So I have been seeing this post about how wonderful it would be to travel by train across the country for only $213… and I feel I should weigh in with my own experience with said method of travel. Before I start however, I must admit that there is something to be said for an experience that one can remember, relish and even write about some thirty years after the fact 🙂
Now this whole adventure began with an idea I had with some running friends to travel to get some 50 mile mountain runs under our belts as preparation for the 1988 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run. The race we wanted to run was the San Juan Trail 50 mile run up in the coastal mountains near San Juan Capistrano. We didn’t have a lot of money then, so the train looked like a reasonable substitute for flying. Only a little more than 24 hours of travel time… piece of cake, we thought. It will be fun, they said, there is a bar car, food and think of all the scenery you will get to view!
Day 0, Denver’s Union Station, no problem. The excitement was building, we boarded the train with our running gear, and off we went through the tunnels and up the front range through El Dorado Canyon to the crown jewel of tunnels, the Moffat Tunnel and our first experience riding a train with no air circulation. Apparently the diesel fumes in the long underground exposure are a bad thing, so no air and a bit of diesel fragrance for a while. Well as you can imagine, two ultra runners had no problem surviving a ride through a tunnel.
Now for the enjoyable part of the trip. We cruised through Colorado and the scenery was indeed spectacular, especially Glenwood Canyon and the bar car. Here we met a sweet young lady from Canada who was traveling alone and interested in some company with a couple of knuckleheads from Colorado, don’t remember her name. This of course was before smart phones, Facebook and apparently even paper and pens. Soon Colorado was behind us, but Utah scenery isn’t bad either and we still had money for the bar car 🙂 Now bear in mind, the train isn’t the airline. There are no complimentary meals or drinks and the prices for said supplements need to be paid for in full at the time of serving.
The day dragged on into evening and the scenery faded into blackness. Sundown coincided with the end of the fun trip 🙁 Now maybe things are different thirty years later, but at the time we were very much dismayed to discover that the bar car closed early. Once again, this isn’t a 747 with movies and radio. At this point you discover that you are traveling on a long dark bus, $213 does not include a sleeper car, not even a cot, just your seat crammed in there with everyone else on your car… No problem we thought, we will just get some sleep and soon it will be morning. So we loaded up our new Canadian team member and moved her to our section of seats and the three of us closed our eyes and drifted off to sleep. Except the sleep did not come. Between the hundreds of snoring passengers, the excitement and anticipation of the race ahead, and the proximity of a potential new girlfriend, sleep proved impossible. And I love that Canadian accent, couldn’t get enough of it. However after a couple of hours, nearby passengers were not nearly as enamored with my new girlfriend as I was and before long the three of us were in hot water with the conductor.
This is where things really began to turn ugly. Unable to sleep or keep quiet apparently, it was not long before we found our little travel trio exiled from the civilized people and confined to an empty non climate controlled prison car. Here is where we learned about railway right of ways. The freight companies own the tracks that the passenger train runs on. Sounds good, except that the freight companies are busy and every time a freight train is encountered the passenger train has to pull over to a sideout and wait thirty minutes to an hour while the freight train passes. Which is also fine if you are asleep with the civilized people, but very cold if you are incarcerated in the “bad people” car. Now I don’t remember which was which, but part of the time, when the train was running, we sweltered from unregulated heat. The other part of the time, which I think was on the sideouts, we shivered and buried ourselves in any sort of covering we could find. Unfortunately we were not aware of these circumstances when we left civilization and didn’t bring our bags with us. So we just huddled together and did our best to survive January in Utah and Nevada. On the night when we most needed some sleep to rest up for the task ahead there was no sleep to be had. But the night wasn’t a total loss, I did get to know, however briefly as it was, a cute young Canadian girl 🙂
Morning finally came and we were allowed back into the civilized car with clothes and snacks. Unfortunately we had vastly underestimated the necessity and the cost of spending the entire trip in the bar car and were running low on funds. So we just huddled and napped as best as we could all the way to LA Union Station. The rest of the trip was not without incident however, as you might imagine with such a long trip on a glorified bus tempers are bound to flare. Don’t remember the reason for the altercation, but at one point we had to disembark one belligerent passenger to another car who said he was coming back but must have thought better of it.
Finally we arrived at Union Station where our little trio of travelers had to separate. My new girlfriend was traveling on to another destination in California, a goodbye kiss on the cheek and I never saw or heard from her again. Calla, one of our friends from the computer company we worked for at the time looked at her and said “What was that all about?”. Don’t think we ever filled her all in on the entire adventure. Anyway, Calla picked us up for a one night layover at her house before giving us a ride down to the race the following day. This begins an entire new adventure, involving flat tires, oil lights, more snoring and another sleepless night in the cabins at the race, but that is a whole ‘nuther story, for another whole ‘nuther blog post, if anyone is interested 🙂
For the return trip we knew we would need a better plan… Nearly out of money, we knew there would be no spending a good part of the time in the bar car. So we took out our wallets, counted our money and strategized how to best invest it. We knew we were going to need food and beverage… a lot of beverage. And since any beverage that could make the time pass was officially prohibited we knew we were going to need some of those red party cups. Eventually we decided that the proper combination was going to be a 12 pack of Coors and a large Dominoes pizza apiece. We managed to smuggle the beverage and the food onto the train in our duffel bags, along with plastic cups, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”. We knew we had to wait until nightfall to begin rationing the sleeping medicine, so we whiled the afternoon away reading old Runner’s World and Ultra Running magazines while looking at the lack of eastern California and Nevada scenery. We figured if we drank one beer an hour for twelve hours we could make it until morning with our sanity so we waited until 6 p.m. to begin administering the medicine. I don’t know exactly what time it was that the last beverage was consumed, but we finally managed a slumber, or stupor, whatever you want to call it. I remember we both woke up at the same time with headaches and cotton mouth sometime before 7 a.m. We just kind of looked at each other and then our watches and I remember Craig saying, “I love it when a plan comes together!”. We had survived the night on the train. An old lady behind us with a big smile told us good morning, and she said, “Oh I thought you guys were going to be real trouble drinking all that beer, but then you just went to sleep!”. Craig said, “Yup, that was the plan!”.
We arrived to a new blanket of deep white snow in Colorado, apparently a foot of the stuff had fallen in our short absence. My renter met us at Union Station and told me I didn’t need to worry about the snow. He proudly told me how he had driven his truck back and forth on the driveway and had packed it down really well. When I got home I was relieved to find that the snow shovel had not been stolen or broken, just resting in it’s proper place, unused just inside the garage door. It was only a few weeks before the thick layer of driveway ice withered in the Colorado sunshine.
Well that is pretty much it in a nutshell… the joy of traveling the country by train with no sleeper car.
Steve Krull is a prolific sports and nature photographer selling prints and stock images online as S.W. Krull Imaging at various sites and agencies. Click this link to view all the products and services offered by Steve Krull and S. W. Krull Imaging. Additional services include, wedding photography, portraiture and model portfolios, and event photography. Additional products include fine art stock imagery, prints and gift items