It’s July, and it is apparently a personal rule of mine that at some point in the middle of the summer I have to write a semi-giddy post from an Amtrak train.
There are people in the world who love traveling. Everyone I know, for example, loves traveling. They talk about going to places like Spain or Budapest; they talk about sampling ceviche and tango dancing while spelunking. None of this has ever really appealed to me. Partially, this is because I dislike night flying. I am perpetually and forever afraid of the dark and nighttime, and I am also afraid of moving very quickly, which is something that you do (and are made occasionally aware of) when you are on an airplane. On night flights, I cry 100 percent of the time. I weep openly and think about what if The Rapture was a real thing, or what if everyone on earth spontaneously died while I was in the airplane. These are embarrassing and uncomfortable emotions, which are heightened on international flights, when I know I have to stay in the night plane for the entire night, and that when it is finally light again I will still be on the plane, and I will be very tired, and I will probably not have access to Pizza Hut.
This is all to say that I don’t think of myself as a person who likes travel very much. Too expensive; too far away from my cats; too much night flying. I do, however, love to ride on the Amtrak train. You know this already if (1) you have read my blog for more than a month, or (2) we have ever met in real life and had a conversation about anything. Trains just come up in conversations with me. Here is an example:
Betty: Are you listening to any music right now that you’re excited about?
Sophie: No, but you know, I’ll probably listen to a lot of music the next time I’m on a train. I find music just so profound when I’m on the Amtrak train.
(Just to note: I am listening to music right now, because I am on an Amtrak train, and I can’t believe how profound it is. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg?!” It’s like — he is willing to beg — because — he loves her.)
In summers past, I have taken trains across the continental United States, stopping in small cities and towns I have no justifiable reason for visiting, and couch surfing for semi-adventurous overnights. Trains are busy places in the summer — they’re a lot like little self-contained cities run by sweet seventy-year-old ladies in navy suit jackets who encourage you to buy individual bottles of champagne. A few years ago, Ned and I took a perfect weekend trip to Laurel, Mississippi — three hours from New Orleans — but otherwise, I have only ever train traveled by myself. I get my coach seat, I hole up in the observation car, I blog about owls or simplicity or not hating oneself or something, and I look forward to it all summer.
This summer, I used my Amtrak miles (I have hundreds of thousands of Amtrak miles, because I do nothing but travel on Amtrak trains, and I use my Amtrak credit card everywhere I go) to invest in a roomette. Luke is traveling with me, and I thought it would be fun to do my favorite route together — San Francisco to Portland. The only thing about this route is that it is long. Train riding takes significantly longer than car driving does, because things are always happening that slow the train down. I was not sure that Luke would be as in love with Amtrak as I was if he lost his Amtrak virginity to a twenty-hour ride up the sweltering west coast in a Coach seat that — 9 times out of 10 — would smell like a foot. I find that kind of trip very charming, but it’s not a beginner’s journey.
Roomettes are almost $1,000 more than coach seats. I do not have $1,000, but I have hundreds of thousands of Amtrak miles, so I managed to swing the room for free. The room itself is basically two chairs that collapse into a bed, and a swing-down top bunk with a harness so you don’t fall out and die. Luke took the top bunk. He reported that he did not sleep at all because, as he put it, “It seemed like I was going to fall out and die.” Even with the harness! Poor Luke. It’s 3 p.m. and he’s sleeping on the bed-as-chairs right now. I’m glad he’s catching up.
Now, because I am sure you have a lot of queries, I present to you these unofficial but definitely comprehensive
Frequently Asked Questions About Amtrak Roomettes
Q: What kinds of buttons do they have in the roomette?
A: Plenty! I think these buttons may have real names, but here are the names I assigned them: “Extremely Bright And Pretty Useless Bike Headlight”; “Ceiling Lamp”; “Make It VERY Cold Knob”; “Switch That Purports To Control The ‘Music,’ But There Is No Music To Control So Don’t Worry About It”; “Plug Hole”; “Button That Becomes A Hook To Hang Something On”; “Non-Button."
Q: Can you open the windows?
A: If there is a horrible emergency, go for it! The instructions for escaping from the train in an emergency are really clear and they even glow in the dark.
Q: What does it feel like to sleep in the top bunk?
A: Like you are probably going to die. But it’ll make you feel brave.
Q: What does it feel like to sleep in the bottom bunk?
A: Great! Like being on a regular bed where you are getting all banged around because you are on a fast-moving train.
Q: Do you feel happy that you have a sleeping car? Is it worth all that money?
A: Yes, and here is the main reason why: I have never been on an Amtrak train where an “unusual emergency” has not occurred. I have been on a LOT of Amtrak trains. I have never gotten anywhere on time. This is one of the great joys of Amtrak; you get more trip than you bargain for. It can, however, become uncomfortable when the hours begin to stack up. This trip, for example, we were stuck in San Francisco for a few hours because they wanted to put a “private car” at the end of the Amtrak train. We got stuck in Emeryville because someone was on the tracks and refused to move. We are now four hours behind. Luckily, there is a bed to sleep on! And free coffee!
Q: Wait… there’s free coffee?
A: THERE’S FREE COFFEE! Coffee is like $3 if you’re in Coach. Having experienced many longterm Amtrak trips before, I know how hunger can kill a vibe, so for this trip, we'd invested in $100 in bulk hippie groceries from Berkeley Bowl. I did not realize that when you are willing to pay the equivalent cost of a used motorcycle, you get free meals. This blows my mind. This morning I ate a biscuit. IT WAS A FREE BISCUIT. Luke had bacon AND sausage. We had SIX cups of coffee.
Q: Are there other fun amenities?
A: Yes. There is a shower. A lady comes around and brings you bottled water. Apparently you can ring for free room service. There is a special car that only “first class” passengers can sit in that is called the “lounge car” and is definitely a relic from the days where white men sipped martinis and looked at very high-brow porn in public. There is another special car that’s like a dingy movie theater with a flat screen TV in it and maybe they show movies there sometimes I guess. There’s wine tasting. You may be able to get free M&Ms I can’t tell for sure.
Q: How is Luke sleeping?
A: He got up. But he described his most recent nap like this: “Necessary.” When pressed he said, “It was fine, it was like, it wasn’t deep and very restful it was light and … it was like, ok. You know, I had to shift a lot. Various parts of me kept becoming uncomfortable so I had to keep turning my body. The pillow was good.” In summation: “You can take a nap. It’s nappable."
Q: Can you have sex in the roomettes?
A: I’m not going to say that we had sex. But yes, you definitely can. And, hypothetically, if you did, it would be awesome.
Q: So you can lock the door?
A: Yes. I know this for a fact because last night I tried to get into a room that wasn’t mine for a very long time, but the door was locked so I couldn’t get in.
Q: What if you forgot Scrabble?
A: As far as I can tell, there’s one ratty Scrabble that is going to work in a pinch, as long as the kids didn’t get it first. I mean, should kids REALLY be playing Scrabble? THEY CANNOT SPELL. ONE OF THE CHILDREN PLAYED “ME” ON TURN TWO. UGhafsdhifalshdg.
Q: Sophie, it really seems like the Amtrak is just OK. I don’t understand why you are so zealously obsessed with the Amtrak. Explain this please.
A: Guys, the Amtrak is unlike anywhere else on earth. You can talk to strangers, and it’s encouraged. Families seem to get along with each other and they all travel together. You get to see all these beautiful landscapes, and it makes music seem really profound when you listen to it with headphones. People just laze and relax and don’t need to be moving very quickly; everyone enjoys everyone else and you can be totally alone just as easily as you can feel totally connected to people you’d never otherwise meet. The bathrooms are pretty clean; there’s plenty of time to think; no one judges you for bringing 4,000,000 calories worth of snacks on board. There’s “signature chocolate whisky caramel pecan bundt cake.” Last night we saw two young kids falling in love in the observation car. (Probably — I don’t know for sure how well it’s gonna work out because she was cooler than he was.) No one checks to make sure you’re int he right seat or the right car or that you brought the right amount of luggage. The coffee tastes soooo good even though it is very bad, because it’s cold outside and you’ve been basically camping and the coffee is hot and you get to drink it while sitting under a glass ceiling watching the sun rise over a part of the country only the Train People get to see. The Amtrak is perfect and it makes me believe that a better world is possible. Also, a roomette is totally worth it. It comes with WiFi.