Route 66 #1

Route 66 #1
Route 66 Museum

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Memories of Rail Travel

For me there is no single holiday that is so quintessentially American and synonymous with travel as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving or should I say the day before Thanksgiving has long been held as one of the busiest travel holidays of the year for decades, well back to the golden age of railway travel. 

If you have never traveled by train cross country then you don’t know the sense of community you get on such a trip. There is something really unique about traveling a long distance in the limited yet communal space of a train. You eat with your fellow passengers in the dining car, relax with them in the lounge car, and hop off the train with them to get some fresh air, and maybe hunt for souvenirs at those exaggerated stops here and there. It’s a unique experience that makes you feel like a human in our modern world of social media and disconnection. You see its not like car travel where your off in your own compact little world, and its also not like airline travel where it’s pointless to talk to your fellow passengers because you will only be with them for a few hours and likely never see them again. With train travel though, you will see your fellow train passengers over and over again possibly for a few days based on your destination.
My reason for talking about the joys of train travel not only has to do with the fact that this is a train travel related blog, but because I want to talk about my own experiences traveling on the Southwest Chief the day before Thanksgiving.

The year was 2000 and I was on my way back home on the Southwest Chief. I had traveled from Chicago to Barstow, CA about a week and a half earlier to see my girlfriend (now Wife). It was the second time in my life I had traveled cross country by train, the first time was also on the Southwest Chief but I only went as far as Flagstaff, AZ. This time in 2000 would mark the first time I would travel by first class though, an experience I would suggest to anyone.
My story starts on November 20, 2000. The Southwest Chief rolled into Barstow about two hours late. After a long teary goodbye with my future wife in an almost classic movie style, I climbed onboard the train and was taken to the transition car at the front of the train. Here the conductors tried to sort out my printed first class reservation with Amtrak, compared to their passenger listings that showed me as coach. Luckily this didn’t take to long and by the time I got to my room it was set up for the night, and considering it was shy of 12AM that was a good thing. I feel asleep talking with my future wife via a still new technology called “texting”, making sure she made it from Barstow 30 miles back to her hometown.
The next day was a Tuesday and I began to meet some of my fellow passengers at breakfast. It was at this point I could begin to feel the excitement of the oncoming holiday. That Wednesday though November 22, 2000 is when everything really came alive on the train. Breakfast and lunch conversation from all over the dining car where about Thanksgiving, people talking about who they were going to see, and how much more traveling they had to do to get there. With the train running late there was concern that some people wouldn’t make connections in Chicago with other trains. I remember having breakfast with one couple who where going to have Thanksgiving with family in Pennsylvania and they where a little concerned we would get in too late for them to hop the next train to Pennsylvania. For the most part though there was just this joy and light I saw in everyone something I hadn’t seen in people as an adult.
As the train rolled on one of the most entertaining things to hear where announcements from the conductor about goings on at back of the train in coach. Apparently the coach seating was beginning to fill with college students, some of who in their excitement to get home where beginning to become a bit mischievous. Announcements came warning passengers at the back of the train to “Not play with the PA system, or they will be put off the train at the next stop!”, this was followed up about an hour and a half later with “Use of alcohol by minors is strictly prohibited on trains, anyone under the age of 21 caught drinking will be put off at the next stop and turned over to the local Sheriff”. Don’t worry it gets better, about an hour later we hear “Smoking and controlled substances are both prohibited on trains, any passenger caught smoking on board, or having just left a bathroom that is filled with smoke will be put off the train at the next stop, and turned over to the local Sheriff”. I later choose to ask my porter what was going on in back of the train, and thats when he explained the glut of college students picked up here and there and the sudden party atmosphere that had broken out. I was half inclined to join them.
The train sadly rolled into Union Station Chicago 3 hours late and yes some of the nice folks I had met on board did miss their connections. Union Station itself was a madhouse just from Amtrak passengers alone, remember back then the economy was good and folks traveled more. I was sad to step off the Southwest Chief in a way that night, since I found the excitement of my fellow travelers about going anywhere to celebrate Thanksgiving intoxicating. But on the long car ride home I realized something, in a way I celebrated a special Thanksgiving with a different kind of family in a more communal sense. Living, talking and eating with my fellow passengers I got to learn about what they give thanks for, and what was important to them and it wasn’t all that different from what was important to me. So if you want to experience Thanksgiving in a different sense try a train trip one day.

I wish you a happy a joyous Thankgiving!!

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