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.