Never pass up a chance to sit down or relieve yourself. -old Apache saying

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 1 - Amtrak

Friday, October 16, marked the first day of our travels out to West Texas. Overall, we had a fantastic time. Overall, because the first day was sheer terror.

We had never taken an overnight train trip anywhere before. Short train rides along the NE coast of the U.S., in the Cumberland Mountains of western Maryland, and a high-speed train in Europe is about it.

Yes, Amtrak is still running. They have curtailed some of their routes, such as New Orleans to Orlando, Florida due to Hurricane Katrina and others for various reasons, but the Sunset Limited still runs from New Orleans on the east end to Los Angeles on the west. That entire trip takes about 54 hours.

We booked this trip in pieces months ago. We thought it would be cool to travel by train out to West Texas instead of the grueling 12-hour one-way automobile trip. The closest we could fly commercially is to Midland, Texas, which would then require a car rental and a drive of another four hours to get to our destination, so, we decided on the train. Que romantico!

The Amtrak train station, just NW of downtown, is a poor memory of a bygone era. It's in a dilapidated building with one large room and a few benches, and that's about it.

When I was there to pick up our tickets a couple of weeks before travel, a couple of homeless-looking guys were sleeping on one bench. The attendant on duty said that we could park our car in the adjacent parking lot for the duration of our trip, but she didn't recommend it, as almost every car that did that was broken into. Well, then. Taxi!

There is absolutely no "security" when traveling by train, at least on this route. We arrived about 9:30pm and went directly on board: no metal detectors, no drug-sniffing dogs, no menacing-looking TSA agents. Nada.

You get to take just about as much luggage as you want on the train. If you want to keep some of your bags with you, fine, but they provide some space for your larger bags that you yourself stuff your bags into. Needless to say, you could smuggle just about anything you wanted to onto the train. The interior of the train, at night, was a little creepy.

The Sunset Limited was set to depart Houston at 9:50pm to begin its 16-hour trip to Alpine, Texas, where we were going to debark. That meant, about as soon as we got to our sleeper cabin, it would be time to turn in and get some sleep. Sure enough, when we arrived at our cabin, it was already converted into its sleeping arrangement. It has two arrangements: sleeping and sitting. We were rather shocked at how tiny the space actually was.

"Sleep" is something that is very, very difficult in a train ride out of Houston. Start with the fact that our cabin was the smallest available, the "roomette." This was our first mistake. There is a 3D virtual tour of the roomette and other rooms available at this link. Be aware that distances are much less than they appear in this virtual tour. MUCH SMALLER.

The next time we travel Amtrak, IF there is a next time, we will eschew the roomette and go for something that two normal-sized humans can actually occupy.

The lower bunk of the roomette is actually not that bad. You can stretch out, you have windows to look through, and it is easy to get out of the bunk and trundle down the hallway to the bathroom or the dining car or whatever.

The upper bunk, however, which I "slept" in on the westward journey, is much more akin to a coffin. If you lay flat on your back, there is not enough room to even bend your knees upward. You have to lay on one side. There are no windows. They supply a "netting" of sorts that you hook into the ceiling to prevent you from rolling around and falling five feet to the floor. That was comforting. Not.

Our second mistake was the mere fact of departing from Houston. As you may know, Houston, and Texas, for that matter, is a "car culture." In rural Texas, it's a "truck culture." We have ripped up most of the train tracks that criss-crossed this area in order to put in more freeways, only leaving a few tracks for freight and forcing Amtrak to take a convoluted route to get out of town: west, north, south, east, south, west, north ... I lost track. Not only that, but the tracks that are still around are in pretty bad shape.

Every single intersection at grade was a loud, bumpy experience. There were some intersections that violently tossed me against the one wall, the traincar rocking left and right. One of them almost threw me into the netting, but I was hanging on for dear life. The loud crashes, thuds, and bangs made the trip out of Houston a real nightmare. A literal nightmare. No, I take that back. It wasn't a nightmare because I didn't sleep at all. It was a ride across hell. More than once, we asked each other, "WHY THE HELL DID WE DO THIS?!?"

Not a great start. I slept hardly at all until we rolled into San Antonio at 3:00am, but that story will have to wait.

To go to Day 2, click here.

To go to Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX., click here.

To go to Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend, click here.

To go to Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.

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