Baby’s First Amtrak…at 29.

So technically, it’s not my first first Amtrak. I took the Cascades from Bellingham to Portland once to visit my bestest friend Loni several years ago, but that was like 5 hours. Psssh. Weak.

THIS was the Texas Eagle, a 13+ hour ride from Chicago’s Union Station to Little Rock, Ark.’s also-named Union Station. I’d never been to Union Station in Chicago and hadn’t been to visit Little Rock in almost 2 years, so it was time to un-bucket list this ish.

Y’all might want to grab a tea and have a bathroom break ahead of this novel titled “CHI>LRK: A Modern Amtrak Tale.”

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——

Pre-Game: I was going to take the Brown line to Quincy/Wells and walk 7 minutes,  but it’s so much easier to take a Lyft. Especially once it started raining and ESPECIALLY once I hefted a bag that had 2 six-packs of local beer I was ferrying to friends. The Lyft driver and I got into a slight argument about where my address was (I was standing on it, he disagreed, I won) but I got to Union Station nice and early to quiet my Ravenclaw need for order and early arrivals. What’s that? Y’all recommend 60 minutes early? I GOT THERE NINETY MINUTES EARLY, boom! *drops wand*

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Union Station: I was a little anxious because this place. is. huge. It has all the bodies of an airport, less the efficient signage. It was definitely confusing but gorgeous in its old-school design and look. It’s very ‘old Chicago architecture’ vibe mixed with WHERE THE HELL DO I GO?! lizard brain panic. I had purchased a coach ticket online and they said on it ‘if you’re boarding coach in Chicago, get a boarding pass/group’ and there was no help or signage on how to find it.

I had already printed my paper ticket and had a digital version in my iPhone’s Wallet app but was stuck on where to find said physical pass. There was a gargantuan line for checking baggage, but as I was not checking baggage, I was keeping my smuggled beer VERY close to my person, so I ran around trying to find where the baggage pass was while carting the aforementioned beer plus 4 hefty bags of Chicago-style popcorn plus my carry on suitcase and my overstuffed backpack. I’m an overpacker, people. I got told to come back to the main hall at 1:15 to line up for boarding—boarding passes didn’t exist, they’d just line you up. Walking around with my Auntie Anne’s pretzel bites (I have ZERO willpower around that place), I’m noticing the clientele in the station. There’s a lot of people that appear to be of Amish descent/clothing. It makes me curious about how the tenets of their faith and modern technology/trains work together, but if they’re here, God must be ok with it.

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Boarding: ITS 1:15 TIME TO SPRINT 40 feet to the “C” line and hope no one calls me on my duffel (beer & popcorn), carry on suitcase (clothes) and overstuffed backpack (books, tech, sweats, ID/Ticket) plus blanket. You then kindergarten follow an Amtrak employee as a long, snake-y line through the station until you reach the gates, which look like the gates in a small, regional airport. They line you up and you walk down to the tracks and as you walk on the platform in-between two huge, tall hulking trains, Amtrak employees ask where you’re going. “Little Rock is 2 doors up on the right,” was my reply and I get there and meet our car attendant/porter/awesome guide and she directs us in and up a tiny, windy staircase that reminds me of a Washington State ferry staircase.

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On-board: The train is 2 levels—apparently called a Superliner—and I got my ideal spot, back right corner. I get to lean back super far without disturbing anyone and I already made friends with the lady in the back left corner. She’s going to Little Rock too and I asked her to take a picture of me because I literally couldn’t contain my excited face. I was the second person in the car and I hefted my beer/popcorn duffel and suitcase up in the overhead rack, placing the aforementioned overstuffed backpack and blanket under the seat in front of me. I looked for a seatbelt THERE ARE NONE, I don’t know what I expected and then I looked down and I saw so much leg room that I could have cried. CRIED, dammit. I reclined my seat, bothering no one and just sighed, content. And the train hadn’t even started moving yet.

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Our goddesss of awesome train-ness, Avia (“Its’ French for ‘bird’”) gave us some info about the ride, saying how it’s her first Texas Eagle run but not her first w/ Amtak; she’s been with the company for 11 years. AND THEN THE TRAIN is moving. I am wiggle wiggle joyous excited. It feels like that wondrous itch of going to Japan or Thailand and the pride of I’M DOING THE THING and I have missed it. I think sometimes we forget or grow so comfortable with our routine that you forget to be a tourist in your own country. I realize anyone who takes Amtrak every day for work probably just threw up in their mouth, but I’m loving it. Also, I’m not-so-secretly hoping that Joe Biden is on the train. I know he lives in Delaware but I heard he takes Amtrak and I kind of feel like he’s the type to incognito just be on any/every Amtrak train.

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I’m Chris Traeger-ing this train ride and I don’t even care that the poor Amtrak intern probably reading my tweets is exhausted THIS IS SO FUN. Y’all. Why do we travel any other way? I’ve been on the train 30 minutes and I already love it. Just south of Chicago and it’s so, so green. It looks like the woods behind my Grandma Loveau’s house; big green leafy bushes that probably have blackberries hanging plump and ripe and scrubby weeds that I’m gonna pick even though my mom tells me not to.

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I’m pretty convinced that I won’t have great T-mobile cell service everywhere and I’m ok with that. I welcome it, actually. I’ve been reading a book about meditation, (10% Happier by Dan Harris) and I’m looking forward to turning my brain off a bit. I brought my journal and another book and I just want to let my brain slow down.

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Visits observation car; damn. Damn damn. Swivel chairs and full-length windows. Much green. Such Instagram shots.

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Starting to feel like a good nap…return to seat. Dining attendant comes by and I get a reservation for 7:15 like adults do!

…wakes up. Illinois is super green, y’all. And rural. Agriculture is all over.

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…sleeps again.

…wakes up. Trees on the track before Springfield, held for 30 minutes. Cool, I forgot that’s the state capital!

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More Illinois; more green. Continue reading “10% Happier,” trying to slowly let it permeate my brain and not rush through and it’s so helpful on learning to meditate. I know, you cringed. I did too. But breaking it down, it’s about not just my gut reaction to things, it’s helping me slow down and respond rationally. It’s like slow-mo Matrix moments where I have time to make choices rather than EMOTION VOMIT at someone/thing.

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Anyways, it’s a great book. I’ve been on and off reading it for a week and I’m really getting into the meat of it. I’m writing notes and actually absorbing it when—

“7:15 Dining Car, come on down.” OH Y’ALL IT IS STEAK TIME.

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One of my co-workers, Jeff, told me that if I’m gonna Amtrak it, I need to try the steak at least once. It’s $25 but I’m so, so down. And I got a glass of wine BECAUSE I ADULT. I arrive in the dining car on time just as we’re pulling into St. Louis and this iconic view.

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I am seated across from a middle-aged couple and next to a young young 20-something who is super quiet. Like, I’m trying to pull teeth saying ‘hi,’ making casual jokes and asking questions and she is shutting. it. down. She orders a side salad and iced tea, when I offer her the basket of salad dressings, she says “just ranch. I’ve never tried anything else.”

FOR REAL I AM NOT LYING. Folks, I am all for like what you like and eat what tastes good but when salad dressing is FREE (which it rarely is) and you can try new stuff, TRY THE BALSAMIC OR ITALIAN because they are not scary. She would have shit herself if they’d had some chili lime vinagrette. Oh well. She’s going to Houston I pry out of her between her Snapchats. Goodness. I turn to the older couple across from us. He’s asking her about what’s gonna work for him since his teeth are out. They’re going to somewhere near Shreveport, Louisiana, which is surprising considering this train doesn’t go there.

I slowly piece together between our-lady-of-side-salad and the toothless man and the wife who is talking loudly on the large Samsung phone that all 3 of my tablemates were on some weird delayed? Amtrak and got rerouted to Chicago. Side Salad says she got off her train to get toothpaste? and got lost, missing getting back on. Ser Teethless says their train was 4 hours delayed and they missed their connection in Chicago so they had to stay there 24 hours and wait. Damn. This is like joining a book halfway and I’m so in.

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Teethless and I start to get a little traction talking when I joke saying “I’m the only one of us intentionally in Chicago” and he shares that he drove a cab there for 40 years but got out because…something. It was a little difficult to understand him sans teeth, but he was intriguing. I started trying to put into practice some of the things in the book; ‘be present in this moment, don’t think ahead or behind,’ and I leaned forward, asking him about his dogs (2 chihuahuas) and his proclivity for befriending wild animals (a lynx, wolves, myriads of squirrels, stray cats, A POSSUM). Then our food came and I discovered Bernaise sauce.

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FAM. I gotta say, I would have moaned if Side Salad wouldn’t have inevitably snap chatted it. What is this stuff and how have I gone 30 years without it? Chock full of delicious witchcraft, I tried to savor every bite while listening to Teethless tell me about how ‘some people just got the touch’ for befriending animals, and well, he’s got it.

He then said to Side Salad “you want one of these shrimp?” I looked at him, then her, confused. She demurs. He insists. She TAKES IT. I’m ping ponging between them wondering if I need to tell Teethless that this girl/young woman is fine and happy with her ranch leaves and doesn’t seem to be a meat eater. Then Lady Teethless puts a slap of her steak on Side Salad’s plate and I’m like “are they trying to talk her out of being vegan by temptation?” SS is grateful and doesn’t seem to be giving me any bat signal of distress that these people are forcing various meats on her, AND SHE IS EATING THE MEATS. I’m using my customer service face but I’m so confused that this is some new Midwest tradition I’m not knowledgeable about AND also offended that these people aren’t offering me food. But damn, I am an adult who ordered a $7 glass of wine so I guess I’m either a) financially solvent and seem ok in the Iron department or b) not the type of woman they’re looking to meet on a train and take home in a body bag.

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We finish our meal and the family Teethless leaves for him to smoke as we are stopped in St. Louis. I look at Side Salad and say “do y’all know each other?” AND THE STORY COMES OUT.

Apparently they all ended up seated next to each other on the same aforementioned delayed? train to Chicago and made friends? I don’t know how, considering the communication barriers (Snapchat/age/lack of teeth) but that’s why they know each other. I’m assuming maybe Side Salad didn’t realized budget-wise that this was happening and the Teethless Couple was doing a good Samaritan thing feeding her meats and fattening her up for ritual sacrifice so she could stay alive and donate a black market organ see her brother in Houston without going broke.

See, this story had a great ending. As an addendum, I’d like to add that although I was miffed to not be carded for my tiny plastic bottle of chilled Chardonnay, the waiter did ask me to writing down my phone number as I signed for my credit card receipt, so I STILL GOT IT.

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Returning to my seat with a slight case of the meat sweats, I realize that we still haven’t left St. Louis. We’re running a bit behind and they’ve shut off the engines while we’re waiting. So…not meat sweats, just lack of moving air. They announce that everyone should try to avoid using the facilities as the train is off and they only flush when the power is on, prompting my bladder to be like NOW NOW RIGHT NOW EMPTY MEEEE as I’m flush on $7 Chardonnay and already nestled back in my big, comfy, ridiculously great seat.

FINALLY we leave St. Louis and I’m lucky enough that no one boards and sits next to me. These seats are no joke, spacious enough that I wouldn’t be irritated by it, but it’s nice not to worry about stepping over someone on my way to the bathroom/stretching my legs OH MY GOD when did we become the last car?!

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Apparently they’ve chopped off the back 2 cars of the train sometime while I was on a romantic date with a steak. Huh. That’s cool. I wish it was still lighter out because these photos from the back of the train would be AMAZING. And now I’m all peed out and curled up, typing away. Happily full of steak and adventures and more relaxed than I’ve ever been while traveling. Seriously, why do we travel any way but this??

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We stop for over an hour in the dark at the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri with no explanation and I’m worrying about my friend who had agreed to stay awake and pick me up at 3am is now 3:40, 4, 4:08…I tell him to go to sleep and re-download the Uber app since Little Rock doesn’t have Left yet. I arrive at the station and after an interesting Uber ride that included the words “Jeffrey Dahmer could have passed a background check” to be an Uber driver, arrive grungy and sleepy to my destination.

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Initial thoughts:

  • Ridiculously comfortable: THE LEG ROOM! Reclining seats, fold out desk/eating station, fold out footrest, etc. made it easy to sleep and perform multiple tasks
  • The food: good god, I will remember that béarnaise sauce on my death bed. And the coffee isn’t bad either!
  • So nice to get up and walk around: wide aisles, observation car, easy to get to and multiple bathrooms.
  • Price: a round trip flight from Chicago to Little Rock was over $400 and for multiple dates. So…I thought to try the train and I’m so glad I did. $80 each way for $160 round trip plus steak dinner plus cup of coffee on return trip is total $200. SO LEGIT
  • Timing: It’s…long. Just about the same as driving directly, but much less responsibility. Much easier to get up and walk around than the Megabus, which was cheaper but required transfer in Memphis. I was delayed about 70 minutes on the way down and about 2 hours on the way back. So…if time is a concern or you have a connection or someone is picking you up, possibly not the best choice unless they/you are flexible.

Overall, I’m happy I took Amtrak for my wallet and for the experience. It is great to sleep a good chunk of the ride and wake up/get to your destination actually relaxed and not worry about the weight/number/paying of your bags and the security check and the 2 hours early, etc. (within reason; Amtrak does have baggage rules and they’re on the website) but for me, such a smooth experience. I love that their slogan is “Change how you see the world” because it was truly revelatory seeing some of America’s green gorgeous land and the sun set over the horizon. If you haven’t Amtrak’d before, you should; if not just for the béarnaise sauce *cue Homer Simpson donut sounds* then for the truly enjoyable experience.

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