Journey: Amtrak’s Silver Star

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Orlando, Florida to Alexandria, Virginia – 934 miles

Coach class on the Silver Service trains uses single-level Amfleet cars, so the view isn’t quite as good as on the double-decker Superliner cars on some of the long-distance routes but it was still a lot of fun and I spent pretty much the whole 18-hour trip just staring out the window.  The Silver Star and Silver Meteor use the same tracks for the most part except that the Star swings west to hit Columbia and Raleigh, while the meteor takes a more direct route through Charleston and Fayetteville.  Neither has any ocean view at all.

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The historic Orlando station.

I didn’t have anyone next to me until the station before my destination.  There was supposed to be someone but…I guess they lost them.  The car attendent kept wandering around going “where is my Philadelphia?”  Pretty sure they got off in Florida and never got back on.  Great for me, probably not so much for them.

I got on in Orlando in the evening, fell asleep as we were crossing into Georgia, and woke up two states later just inside North Carolina.  We passed through several major cities and all sorts of tiny adorable towns.  The only sad part was that it was dark out for such a big chunk of the trip, on my way back I’m going to try & book it so that I go through those places during the day, and the ones I already saw at night.

The Silver Star isn’t exactly the epitome of comfort but I arrived in Alexandria on time (!) the next afternoon having spent $117 and basically no effort in the process.

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Mackinac Bridge: 222 Miles

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No road sign can bring a smile to my face quite like that one. It shows up as you head north out of Flint on I-75, which isn’t an especially exciting drive but I love it.  Watching as the urban blight of southern Michigan gives way to rolling hills and then to the wooded paradise above the 45th parallel.  I ended up taking the interstate all the way instead of US 23 like I’d planned.  I had a boat to catch & things to do, plus after two and a half weeks on the road from Arizona I really didn’t feel like another meandering trip. Even a short one.

There’s a little bit of ice still hanging around on Lake Huron.  Not so much on the open lake, but enough of it is still clinging to the harbor that the boat actually struggled to shove it out of the way & get out into the open water.  All the years I’ve been coming here I’ve never had that happen.  At lease the boats are running, so it’s better than last year.

Anyway I made it to Mackinac Island in one piece, and thus ends the journey I started nearly a month ago in Sedona.

Journey: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

Chicago to Flagstaff, 1,782 Miles


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So I’m in Arizona for the winter, and instead of spending 3 super crappy days or 5-6 somewhat less crappy days in a car, spending hundreds of dollars on gas, lodging, and food, I decided to let Amtrak do the heavy lifting.  For $154 I got to spend two days lounging around reading & watching the world go by while still managing to end up on the other side of the country.  Flying would have been shorter, but almost certainly more expensive (I have better things to do than check prices on 47 different airlines) and a bigger pain in the neck.  I boarded the train with absolutely no hassle.  I didn’t have to show up two hours early, or spend any time at all standing in line to have a stranger pat me down & look at my skivvies through some weird Star Trek machine.  I brought a large backpack, 44-pound duffel bag, purse, blanket, pillow, snacks, outside water, AND nail clippers on board, nobody batted an eye. Try getting all that on a plane.

Along the way I got to see not only my origin & destination, but everything in between.  I wasn’t hurtling along 30,000 feet above it, I got to be a part of it, all the wild animals, little towns, big cities, and beautiful landscapes across nearly 1,800 miles, with no effort involved.  And seriously low-stress travel: wide comfy seats, footrests, legroom, no screeching babies, and there was a whole lounge car to go hang out in if I got tired of my little nest.  My fellow travelers were pretty mellow too, the only time I heard anyone get even a little upset was some guy who didn’t like his upper level seat because he struggled with stairs; the conductor put the smack down on him pretty fast, he’d bought the wrong kind of ticket, and there was no fixing it now.  I never saw anyone being rude to other passengers or staff.  Even the cell-phone chatters were quiet and respectful of the people around them.

The only problem I had was with my second seatmate.  The first one was pretty close to perfect, he sat quietly and we ignored each other for five hours until he got off in Missouri.  The second lady, she wanted to talk.  She gave up on me pretty fast, because I went mm-hm and stuck my earbuds in, but I saw her chatting up other people through the whole trip.  Not one time did I see her sitting alone reading or whatever.  I don’t think she even slept, she was like some kind of chatty vampire, feeding on other people’s exhaustion.  Speaking of sleep, it was surprisingly easy to come by.  We spent the night crossing the plains so there was nothing to look at anyway, the seat leaned back pretty well, with enough space that I wasn’t in the lap of the person behind me, I had my blanket, pillow, and eye mask. I took a drowsy motion sickness pill to help a bit (I didn’t need them for nausea and I need those for small roller coasters) and just passed right out.

Yeah it took forever, but this was a great trip.  I re-read one of my favorite books (Tricky Business, by Dave Barry), saw lots of interesting, beautiful things, and finally got to cross the Southwest Chief off my bucket list.  So many people just want to get where they’re going, they miss a lot.  The difference between planes & trains is the difference between tourists & travelers.  Do you want a journey – an experience?  Or merely a destination?

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