I'm something of a train travel groupie. I love not only the train, but the experience of train travel - meeting new people, sampling tasty cuisine and having a front row seat to a magical vista unfolding before me like a colorful, billowing silk scarf.
As a Sleeper Car occupant, I board the Lake Shore Limited early for a "welcome aboard" party in the Café Car. Amtrak Service Attendants Mary and Mitchell greet me with warm smiles, a glass of wine and a plate overflowing with grapes, cheeses and crackers. As always, I'm amazed at Amtrak's ability to employ the friendliest people in the travel industry.
Wisps of conversation float toward me from nearby tables. An elderly couple raise their wine glasses and with charming European accents, toast to their upcoming holiday. A young college student raves about the deep-dish pizza that she dashed out to buy during the Chicago layover. "Everything I've heard about it is true," she swoons, taking a healthy bite.
A friendly woman from New Hampshire joins me at my table, explaining that this is her first rail adventure.
"I met my one-year-old grandchild for the first time on this trip," she says, and she beams as she describes her visit with the new little one.
Even among just this handful of passengers, we're a medley of cultures and ages, all with diverse missions and destinations. Yet it seems we all share the same giddy anticipation. The train inches forward and we grin at one another, exchanging glances like excited kids at a carnival.
Attentive and kind, Sleeper Car Attendant Sharon takes excellent care of her passengers.
Mitchell and Mary stop by our tables periodically, freshening our drinks and snacks.
"I've met Hilary Clinton, Barbara Bush… all kinds of high-profile passengers," Mitchell tells us. Yet despite our obvious lack of political connections, Mitchell and Mary still treat us as if we're VIPs too.
After the party winds down, I stroll back to my bedroom compartment to meet Sharon, my room attendant. She turns down my bed, tells me where to find my morning coffee, calls me "Hon" and makes sure I have enough pillows. I think if I asked her to tuck me in, she probably would.
Later, I sit with the lights off, gazing out the window at the retreating Chicago skyline. Silhouettes of bridges, grain elevators and the latticework of power lines quickly replace it. Between towns, I can see the velvety sky freckled with stars and I drift off watching it, gently rocked by the rails.
The Lake Shore Limited in Lake Cities, Pennsylvania.
Photo: Peter Bowler
We pass through Indiana and Ohio during the night and I wake to grey skies outside Erie, Pennsylvania. Acres of dormant vineyards decorate the countryside and I imagine the sweet burst of emerald, violet and burgundy color that will paint this landscape once the fruit ripens on the vine.
Lingering over coffee, I visit with a young mother named Genevera, who cradles her infant son Jackson in her arms.
"He's been sleeping since we got on the train. It's the rocking motion… it's so soothing."
She says she prefers the train now that she has her son to consider.
"The air quality is better," she says. "Plus the service is incredible!"
Several Amish families fill the remaining booths, their monochromatic cotton clothes, bonnets and hats harkening back to a simpler time. One man pulls out an accordion and begins playing, while the others sing. Still Jackson slumbers on, oblivious to us all. [continued...]