Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chicago at Last!

With high expectations I boarded the train on Thursday night in Denver, heading for a final destination of New York City. The idea was to jump on at 7:50pm and arrive in Chicago at 3:30pm of Friday. I thought I could peek out of the station and maybe chat a few minutes with Rick Bayless at Topolobampo or at least catch a slice of Chicago pizza before my connecting train left for NYC at 9pm. The good news, first leg of the trip is completed, bad news, well read on.

Getting on the train in Denver is a piece of cake. I bought my tickets online and printed them out at the station at an electronic kiosk. When the California Zephyr, which was taking me to Chicago, came in, they opened the baggage area and I checked a bag. About 30 minutes before departure, they started loading. Very easy process and my wife was able to go out to the platform with me, so retro, right? Amtrak the conductor in the station assigns a car, not a seat. My car was about 30% filled so I had a nice couple of seats together to camp out in. I made myself at home and then did a little recon: There were about 4 coaches, 2 sleepers and a dinning car and lounge/observation car. The dinning car was taking reservations and the lounge car had a cafe where you could buy all sorts of drinks, sandwiches, and snacks. Cool.
The train pulled out on time, very promising! I watched a few minutes of "8 1/2" by Fellini on my laptop. There wasn't much to see out in the dark of Northeast Colorado except little lights in the distance, all reflected and magnified by the white snow fields. I finally decided to check out around 11pm. Trying to find the right position to sleep was challenging, I hadn't gotten the hang of it as had my more experienced train travelers. I slept in fits and starts, trying to keep warm and not hurt my back or neck. We stopped in Wiggins, CO to adjust the breaks. I took a quick walk around the car and took a look at how people were sleeping, ah ha! Now I got it. I went back to my seat, pulled up the leg rests of both seats and made a quasi-bed. I wrapped my head in my scarf and covered up with my overcoat; ready!

The rest of train ride was murky for me up to Omaha; I just remember jolts and crashes every so often. I peeked out of the window somewhere at 3-ish; we were stopped again, this time in the middle of nowhere. All I could think of was Dr. Zhivago looking out of his train as it stopped in the middle of the snowy Russian steppe. No, I wasn't about to get out and run into the forest as he did. Not only was there no big moon, there was no forest, just blackness beyond the blowing snow. I also, remember a stop in front of a massive "N" on it; bright red in the blowing snow. It was Lincoln at 5am; Corn Husker land. When I finally awoke it was 7:30 and we were pulling into Omaha. Again more intense blowing snow. Apparently we spent the night crashing through untrod snow-drifts on the tracks; ten below and 2 to 6 foot drifts! We had to keep stopping at night because the brakes were knocked about from time to time.

By the time we reached Omaha, the engine had taken a nice beating. It took a break and decided it was done. We lost power and so the train shut down at the station for 5 hours while they, first tried to fix it and finally had to replace it with a couple of freight engines. It was the gusting 50 mph and wind-chill was at 20 below with intense snow; I decided against exploring outside. I watched some more Fellini (tres a propos, btw), listened to some music, and slept some more. I didn't want to think about my 6 hour lay-over in Chicago as it was being squandered in Omaha. A reassuring crash at the front of the train signalled a successful coupling with the new engines, however, this was followed by an announcement that we weren't quite ready to go. The brakes had frozen, and it would take a few more minutes to get those operating. I'm thinking about now, "who needs breaks, lets just steam all the way to Chicago and let them wake up on the way". C'est la vie, non?
Left: One of two Heroes that got us moving.
The rest of the trip was much less eventful, if you can call sitting in place for 5 hours an "event". Just a beautiful world of white fields, white rivers, white trees, and sometimes just one big blowing white out. It reminded me of my first trip to NYC. It was a flight from Portland and we were also flying over a completely white mid-section of the country, arriving in Minneapolis to a blizzard and delays. This being my first train trip to NYC, I wouldn't expect less!
Amtrak was very gracious in providing for their guests. We were provided free snacks and later on a free meal in the Dinning Car. They brought on board a special agent to help everyone with their travel details. About 50 people on the train were missing connections, as was I. They set everyone up with a great hotel room in downtown Chicago, cash for taxis, and a free day in Chicago. Yeah, that last one is subjective. I expected 6 hours in Chicago, instead I got 24.

So, I've just had a wonderful night's rest, a good breakfast at the Homewood Suites on Grant Street in downtown Chicago and I'm getting ready to explore. It's 20 degrees and snowing out there....I'll let you know what I find.

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