would now be stuck there. Evidently she was being difficult, because he said this: "You better send me my money, or I'm gonna send my mama, my sister, and my baby mama over to your house!" He followed it with: "Bitch, I been on a train for two days! What the fuck you mean, 'What's wrong?'" But my favorite nugget of wisdom came from a conversation he had with a friend: "You know why I'm always gonna be alright? Cuz I'm a good n----, man. Yeah. I may not be where I wanna be, but I'm always gonna be alright."

3:00 p.m.  The conductor announced our arrival time as "7:00 at the earliest." I saw Jennifer and Tom's authentic American vacation adventure fall apart at the seams.

3:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.  We sat at a standstill in the middle of a cornfield ("like dummies," according to one lady) waiting for freight traffic, since we no longer had the right of way. I went to the lounge car because the kid was still screaming. You wouldn't think a kid could yell for 24 hours, but you'd be wrong. The noisy one was about 18 months, but his 3-year-old sister was also on board. The mom wedged them in next to the window and slept while they wailed. Periodically, a frazzled passenger would offer to walk them up the aisles or play with them, and she would apathetically nod while she continued to text on her phone.

6:00 p.m.  The mood in the lounge car took a dangerous turn when the cafe attendant announced that we'd run out of most food ... and booze. Add this to the fact that none of the smokers had had a break since 5 a.m., and you've got a semi-scary pit of frustration brewing on board. Everyone was angrily calling Amtrak to figure out what to do after missing their connecting trains, flights, hotel reservations, White House tours, etc. The skinny blonde makeout guy turned out to be a real smartass who basically tried to incite a riot. At one point, a random lady in the car yelled, "Oh, Lord, we gon' DIE on this train!"

6:30 p.m.  I chatted with a super awkward Asian dude who kept asking me weird ice-breaker questions. "So what would you say your most memorable college experience was?" I wondered if he was reading them off a prepared list.

7:00 p.m.  They announced they were feeding us all a complimentary meal in the dining car, so we all piled in for "chicken fricassee," which is short for cubed chicken ladled over rice. Plus apple juice. It was underwhelming but went a long way to quell some ugly attitudes.

8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.  We continued to crawl and stop, crawl and stop. The conductor gave up talking to us ages ago, apparently, and nobody would give us any clue about where we were or how much longer it would be. The car attendant's standard response became, "I got no idea, man. I own't know," which was helpful.

10:00 p.m.  I thought to myself, "I just want to get off this train before I hit menopause."

10:15 p.m.  We finally pulled into Union Station. Miraculously, the conductor managed to get on the intercom to announce this very obvious fact. The lack of communication was appalling. You know who had been communicating, though? The high-maintenance woman across the aisle and the cafe car attendant. They appeared to have made a love connection during our ordeal and exchanged numbers and plans to fricassee each other later that night.

10:30 p.m.  We all disembarked and walked down the length of the train while the driver of a luggage/passenger vehicle honked and yelled at us. It was quite the welcome to the Windy City.

Day 12: Revenge of the Zephyr by Courtney Mehlhaff

Trip Leg #4:  Denver to Chicago.  1,038 miles.  26 hours (give or take 8).

I should have known it was going to be a weird trip when there was a guy in the station wearing an old-fashioned top hat and a girl who loudly declared to anyone who would listen that she was "leaving a bad relationship" and had an arm in a sling to prove it.

This was again the California Zephyr, just the second half of the route. And, as it turns out, the awesome Zephyr's evil twin.

7:45 p.m.  Finally boarded after a brief delay and ended up sitting next to a not-unattractive guy who was unfortunately wearing strange, lederhosen-esque shorts. Surprisingly, he was not traveling with the two German guys who sat in the lounge car and talked at the top of their lungs, secure in the anonymity of a foreign language.

8:00 p.m.  There was already a little kid crying.

8:01 p.m. to midnight.  More crying.

12:01 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. Yep, still crying.

5:00 a.m.  We pulled into Omaha where, due to bridge construction ahead, everyone except the Chicago-bound people had to get off and board buses to their destinations in between. The conductor promised the rest of us "non-stop service" to Chicago, with the caveat that we were being rerouted to a Union Pacific line. This meant, of course, that we would need a Union Pacific locomotive and a Union Pacific engineer, so we sat stalled while these changes took place for a good two hours. I stared out my window with sleepy eyes at a skinny blonde dude and his girlfriend, who engaged in an hour-long, intermittent makeout session during their farewells.

7:00 a.m.  It was about this time that the high-maintenance chick sitting across the aisle from me snapped, having been forced to listen to yet another terrible snorer behind us. She stood up and yelled, "Who's DOING that? Shut UP!" Uh, newsflash, genius: when people are snoring, that usually means they're asleep, and therefore unable to hear you.

8:00 a.m.  I headed to the dining car for breakfast and got seated with Jennifer and Tom from Manchester. (I know what you're thinking. Was Amtrak just an international cavalcade of fun? Yes. Yes, it was.) Oh, plus Nancy from Madison, Wisconsin. We had a very pleasant conversation, during which Tom actually used the word "gobsmacked" and Jennifer instructed me on how to travel cheaply in London, Italy, and Venice. They'd started their trip in San Francisco and were off to New York before heading home on the Queen Mary.

9:00 a.m. to noon.  I napped a bit but still managed to overhear the man behind me state that "Ain't no white person in their right mind," and that he wanted to "slap erry one of 'em." Another woman behind me was hacking so loudly that I was convinced she had black lung and needed immediate medical attention. During this period, we were stopping about every 10 minutes waiting for maintenance crews to get off the track.

12:15 p.m.  Did I mention that the kid was still crying?

12:30 p.m.  When someone asked the car attendant how far behind schedule we were, he simply replied, "I on't know. But it ain't gonna be no 2:50." You, sir, are a prophet.

To be continued.

Days 10-11: Denver by Courtney Mehlhaff

When my train pulled in to Denver at about 6:30, I was disappointed to find that the regular Union Station (a glorious, cavernous, picturesque piece of history) was under construction. Thus, we were re-routed to a small cinderblock "station" nearby that was as small as it was sad.

As I stepped onto the street, my cow-eyed lounge car companion, my burly seatmate, and two other (more outgoing) Australians had formed a posse that was determined to find a liquor store and stock up, even though it's illegal to bring your own booze onto a train and/or drink it in your seat. I wished them luck in their quest, doubting they would make it back in time but hopeful for the fortunes of the nearest long-range taxi driver.

My friend Katie picked me up and we drove about an hour to Colorado Springs, where she lives and works as a photo archivist at a library. I mention her profession only because it has endowed her with a wealth of knowledge about the area, meaning that I essentially had my own personal historical guide. Here are some highlights from my visit.

Garden of the Gods.  We strolled through this beautiful park at the foot of Pikes Peak, getting some sun and watching several novice rock climbers panic in their attempts to scale the huge red boulders scattered about.

Manitou Springs.  We spent the majority of our time in this cute, touristy town at the Penny Arcade, where I put a penny in a machine reading "Advice for Single Women," and it told me to "Try Necking." Point taken. We then got hooked on an old horse-racing game with a skee ball theme, and I hit a hot streak that resulted in 70 points, which got converted into a hot pink shot glass with a tikki theme. Item of note: as we walked past some squat buildings on the main street, Katie pointed out that they used to be TB huts back in the day. I remarked that if I had a business in one of them, I'd make it a train store and call it Consumption Junction. Without missing a beat, Katie replied that she'd have a restaurant called Conspicuous Consumption. Advantage: Katie.

The Olympic Training Center.  We arrived just before the free tour started, which began with a very patriotic 15-minute video montage of Americans kicking ass. It ended with a personal tour of the facility by an aspiring Olympic athlete, in this case a 90-lb. female weightlifter who admitted in Tonya Harding-like fashion that there was "one girl ahead of her" that she "had to get rid of" before she'd make it to London in 2012. Do tell!

The DAM.  We spent most of Sunday at the Denver Art Museum, which was fantastic. Downtown Denver is quite inviting. After stopping for a lovely lunch at a pub, getting yet another ice cream (Josh and John, meet Little Man!), and taking a walk along the river in the gorgeous late afternoon light, it was time to ride the rails once again.

Little did I know that my trip from Denver to Chicago would go horribly, hilariously wrong.

Day 9: More California Zephyr by Courtney Mehlhaff

So, let's start with Marla. An ex-military, very experienced train traveler who had personal stories about every conceivable scenario involving Amtrak, including the time she stepped off at a smoke stop and the train left without her. The solution? Hiring a taxi driver to race the train to its next destination. She also doodled like crazy on any scrap of paper she could find. After learning that she was taking classes in both welding and tai chi, I dubbed her a real renaissance woman.

Rhonda was a lesson in not prejudging people. With her quiet, sweet demeanor and denim dress/turtleneck combination, I pegged her for a bit of a homebody. Wrong. Turns out she's a nurse who used to do mission work and has traveled pretty much everywhere in the world. I knew I was in a whole new league when her sentences began starting with, "When we were at Machu Picchu. . . when we were in Nairobi . . . when we were in Moscow . . . Denmark, China,"etc. Fascinating.

The three of us sat the entire day trading stories and laughs, listening to the guys behind us reminisce about Nam and the competitive, beer-fueled cribbage game unfolding across the way, all while winding slowly through mountains and over rocky streams. As the sun set over Nevada, our background music was a guy in the lounge car leisurely plucking around on a ukelele. Perfect.

8:00 a.m.  Went to the dining car to sample an Amtrak breakfast, which is really the best deal. A word about train food: it's not bad, but it's not great. The dining car offerings are better than the pre-packaged, probably-would-survive-a-nuclear-blast cafe car options, so I felt okay paying $10 for pancakes, OJ, and coffee. At this particular repast, I was seated with Charles and Nina, retirees from CA who were in love with Utah rock formations and headed to Denver for a wedding. We were joined by John, an older, self-proclaimed "jack of all trades" who "spent a sabbatical as a cowboy" and had strong opinions about everything. He started his monologue with, "There's two things you need to know about hearing aids," and you can take it from there. The background music at breakfast was a huge group of rowdy French people jabbering loudly over their meal.

9:00 a.m.  Marla and Rhonda found me in the lounge car for a grand reunion, and we spent another pleasant few hours chatting until their stop at Glenwood Springs, CO. Before departing, they each went down to take a picture of the cafe car attendant, who amused us the entire trip by ending her announcements with a whisper. As in, "Attention passengers, the cafe car will be closing in five minutes." It was creepy and hilarious. When asked why she did it, she replied that she just likes to see who's listening, and when the ladies snapped her photo, she put one finger to her lips.

1:00 p.m.  After a brief stop back at my seat (I'd barely been there the whole trip, and I'm pretty sure the burly dude next to me was happy to have the room), I returned to the observation car, where I continued to hone my photography skills. Here are some common enemies of good train pictures: dirty windows, tunnels, sudden walls of rock, passing trains, sudden curves in the track, speed blur, rogue trees, blinding sunlight, and old-fashioned window glare. For the most part, I gave up and just started taking video, but I snapped a few good ones here and there.

3:00 p.m.  A girl in her 20s sat down across from me and struck up a conversation. She was on her way from Berkeley to Chicago to start a journalism job and wanted some tips for visiting Minneapolis this winter. She also went gaga over a field of cows and wanted her picture taken with them in the background. What I said: "Sure!" What I was thinking: "You need to get out more." As we chugged higher into the hills surrounded by nothing but rugged crags of rock, she asked excitedly whether we might see more cows soon. What I said: "I think we'd probably need pasture land for that." What I was thinking: "You know cows aren't mountain goats, right?"

Somewhere during that afternoon, we passed through the Moffat Tunnel, which is 6.2 miles long. By this time, we'd been through so many tunnels that they didn't bother me too much, but the combination of exhaust seeping into the cars (because it has nowhere else to go) and knowing that we were hurtling directly through a mountain made the 15 minutes of total darkness slightly unnerving. However, at the other end of that tunnel lay Denver, the third city on my journey.

Day 8: The California Zephyr by Courtney Mehlhaff

Trip Leg #3:  Emeryville, CA to Denver, CO.  1,400 miles.  33 hours.

Elaine graciously drove me to Emeryville at the ass crack of dawn so I didn't have to spend a night at a hotel (and leave Monterey a day early). So, after getting stuck in Oakland traffic, taking a wrong turn, and desperately hailing random passersby to locate the station, I miraculously made my 9 a.m. train. Yes, the California Zephyr, easily the most scenic, entertaining, and all-around fun portion of the entire trip, due largely to the fact that everyone on the crew was a complete character.

10:00 a.m.  The conductor, a gregarious (and slightly mischievous) man in his 50s, stops by my seat. He's holding the ticket that the car attendant ripped out of my booklet, and he says, "You're going the wrong way." I briefly have a mini heart attack, and then look more closely. The attendant accidentally ripped out my ticket from Denver to Chicago. The conductor laughs and apologizes and I give him the correct ticket. A few minutes later, I realize that I'm also missing my ticket from Chicago to Minneapolis, so I flag him down again. He promises to find it and then find me.

12:00 p.m.  I head to the dining car for lunch and get seated with two Australians who whisper mysteriously to each other rather than making small talk. Seated next to me is Steve, who used to be an architect and then worked for American Airlines, and who now travels to Sydney several times a year to visit his best friend, a woman he met on a boat to Santorini, Greece. The Aussies warmed right up to Steve, even though I should have had dibs, since he and I soon discovered that we were actually related. I shit you not.

I should mention that, for the first segment of this trip, there was a guy on board giving a running commentary about local landmarks and historical information over the PA system. When he remarked that a certain river had been important during the gold rush, the Australian woman leaned over to her husband and asked, "Are we in Deadwood?" He replied, "No, that's in South Dakota." Seeing my opportunity, I said, "I'm from South Dakota, and I've been to Deadwood." Shocked, the woman gasped, "You HAVE? What's it like?" I'm not sure if she was expecting me to tell her I knew Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen personally, but she seemed a bit disappointed when I replied that it was mostly gambling and tourists.

1:00 p.m.  I grab a seat in the lounge car and journal a bit, until I'm interrupted by the conductor, who has tracked me down again. He slides in next to me and says, "We really should get to know each other if we're going to keep meeting like this. I'm Paul." He hands me my ticket from Chicago to Minneapolis, laughs, grabs my hand, and kisses it gallantly.

2:00 p.m.  I'm joined at my table by Marla and Rhonda, two older ladies who (unbeknownst to me) are going to make the next six or seven hours one of the most enjoyable days I could ask for.

To be continued.

Days 5-7: Monterey by Courtney Mehlhaff

When my cousin picked me up at the tiny but adorable train station in Salinas, I issued the standard apology for my appearance: rumpled, greasy, and red-eyed from yet another sleepless night. Somehow, my friends and relatives always managed to hug me upon arrival, bless their hearts.

About 25 minutes from Salinas, Elaine lives right on the beach in Monterey Bay. In addition to the pure joy of falling asleep each night to the sound of gentle waves, here are some highlights of my time in California.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I spent a fascinating afternoon wandering around this amazing complex, during which time I touched a manta ray, sea cucumber, starfish, and crab; saw a great white shark; got mesmerized by tank after tank of jellyfish; and toured an exhibit called "The Secret Lives of Seahorses." Turns out an aquarium is a fantastic place to visit all by yourself, since you can linger as you choose.

Fisherman's Wharf.  As quickly became our habit, Elaine and I took her dog for a long walk down the beach before dinner. One night we ended up strolling around the wharf, which was touristy but very charming. The sun set on our walk back, leading to some great pictures.

Big Sur.  We took an afternoon to drive down Highway 1, during which time I saw breathtaking views but also thought I was going to die repeatedly. If you're not familiar with this particular stretch of road, it's narrow and winding and hugs the cliffs next to sheer drop-offs (with no guardrails) into the pounding surf below. Don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous, and we had absolutely perfect weather, but I was just as happy when we turned around.

Ventana.  On our drive back to Monterey, we stopped at this beautiful place perched high on a hillside and had one of the tastiest, most relaxing lunches ever.

Carmel.  We also took a leisurely drive through this lovely area. I decided that, in addition to my vacation home in Cannon Beach, I wouldn't mind having a little place here as well.

Sidenote: Elaine told me that, when her brother visited her, they happened to run into Clint Eastwood. When her sister visited her, they ran into him again. However, during my stay, there were no celebrity encounters. Evidently the Eastwood Rule applies only to immediate family.

Again, I was blessed with quite possibly the nicest few days of weather this particular city had to offer. And, as I roamed the beach watching people leisurely toss sticks to their dogs and frolick with their children in the water, it occurred to me that I might be similarly chill if I, too, never had to worry about staying warm.

Day 4: The Coast Starlight by Courtney Mehlhaff

Trip Leg #2: Portland to Salinas, CA.  834 miles.  21 hours.

First, it should be said that Portland has a proper, old-fashioned train depot, unlike the remodeled warehouse in St. Paul. Second, it should be said that you really need to check the inebriation level of the stranger you choose to chat up while waiting in line at said station.

When I got there, they had already called my train for ticket check-in, or at least that's what I assumed. To verify this guess, I asked the guy in front of me, who quickly revealed himself to be sipping grain alcohol from a 20-oz. bottle of Sprite. I won't bore you with all the details of this conversation, but here's a highlight. At one point, he turned and bumped my bag with his. When he apologized, I replied, "Oh, you're fine." He smiled goofily and slurred, "I am? Wow! You sure know how to compliment a guy." Ba-dum ching!

After boarding, I managed to snag a window seat, but I was soon joined by a seatmate. He seemed like a nice enough guy but, as I wrote in my journal, "I think he thinks I'm a dude." He called me "sir" twice, even after we spoke and I told him my name. Not the best way to start off, buddy.

7:30 p.m.  Miracle of miracles, the dining car steward on this train was not a myth, and I got a dinner reservation. I trekked down there at the appointed time and was seated with Phyllis, an older woman who took the train eight times a year to see her grandkids in Eugene. Also seated with us were Charlotte and Stefan, who thought they'd been best friends forever since they met when they were 16 and were now the ripe old age of 22. Stefan was an ambiguous bearded dude with a ponytail and the smallest hands I've ever seen on a man. Charlotte was his polar opposite, a very cheerful, very big girl who tucked into her BBQ ribs with an enthusiasm rarely seen outside the wild. In the course of our meal, Stefan told us that he throws a dinner party every month at the full moon and stated that he refuses to learn American Sign Language because it's "fundamentally flawed."

Note to self:  When you first head to the dining/lounge cars, make sure to count the cars in between. Otherwise, you might get confused when you try to return to your seat, especially in the dark. Ahem.

9:00 p.m.  Found my seat, thankful to be alone. My seatmate happened to sit behind me at dinner and proved to be quite loud and obnoxious. He ranted to his fellow college-age dining companions that "Facebook is changing societal interactions! That's my theory, I just don't have all the evidence to prove it yet." Uh ... newsflash ... that's not a newsflash. But I have one for you ... I'm a chick.

10:00 p.m.  I think those bastards in the sleepers got to watch a movie in their exclusive parlor car. Well, la dee frickin' da!

2:00 a.m.  Dozed fitfully until I was forced to wake Mr. Facebook so I could slip out to the bathroom. Upon returning, I forgot to duck and cracked my head on the luggage rack. I guess if you don't have Ambien, an actual knockout might do the trick.

Another note to self, regarding bathroom awareness: If you make sure the toilet lid is up before you sit down, you won't have to gasp in horror and then cover your ass in Purell.

11:40 a.m. I arrive in Salinas!

Days 2 and 3: Portland by Courtney Mehlhaff

Ahh, Portland. The current home of my friend Tara, whom I'd first met while we were teaching in Japan and then roomed with for two years in St. Paul. Originally, the plan was for another friend from Japan to come down from Vancouver and have a 10-year reunion (our "Japanniversary," if you will). However, travel bookings didn't quite work out, so it was just the two of us.

Since I was staying with Tara, part of our weekend involved yet another mini-reunion. Namely, I was reunited with her cat, who used to delight in hiding beneath my bed, waiting until I dropped off to sleep, and then exploding in a ball of deranged fur. Although she'd slowed down a bit in the last seven years, she now had a feline friend as a partner in crime. Long story short, one morning I woke at 6 a.m. to see two cats leaping at my face. I mean literally mid-air, flying toward my head. I screamed, they screeched, and I knew I was home.

Portland was probably the most surprising city on my trip, mainly because I'd never associated it with beaches and surfers. I was prepared for the laid-back hippie vibe, even for the fact that everyone who's anyone has a dog. I wasn't prepared for the rugged natural beauty. We checked out Bridal Veil Falls and Multnomah Falls at the Columbia River Gorge on Friday afternoon, then hit the coast all day Saturday, including Oswald West State Park and Ecola State Park. And we topped off our time in the sun and sand with possibly the best chicken tikka masala I've ever had.

Just when I was starting to think I could go granola pretty fast, it started raining. Yes, while gallivanting around the Northwest, I'd been blessed with some of the nicest weather you could ask for. That's when reality set in. It didn't completely dampen our spirits as we stopped by the Saturday Market (on a Sunday), and met a guy selling beautiful photos who was originally from Apple Valley, MN. It also didn't ruin a brief trip to Powell's Books, the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. When we stepped in the front door, Tara said, "Okay, the first thing we'll need to do is get you a map." And I knew I was home.

But, unfortunately, the sweet siren song of "All aboard!" was calling me onward. (By the way, nobody actually yells that at train stations, although it would be fantastic if they did). So I bid adieu to Oregon, having gained a secret desire to one day buy a vacation home in Cannon Beach, a picturesque little ocean-side town that sells saltwater taffy and has a store devoted entirely to kites. Because, really, what more do you need?

Still Day 1: It's Neverending, Remember? by Courtney Mehlhaff

Following my homicide-related discussion with mustachioed (and nervous) Steve in the lounge car, I returned to my seat. This is what followed:

7:45 p.m.  The mountains of Glacier Park are visible in the distance. Finally, spectacular scenery!

8:00 p.m.  Total darkness. Mountains, you're such a tease.

9:00 p.m.  I reluctantly settle in for another attempt at sleep. No such luck. Thus, I am awake for ...

2:00 a.m.  We switch locomotives in Spokane. The front part of the train continues to Seattle, including the dining car (and, I'm guessing, the apparition that is Megan) while the rear cars get hitched anew and go south to Portland. Of course, nobody actually tells us this is what's happening, since no general announcements are made after 10 p.m. Suddenly the lights and ventilation system shut down, but the heat stays on, and we sit there for an hour. My car is sweltering and filled with several professional-grade snorers. Sally Chainsaw is across from me. I consider smothering her but don't want to give up my pillow.

3:00 a.m.  Moving again. Have discovered that passing other trains in the night is terrifying.

5:00 a.m.  As we prepare to make a stop, I hear this rather personal query come over the PA system, "Jeff, do you have three for Bingen and any disabilities?"

5:15 a.m.  The lady in front of me says, "It sure feels like we've been on this train longer than 24 hours." Amen.

6:00 a.m.  Have I mentioned that snoring champ Sally Chainsaw has her 3-year-old son with her? His name is Tripp (I know this because she scolds him about 500 times). He's cute as a button and has red hair, but I grow to believe this is because he's the devil. 

7:30 a.m.  We begin winding along a beautiful river at sunrise, featuring high bluffs studded with pines, a huge snow-capped mountain, logging operations, fishermen, and orchards. It's almost enough to distract me from the moment when Tripp whacks his mother really hard in the back, and in response, she smacks him and says, "Hurts, doesn't it." Awesome.

8:00 a.m.  I make a final visit to what are now fully disgusting bathrooms. This particular crew does not particularly pride itself on maintenance. (Some trains and staff are better than others). The one I choose actually puts the "pubic" in public restroom. Nothing like damp toilet paper to start your day.

9:00 a.m.  I finally start to believe that I may someday get off the 27 Empire Builder. I'd almost forgotten about the rest of my vacation.

10:20 a.m.  I arrive in Portland!

Day 1: Neverending North Dakota by Courtney Mehlhaff

Trip Leg #1: Minneapolis to Portland, OR.  1,837 miles.  37 hours.

I left Minneapolis at about 11 p.m. on Wednesday, September 21st. Because I was leaving at night, and evidently because I had no accurate concept of how fast a train actually travels (note: about 50 mph), I hoped I'd wake the next morning to find that I'd missed most of North Dakota.

I was wrong on two counts, the first being that I'd need to "wake up," since I quickly found myself unable to manage more than 40 winks at a crack in my coach class seat. I read a book before leaving that compared sleeping in coach to "falling asleep in your favorite recliner." That, to be perfectly honest, is outright bullshit. Although you do have quite a bit more legroom than in an airplane, it's not enough to stretch out completely (at least if you're 5'10"). You also have the added complications of the train's sometimes jostled movement, and occasionally a large, fidgety, snoring person pressed right against your elbow.

So let's just frame it in a positive light and say that, due to circumstances beyond my bank account's ability to buy me a sleeper, I unintentionally saw more sunrises than I've seen in years.

But back to North Dakota, which was still there, in all its glory, when the sun finally began to filter through the windows the next morning. In fact, it was almost impossible to tell when we crossed from ND to Montana, because it was like driving through one big, endless farm. While I'm sure the scenery was delightful to some, this South Dakota girl was unimpressed. So I tried to amuse myself by keeping a running log of things I saw and heard in the first stretch of this very long haul.

8:30 a.m.  Saw a donkey in a field with cows. That's new.

8:45 a.m.  Woman up front declares that "Susie takes four ibuprofen at once. At once!" and "That's not right."

11:00 a.m.  Lady behind me announces, "If we'd have flown, we'd have been there hours ago."

11:30 a.m.  I finally figure out that my seat has a flip-up footrest. That would have been helpful.

12:30 p.m.  See both an oil rig and an actual cowboy on a horse. We are definitely West River.

1:30 p.m.  The guy up front has a cell phone ring that's a whinnying horse. He gets approximately 50 calls, during which he always drops the bomb that he's "not at work," he's on his way to Oregon. Has he really not told anyone he's going on vacation?

2:00 p.m.  Passed through Frazer, MT, whose mascot is the "Bearcubs." Such a cuddly team. Just kick our asses, why don't you.

2:10 p.m.  Just had to set my watch back an hour. Make that 1:10. Shit.

2:30 p.m.  Everyone got warned that opening outside doors is a federal offense. Found out from the dude behind me that some drunken passengers decided they needed a cigarette and almost got thrown off the train. Then his wife admitted she used ice in her drink that had fallen on the floor. Huh.

2:45 p.m.  Saw a junkyard with a sign reading "Beware of Snakes." Used to be dogs were enough to keep people out. They aren't effing around out here.

3:00 p.m.  Just learned that the "event" they've been announcing for sleeping car passengers in the dining car is a wine and cheese tasting. Not too jealous. If their "wine" and "cheese" is anything like their "muffins" and "donut holes," I don't think I'm missing much.

3:30 p.m.  Passed through Chinook, MT, whose mascot is the "Sugar Beeters." Not a lot of fight in these Western sports teams.

4:00 p.m.  We stop in Havre, MT. I stay in my seat, waiting for Megan from the dining car to come through and take reservations for dinner. When she never materializes, a couple other ladies go to investigate. Megan claims she walked through and nobody wanted dinner (a lie), but it doesn't matter because the dining car is now completely booked. I hate Megan.

5:45 p.m.  I go to the lower level "cafe" in the lounge car to get a terrible nuked BBQ chicken sandwich, chips, and a pop for dinner, which I eat while listening to Megan's disembodied voice call people with reservations to the dining car. I'm starting to suspect she doesn't actually exist.

6:00 p.m.  I'm reading the paper when I'm joined at my table by Joyce and Steve and semi-drunken Chris. Steve thinks Joyce is going to kill him if they miss their connection in Chicago. I laugh, but then he leans in a little too seriously and tells me to watch the papers for the murder.

To be continued.

An Introduction by Courtney Mehlhaff

Sometime during the spring of this year, I decided to take a cross-country train trip. Why, you ask?

1.  I work too much and had vacation to burn.

2.  I hate to fly.

3.  I hadn't seen much of America (I'd never been west of the Black Hills, actually).

4.  A friend of mine took a successful 30-day trip a few years ago and recommended it.

5.  It was only $389 for a 15-day rail pass (coach class).

But mainly, it had been ten years since I taught in Japan, and it was simply time for another adventure. So I checked the Amtrak routes and then reached out to people in cities along the way: a former roommate in Portland, a cousin in Monterey, a former coworker in Denver, and a college buddy in Chicago. One big loop.

I also decided to take the trip solo, primarily because it was a large chunk of time to take off work, but also because there was the remote possibility that my chosen mode of transportation would completely suck, and I didn't want to spend my vacation worrying whether my traveling companion was comfortable or having a good time. Plus, I knew being alone would force me to be more social.

I'd never been to any of the places I was going, and I hadn't seen any of the people I was visiting in several years. I had absolutely no agenda for anything beyond experiencing the train, seeing some country, and spending some quality down-time with cool people.

There were a great many unknowns going into the trip, but one thing was for sure: I was going to cover 5,527 miles in 14 days. Little did I know that, along the way, I would get kissed by a conductor, survive a passenger revolt, Purell my own ass, and nearly be force-fed a hot dog by a Nigerian.

For these stories and many more, please keep tuning in!