I have done a lot of research in advance of my upcoming mid-Sabbatical cross-country trip on Amtrak, to the point where I am probably overthinking the entire endeavor. What I have discovered in the process are a very vocal group of people do nothing but complain about how awful Amtrak is, and another very vocal group who adore Amtrak trips, warts and all.
Based on that back-and-forth, I think the correct mindset is not to see an Amtrak train as some sort of grounded jetliner (which is the way I look at high-speed rail travel in China), but more as a cruise ship on land. Departure dates are set, but departure times are pretty fluid; interaction with fellow passengers is a decent part of the fun, and you really are there for the journey as much as the destination.
Finally, as with all travel, arm yourself with modest (if not low) expectations, and take charge of making your trip better. Even on Continental’s delightful direct flights from Beijing to NYC, my old friend, the author and explorer Steven Schwankert, noted that “I never depend on an airline to feed or entertain me. If they can get me from Point A to Point B in one piece and reasonably on time, I figure they’ve done their job.” Steve never boards a long flight without a packed lunch, a charged iPad, and an extra book and snacks when the effects of the first two wear off.
So here is how I am approaching the upcoming Amtrak Trip.
- Adding a Buffer Day – I figure any delays that come up will be a lot less stressful and a lot more enjoyable if I don’t plan anything for the first 24 hours after my scheduled arrival. If I get there on time, or even 12 hours late, I still win.
- Packing a Satchel – My room on the train will lock, but that doesn’t make it Fort Knox, so I’ll carry a bag just large enough to store my valuables, but small enough to move around easily aboard a train. I’ll be using my 5.11 Mike Bag.
- Bringing an Extra Book – Actually, two, one in print, one in audio. Audio for when the train moves really slowly, print when it’s moving fast – or not at all.
- Not counting on Internet – Amtrak data services keep getting better. Not so much, though, on the trains that cross the Far West. I’m ready (mentally and otherwise) to be disconnected.
- Getting ready to walk – I’m scheduling 30 minutes a day of hard cardio during the longer station stops.
- Carrying meal-replacement bars – the last thing I want after 48 hours on a train is to feel like a veal. I’ll pick and choose from the meals they serve, and supplement with protein bars.
- Journaling like there is no tomorrow – I expect that I will spend some time doing “serious” writing, but I’m going to keep a separate notebook with my thoughts for the trip, and for my sabbatical as a whole.
- Geting my teshuvah on – With the possible exception of a trans-oceanic container ship, I can think of no means of transportation more conducive to contemplation and reflection than train travel. As such, I expect I will spend much of that contemplation time thinking about my character and my relation to G-d. Whether I get off the train physically renewed or not, I am hoping to disembark spiritually refreshed.
So from the sublime to the religious, I’m planning on making this a voyage, and I will share the bits you might find of interest.
Anyway, this is all a month away, but half the fun of taking a trip is thinking about it beforehand.