From a Train Window
Spending two days on a train is an interesting experience, one that could be improved by spending the extra money for a sleeper. No matter how comfortable the coach chairs are, they are not conducive to sleep.
I had a chance to see Illinois' fall colors on the trip from St. Louis to Chicago. It was a lovely day and the view was wonderful. It was during this portion of the trip that I found out train personnel are very strict regarding baggage. One mentioned weighing my pullman bag until he hefted and then said it would be fine. Note: if you travel by train, don't fudge your baggage; not when fuel is so costly and the railroads are barely scraping by. If the bag was overweight, I don't know if the attendant would have started chucking my clothes out the window.
I spent four hours in Chicago waiting my next train. A red cap at Union Station helped me get my bags to lockers, and then retrieved me and the baggage for the next trip. If you ever need a red cap at Union Station in Chicago, I recommend Phil.
Baggage checked, I had three hours to look around, and it was a perfect fall day: cool, sunny, colorful. I had a marvelous time walking up and down canal street. At one point I passed a bunch of trailers for a movie, but I couldn't see anyone about.
Back at the train station, I decided to go into the large, open room called the Great Room, but it was blocked off. The Clint Eastwood WWII movie, Flags of our Fathers, was being filmed in Chicago, including scenes at the train station. The Great Room had been re-decorated until it resembled its 1940's self, which was a kick to look at. The security guards were very nice, answering my questions, and letting me take photos from the doorway. I didn't see anyone in period clothing, so assumed they were probably on break. Too bad — would have liked to have seen Eastwood.
Highlights and not so high, lights of the trip:
Good: Having a chance to spend a few hours with the friendly folk in Chicago–not to mention seeing that great downtown.
Good: Spending 1/2 hour waiting for a train with about 30 Amish people. I shamelessly listened in as one group of Amish ran into another group of Amish and exchanged details of their lives. Some English was used.
Bad: Finding out that the Amish are suspicious of outsiders and not particularly friendly.
Good: Train was half empty so I had my two seats to myself.
Bad: When you're a tad over 5'11", you cannot fold yourself into two train seats. No, no, not even when you do that.
Good: The homemade beef pot pie in the dining room was excellent.
Bad: Being seated with three complete strangers in close quarters in the dining car. More, three strangers who look aghast at you when you order a beer for dinner.
Good: The old cars dumped down hills here and there. You wouldn't think junk could be beautiful, but it is. Especially the rusted out Model T laying on the hillside in North Dakota.
Bad: Seeing so many small, deserted towns along the way, as corporations buy out small farmers and ranchers. One town was completely empty, but strikingly preserved except for the grass growing along the street, and a couple of range cows grazing along it.
Bad: Not having enough time to get the camera ready when an exceptionally fascinating view comes along, such as the abandoned town, the Model T, and the wolf in Montana.
Good: Having a chance to see the abandoned town, the Model T, and the wolf, regardless of getting a picture or not.
Good: Being able to walk about, stretch, gaze out the window.
Good: The sound, the motion, the feel of being on a train. It is unique.
Bad: One train attendant who was rather offensive with the pretty, young women.
Good: The train conductor who helped me off with my bags at Sandpoint. He answered all my train questions with enthusiasm and delight. It is rare to meet someone so completely and absolutely in love with their work.
Good: Having so much to see that you never get bored.
Best moment: The pass coming from Glacier, Montana to Sandpoint, is completely dark — you can't see a thing. I was half asleep and reading when I noticed a ghostly blue light around the track ahead of us. Through the fog, a phosphorescent glow silhouetted several train cars lying scattered about, up the hill, down a cliff, in a scene that looked straight out of The Shining. I asked the conductor about the lights and he said the cars were from a derailed train carrying grain and hadn't been recovered yet. According to him, a train derails at least once a year in that same location; the lights placed around the cars were to keep away the bears and the moose, attracted to the wet and fermenting corn. The bears would eat the corn, and then pass out on the tracks.
Shelley Powers posts the oddest assortment of links amidst the tiniest of blurbs on Twitter, @shelleypowers