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The train to Washington: Not quite North by Northwest but just as good

The Southwest Chief takes you out of Kansas City through the most dismal part of town. Dismal, that is, if you think that the post-industrial landscape is anything but beautiful. For me, however, the scenes of concrete, empty warehouses, and forlorn factories—including the skeleton of the old Armco Steel plant and mill—possesses an aesthetic that speaks of people and their lives. There is, in fact, a beauty to the decaying infrastructure that can only be erased by the peculiar American propensity to eradicate the redevelop the old with the completely new.

The Capitol Limited in Pennslyvania

Once out of the city, the train travels through picture-book agricultural landscapes. The prairies of northern Missouri and southern Iowa fade into the flat, furrowed fields of Illinois. Crossing the Mississippi, the train came to a standstill midstream. The vastness of the river spreads out from one side of the train window to the other.

We traveled coach in the back of the rearmost car. Our companions were families and lovely young couples in love on their way to the Windy City. The train itself was immense. We could see it stretching before us as we rolled around long curves. There’s nothing like a train in the American imagination. Here we were witness to the miracle of travel, sometimes fast, sometimes slow and halting, through a countryside that almost oozed the American flag.

People in our car gazed out the windows as we entered the great train sheds of Chicago’s Union Station smoothly and slowly as if we approached some kind of Shangri-La. Tens of trains, Amtraks and Metras, lined up on tracks that ended at a great concrete wall with various entrances to the station. They were excited, either to be back home or arriving at Chicago to visit or move on to their next destinations.

Revelers from the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade crowded the lower level of the station, racing to get to the trains that would take them back home. Some smelled of alcohol, but most, wearing various shades of green, green hats, and green beads, smiled and laughed, happy to be with one another. The parade and the crowds jazzed them all up. They were boisterous and loud. They moved against one another politely, as if they knew we were all in this together.

We couldn’t find our way and went out into the grand atrium of the station to ask the Amtrak agent where to go next. We had three hours to wait until the Capitol Limited left for Washington, DC. Oh, he said, you have rooms. You want to go to the Metropolitan Club.

Amtrak reserves the club, a kind of central waiting point where they serve coffee and snacks, for business class travelers and people with sleepers. While we traveled coach from Kansas City to Chicago, we bought two roomettes for the 18-hour trip to Washington. The club was comfortable, and the hours passed quickly as we awaited the agent who would call us to our train.

Amtrak has aptly named the cabins we traveled in. They weren’t exactly rooms of the kind that Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant took in North by Northwest. They were small, exactly one side seat and small storage area wide, about five feet at the most. Above was a drop-down bunk. The seats folded down into another bed. During the day, we sat up in the seats. We arranged with our car attendant to set up our bunking order later in the evening.

The Capitol Limited left the station at exactly at its scheduled time, 6:40 p.m. Nick, in the room by himself, visited us in our roomette from time to time but relished the grown-up freedom of having his own space. He read and played video games on his phone. I watched through the window of his room. He fiddled with all the gadgets and dials (for radio and room temperature). He tried out all the baggage and coat hooks. He sat in one seat, then the other. The kid was having the time of his life.

As roomette dwellers, dinner and breakfast on the train came with the price of a ticket. We made a reservation with the car attendant for dinner at 8 p.m. When the time came and the 8 o’clock reservations were called, we took our seats in the dining car. The waiter was gracious and he obviously liked his job. We all ordered whatever we wanted from the menu, it didn’t matter how much we ate or what we ordered. The ticket was taken care of. We left a generous tip.

By the time we made our way back from dinner, night had fallen completely. Towns and trackside facilities flew by like fireflies. Come ten o’clock, the car attendant performed “turn-down” service. He folded out and made the beds. He wiped down the window sill and set the pillows. When he was done, he asked us if we needed anything else. He would be in Cabin 1 upstairs if we needed anything. Virginia laid down in the lower bunk, and I climbed into the bed overhead. Nick, the lucky and exited kid, had his roomette all to himself.

After gulping my daily drug regimen, I climbed into the upper bunk. It wasn’t as easy as getting up on a bunk bed. The ceiling is low and I sprawled out too much. Scrunched into that space, I turned around like a car on a narrow street—a little forward and a little back in a small arc. It took me a while to get used to the movement of the train but I slowly I fell into a deep sleep that took me well into the morning.

Breakfast also came with the price of a ticket. Like dinner, the breakfast wasn’t great, it was just good. But we were on a train, traveling in the miniaturized spaces and with the tiny accommodations of a train. I don’t know about the golden-age of train travel. I have only glimpses from old movies. This train trip suited me just fine and I say with hesitation—only because it was so expensive—that it was worth the price.

We left the train at Washington’s Union Station and tooled around a while getting ourselves used to our new terrain. We sat a while in Club Acela—the equivalent of Chicago’s Metropolitan Club—deciding what to do next. Once we had a plan, we departed for the Metro station, where we bought week cards that would get us around Washington on its superb train system for the time we decided to stay without the bother of paying daily fares. Plus, the card was cheap compared to the fares we would have to pay if we didn’t buy the card.

Cards in hand and oriented a little from the station attendant, we took our first Metro train. We bothered over which lines to take and when, but since the trains run every six minutes during the day (every three minutes in rush hours), we weren’t pressed. In fact, we took our time, leaving stress for another moment.

When we finally arrived at our hotel in College Park, Maryland, it turned out to be threadbare and cold. But it also was like the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Indian immigrants do all they can to make a stay with them enjoyable, from ferrying us from the hotel to the train station, staging elaborate breakfasts, and getting the maintenance man to the room quickly to fix things like the safe, a leaky faucet (that didn’t drip but ran), and the door in which the hotel key card wouldn’t work.

We sat back a while, thinking about the week ahead. What would we do? It didn’t matter because one could stay in Washington for six months and not see everything or spend as much time in museums as needed to get to know them and their collections. We were set. A new life awaited us. We let the moment wash over us until time for dinner.


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