Writer marks Amtrak’s 40th anniversary with first train trip
I’ve never associated travel with relaxation.
Sure, I’ve found peace on a Mexican beach or at a ballpark, but the airplane flights or road trips to get there were full of exhaustion, annoyance, or both, contributing to my wishes to get from point A to point B as fast as possible.
Despite my preference for just being there already, I long have been intrigued by passenger trains. It probably had something to do with the fact I had never taken one.
With that in mind, my editor suggested I take Amtrak to Denver and back, chronicle my experience and commemorate the company’s 40th anniversary, which is today.
I agreed, and photographer Gretel Daugherty came along.
Our round-trip tickets for seats in reserved coach cost a combined $184.
We arrived at the Grand Junction Amtrak station, 339 S. First St., approximately 30 minutes before departure. Having heard that delays are synonymous with Amtrak, I expected to leave late. However, our train departed on schedule at 10:23 a.m. on April 13.
GOING THERE ...
Gretel and I were each permitted to have three checked bags and two carry-on bags not to exceed 50 pounds per item.
There were no baggage fees. We waited in no security lines and went through no scanners. The tube of toothpaste in one of my carry-on bags was no problem.
Passengers could carry-on coolers of snacks, as long as the coolers didn’t exceed 50 pounds. Some people took advantage and freely ate and drank.
And for passengers who either consumed all their beverages or didn’t bring any, the lounge car had drinks č alcoholic and non-alcoholic č and basic snacks for sale.
In hindsight, I should have packed a small cooler full of bottled water. But Amtrak had water dispensers with small paper cups throughout the train.
Our coach seats were more comfortable than I expected. Heck, they reclined.
I could stretch my legs out and barely touch the seat in front of me. Granted, I’m only 5-1.
Montrose’s Paul Kuhlman, 23, already was reclining in the seat across the aisle from me before we passed through Palisade.
“That’s why I like it,” he said with a smile. “I can sleep.”
And by “sleep,” he meant sleep. The one-way trip from Grand Junction to Denver was eight hours, which is longer than a power nap.
Kuhlman acknowledged that he could drive to Denver and back to Montrose in eight hours. However, he would rather ride Amtrak for $92. His Chevrolet Suburban gets 22 miles per gallon, which means the approximate 600-mile trip to Denver and back would cost more than taking the train.
Plus, he didn’t have to drive on Amtrak. Or wear a seat belt.
On trains people basically walk around at will.
And so as the train approached De Beque Canyon, I decided to check out the rest rooms that I found to be comparable to airplane rest rooms but nicer than most gas station rest rooms.
Our first stop came, on time, at noon in Glenwood Springs. Amtrak stops are brief, but we still had nearly 10 minutes to walk around outside.
With Glenwood Canyon coming up, Gretel and I decided to move from our coach seats into the sightseer car on top level of the lounge car. It had eight booths and dozens of seats near oversized windows.
By automobile, Glenwood Canyon is beautiful. By train, it’s fabulous.
First, Amtrak goes about 10 mph through most of the canyon, so wildlife and the Colorado River are easier to follow. The tracks are so close to the canyon wall, I’m pretty sure I could have touched it from the train.
Second, the tracks go through stretches of the canyon roads do not.
Shortly after popping out of Glenwood Canyon, about 1 p.m., Gretel and I made reservations for lunch.
In the dining car, servers seat different parties together to fill the limited number of tables. When Gretel and I sat down, I caught the word “ensalada” č╩Spanish for salad č in the conversation between the two men across from us. I asked where they were from.
Eduardo Pedroche, 40, said he and his friend Jordi Sangenis, 38, were “on a three-week holiday” from Barcelona. (I love how Europeans use “holiday” instead of vacation.)
The men said they were sailors and spend seven months a year working and five months traveling. To afford the travel, they live a minimalist lifestyle in Spain, Pedroche said. They rent a small flat and rarely drive.
I smiled, and felt a little bad about myself.
Then, we all ordered lunch. I had an $8.50 hamburger with chips and ice tea. The burger was huge and surprisingly good. I admit, I did not have high expectations for train food.
At this point, our train stopped for nearly 20 minutes to wait for a freight train to pass.
Note: If Amtrak is delayed, it’s probably because passenger trains must yield to freight trains. Delays also happen when avalanches or gigantic boulders fall on the tracks.
Shortly after I noticed we had stopped, Pedroche and Sangenis spotted an animal outside. Gretel and I looked at the animal, then at each other and said in unison, “Uh, it’s a prairie dog.”
The men were fascinated.
Pedroche and Sangenis said they try to take a train no matter where they visit.
On this “holiday,” the men were traveling from San Francisco to Chicago for $540 per person. That included sleeping accommodations and all food. Once in Chicago, they were going to meet friends and continue, in coach, to New York City for $80 a person.
“Is that bad?” Pedroche asked. I think I laughed.
We talked for an hour. Pedroche gave me a list of Spanish wines to try. I asked the men what they thought of Amtrak.
“One thing we like about this trip is the scenery changes so much,” Sangenis said.
“I like the slower trains,” Pedroche added.
We paid our bills, took some pictures for their scrapbooks and thanked our servers for letting us loiter.
Gretel and I ventured back to the sightseer car to prepare for the trek toward the high country.
If Glenwood Canyon is fabulous by train, the high country is majestic.
Significant portions of the route snake through areas without roads. Nowhere is that more noticeable than in Gore Canyon.
The sightseer car was filled with people just staring out the windows or taking pictures.
Shortly after Granby, the conductor told us we were headed into the tunnel portion of the trip with 29 tunnels, including 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel that cuts through the Continental Divide.
The 12 minutes inside the Moffat Tunnel was the only time passengers were discouraged from changing cars because of diesel fumes in the tunnel. Everyone obliged and sat in darkness for the tunnel, which hit a maximum altitude of 9,239 feet. It was snowing when we emerged.
About 40 minutes outside Denver, I returned to my coach seat and checked in with a friend, who was picking up Gretel and me at the train station.
It was then that I noticed the electrical outlets next to the seats. I could have brought my iPod or computer.
Then again, it had been nice sit and watch the world pass by.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. and on time, Gretel and I arrived in Denver at a temporary station at 21st Street and Delgany Street alongside Coors Field.
Denver’s Union Station currently is getting a $500 million face lift as it becomes a regional transportation hub for the city. It is scheduled for completion in spring 2014.
... AND BACK AGAIN
Gretel and I returned to the temporary station at 7:30 a.m. April 14 to board our 8 a.m. westbound Amtrak train back to Grand Junction.
Again, we didn’t wait in any lines and left on time.
Immediately outside of Denver and before we got to more scenic parts of the trip, Gretel and I made breakfast reservations.
The train was not as busy as it had been the day before and we got a dining car table to ourselves.
I had a $6 plate of scrambled eggs, potatoes and cinnamon raisin toast. It included a pretty good cup of coffee.
After breakfast, we moved to the sightseer car.
Overnight, the Winter Park area received nearly 13 inches of fresh snow, giving the remote landscape an eerie serenity.
I overheard a number of people in the car saying they were very happy to not be driving. I agreed.
Larry Canning, 76, of Waco, Texas, took a seat next to me. We talked for nearly an hour.
Canning said he practiced as an endocrinologist for 40 years in the United States before moving to China about five years ago to teach medicine at Zhejiang University Medical School.
We talked about China, medicine, and why in the world he was riding Amtrak on April 14.
“I don’t particularly like to fly,” said Canning, who was going to San Francisco, where two of his children live.
“This is fun,” he said, noting Colorado’s beauty. “You realize you like the movement.”
A while later I returned to my coach seat to enjoy the scenery, read for nearly two hours (no car sickness!) and take a nap.
It was nice, particularly because passengers who wanted to talk, play games or let their children walk and climb around moved to the sightseer car.
About 1 p.m., I got a little hungry and went down to the lounge car to check things out. I bought a can of Mountain Dew, a bottle of water and a bag of pita chips for $6. I brought my snacks back to my seat.
It was then that Gretel and I met Quinn Haberl, 21, from Marionette, Wis.
Haberl said he is going blind from congenital glaucoma. Before his vision is fully gone, he is taking Amtrak across the country to see the United States for the final time. He often pushed his face against the glass in wonder at the beauty of the Colorado River below.
At times, the trip seemed long. At times, the rest rooms were gross. And at times, it would have been nice to have someone bring me a glass of water.
But I can’t think of a time I’ve met more interesting people on a plane or in a car.
People accustomed to quick trips may hate train travel. Then again, they may find themselves agreeing with Kuhlman, who said he was a little frustrated on his first train trip because “it was so long. You want them to go faster.”
Then he just relaxed.
“It’s a pretty ride if you don’t worry about time,” he said.