Addicted to Amtrak

Up until recently, I either drove everywhere or jumped on a plane to get to where I needed to be.

But driving can really make you feel like an old donut wrapped in cheap plastic at a convenience store that everyone ignores. And then you still have to turn around, after all the excitement of getting there is over, and drive back.

So recently, I decided to take the train up the California coastline.

Now I have a serious problem: I’m addicted to everything train.

How could just one quick trip do this to me?

To make sure I wasn’t living in some kind of choo-choo fantasy, I decided to book the same train back to Southern California on Amtrak called the Coast Starlight. And now I have an even bigger problem: I’m on the train looking at train routes as to where else I can go and the answer is, pretty much everywhere across America.

First of all, when most people think of trains, unless they have traveled on this train (or other beautiful trains), different pictures and memories come to mind.

My first memory of a train is a toy locomotive with aluminum tracks that had questionably functioning connecting prongs. Every time the miniature engine went across the tracks, electric sparks would fly and a nice burning smell that I still remember would follow when it would singe the carpet or my hair (so much for safety in toys of the 60’s and 70’s). My dad had brought it home for me one day when I was around four years old and that’s probably where this all began. I often had to jimmy or put pressure on those old bent-up tracks to get my toy train with the red caboose to pass over the worn parts, into my very own imagination land. I loved that train to pieces until I was probably in Junior High School (when little girls temporarily lose interest in all things train).

My connections to trains have some pretty standard associations. Trains on the tube are surely part of our collective consciousness. If you grew up in America in the 70’s, you took daily trips to MakeBelieve on a toy train with Mr. Rodgers. If you liked to boogie, Soul Train was your answer. And let’s not forget My Little Golden Book called The Little Engine That Could.

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All of us remember the great cinematic classics with epic train scenes: almost every other espionage movie where The Spy Who Loved (You) would fight villains atop fast-moving railroad cars; Russian love and war stories like Dr. Zhivago; and of course, let’s not leave out the great Westerns where getting off a train might equal a shootout with Clint Eastwood or even worse, the villain, Lee Van Cleef. Films featuring kissing and boarding one’s lover onto a train and waving goodbye was even more predictably fatalistic and you wondered whether that final smooch was really the end as you waited at the edge of your seat for a hopeful, happy, Hollywood ending.

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When we were children, we used to jump on a locomotive in Harvey West Park. The Southern Pacific Engine #1298 was retired to Santa Cruz, California in 1961. As kids, we looked forward to field trips where you could run up and down the train and oil tender (the tender is a part of the train that carries oil for the locomotive). It was always a fight and struggle to stay in the conductor’s spot as long as possible; a true indication of future power struggles awaiting us in the real world. Today, the SP #1298 has been sold and it is no longer a stomping ground as no one is allowed on the train. As an attorney, I can only wonder why…

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From my bedroom window as a child, I could smell the salty ocean air and hear different sounds of the small beach town I still call home. At night, when muscle cars were no longer rattling your ears and the sounds of skateboard wheels on the pavement would subside, I could hear the marine seals barking through the midnight hours. During the afternoon, I would sit by the window as Grandma cooked dinner and wait for the train that passed through my town to toot its horn. The Santa Cruz Big Trees and Pacific Railway is a freight and heritage railway in California and is still in operation in the county. It is used for both passengers and freight. I can’t wait to get back on it now and enjoy a ride through the great redwoods. It’s been about 30 years or more since my last field trip on the Roaring Camp Railroad.

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One of my favorite train rides was on summer nights with my dad at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. We would board the red and black Cave Train to the Lost World (now known as Cave Train Adventure) and travel back in time through the prehistoric era every Friday night. I would wait with wide, wondering eyes for the slow brontosaurus to rise out of the lagoon and roar at passengers. Once inside the tunnel, a totally psychedelic spinning “time tunnel” that looked like a scene out of Austin Powers took you back to a place where all the cavemen looked a little too much like the Flintstone’s (there was even a Dino-type of pet dinosaur). To me, the dinosaurs inside had the stage on this train ride. They got less scary as I got older, but when I was really little, I would make sure my dad was closer to the side than I was, just in case…

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[ Interesting note: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Cave Train pictured above, preceded the train at Disneyland (below) which travels through, not coincidentally it seems, a world filled with dinosaurs. Ironically, the train that Disneyland looks almost exactly like the Cave Train…)

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As I dug deeper into my newfound train-fascination, I found some not-so-standard things about trains that seemed to be painting a clearer picture. I learned that one of my favorite uncles was a train conductor! How did I overlook this terrific fact about Uncle Grant when I was a child?

And now that I need every spare second I can squeeze out of the day, driving for hours is not an option. And if it is, it still costs time, gas, food and most importantly, energy.

Flying with TSA’s terrifically organized systems of letting thousands of smelly-footed passengers through the same barefoot walkway (I don’t understand why we are wearing any clothes at all, by the way. I mean really – only the shoes, guys?…) is just plain old nasty. Can you imagine some of the feet that are touching the same ground that your feet are on? And finally – what about all those long lines? Like hours in line with sardines in not-so-pretty airport terminals!

No, thank you. I’ll take a perma-pass on all of that, unless its the last resort.

Let me tell you why there are zero drawbacks for getting a roomette on Amtrak.

You’re not in the air, there is no turbulence, and your bags are not getting lost. Added bonus? No one with bad B.O. is sitting next to you (and if they do, you can relocate by enjoying the other parts of the train).

2. If you want to have a meal (on sleeper trains), you can make reservations and order some really amazing food (there is actually someone cooking your food fresh in the kitchen downstairs and it doesn’t smell like microwaved plastic chicken).

3. You might get really lucky and meet Javier. He should be the poster-boy for all of Amtrak. Train employees are really neat people. They are good spirits I have found who love the land and love people. That’s enough in my book to want to be on the train with everyone here, all of the time.

4. The views are breathtaking. You will never see these views unless you take the train or become a hobo. From spouting grey whales to dolphins dancing in the ocean, to merry Moose, lush forests, dramatic mountain ranges and beautiful redwoods, the train will take you to places you have never yet in your life been.

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5. The conductor wears a really cool hat.

6. Someone actually comes out and greets you and helps you with your baggage. (Added bonus? Your baggage does not get dirty as its not on some skanky airline with irate baggage personnel that are looking through your stuff for goodies). And when you pass by people that are not on the train, be sure to feel loved as total strangers that can’t see your face are waiving at you as if they were your mother sending you off to college.

7. You can drink alcohol. I prefer the complimentary coffee that comes with the sleeper cab so I can get some work done.

(You cannot smoke, even e-cigs. Smokers are allowed to get off the train at designated smoke stops and that’s just fine. If you are a smoker, you should consider stopping anyway. Take a long trip, get on the train, and get off the nicotine that will eventually take you out in ways not as pretty as the views on the Coast Starlight).

8. You can read, write a book, create your presentation, catch up on email, organize your purse, watch a movie (they offer movies too), sleep, shower, pee and poop all on the train. It magical! The only thing is, if it’s your first time on board, you’re not going to get much done. Looking out the window is eye candy on this ride.

This is the Parlor Car with amazing views and private dining:

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I highly recommend getting your own space (a roomette is perfect for two people or one) as it allows you peace of mind, no smelly sick neighbors, and the perfectly built little cabin to get all of your work done on your laptop or mobile device. You can even bring your own food on board. They will even give you ice for your cooler.

If you do not get your own room (about an extra Benji up the coast in addition to the standard fare), and you want to chat it up with others, then that’s what you can do all the way home (or not home). You can access free wi-fi in the Parlour Car and use your cell phone at least half the time. (I had pretty good service).

9. No one can find you on the train. So all of your pesky neighbors, family members, ex-boss, exes, and solicitors are not allowed on the train (not in your cabin anyway).

10. And finally, the best part of the train is that you can always count on it to be on time. It never departs earlier, but it sure as heck will leave you in the dust if you are not there BEFORE departure time. And the horn/whistle sound is really cool. It constantly reminds you, lest you lose yourself in any of the wonderful things Amtrak has to offer, that you are in motion the entire time. Unlike airlines, train schedules (and train employees) have some integrity.

So what are you waiting for?

Fork out that extra few bills and book a room on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. It actually saves you money and time in the long run (depending on the fare, meals are included or can be purchased by passengers and the same goes for wine tasting).

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It will surely be one of the best rides of your life. And if you find yourself booking another trip, while you are on the train, don’t be surprised. You just forfeited the unfriendly skies and smelly airplane poop closets for top notch service, cool hats, clean seats, killer views all as you sip on your favorite wine or in my case, bottled water (which is complimentary as well with the roomette).

You might just find that, like myself, your train ride was too short and that you wish you could just stay on the train forever.

All aboard!

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~ Dilara Esengil

Writing Copyright 2015, Dilara Esengil All Rights Reserved

(All images that are scenic views of landscape and personal travel are property of the author and copyright protected. All other images do not belong to the author and no claim of ownership is made whatsoever.)

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