Link to Amtrak.com

The Lake Shore Limited route follows the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, and is known as "the water-level route."

For the Love of the Train

A Train Travel Groupie Journeys from Chicago to Montreal

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Friday

Gare Centrale, the Montreal rail station, is bustling with morning commuters. A kindly rail worker helps me with my luggage and soon I'm seated aboard the Adirondack once again, Albany bound.

Riding coach on this train is like flying first class, so I snuggle into my comfy seat and watch the Montreal skyline disappear as we cross the sparkling Saint Laurent River. College students, families and vacationers fill the sold-out train. A morning hush fills the car as kids keep busy drawing pictures while their older siblings listen to iPods, watch movies on laptops or snooze the time away.

The Café Car is humming with activity. I attempt a conversation with a middle-aged Montreal native who speaks very little English. After a wild, arm-waving sign language exchange, I conclude that he and his wife are headed for New York, either for a holiday or possibly to attend a seminar on elephant training. I'm not quite sure which.

I have better luck communicating with the Patterson family of Ottawa, who play a giggle-filled game of dominoes as they journey to Washington, DC, for a family vacation.

"It's nice that the train can accommodate all of us," Mrs. Patterson says as her extended family seat themselves in nearby booths. The kids are all grins and giddiness. "This is their first train trip," she explains.

Across the aisle, Patrick Phelan and Andreea Bailuc are returning from spring break, traveling back to college in Haverford, Pennsylvania.

Patrick Phelan and Andreea Bailuc return from spring break in Montreal aboard the Adirondack.

"We wanted to do something different. We weren't interested in a 'girls gone wild' spring break in Mexico," Pat says.

Instead, they took the train to New York where they visited museums and gave their regards to Broadway. After two days, they took the Adirondack up to Montreal, attending concerts and visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"We went to all the big clubs," says Andreea. "Usually we'd end up eating Poutine at 3 am after everything closed."

Poutine is a mishmash of French fries, cheese curds and gravy, something only a person in their early 20s could possibly stomach in the wee hours of the morning.

Busy chatting with my fellow passengers, I still manage to steal glimpses out the window. It's a scenic, sunny return and by early evening, I'm in Albany once again.

Saturday

The New York State Capitol building, a grand example of Renaissance and Romanesque architecture.

Albany is a potpourri of classic history and contemporary culture, but after a full afternoon spent wandering her streets, I'm ready to board the Lake Shore Limited bound for Chicago. My old friends, Sharon, Mary and Mitchell, are staffing the train on my return trip and they welcome me like a long-lost cousin. Mitchell seats me in the Café Car and with a contented sigh, I tuck into a tasty dinner of seared chicken, wild rice and vegetables with cheesecake for dessert. It's lovely to be pampered once again.

After dinner, I visit with Claire Putala, a silver-haired, soft-spoken Literacy Education Professor at Oswego University.

"I'm in love with Amtrak," she says. "I don't drive and I don't like to fly, so it's the perfect way to travel. It's a thrill for me to see that light coming in over the platform."

One time, Amtrak's customer service even went so far as to call Claire to warn her that her train was delayed. No wonder she's in love.

Claire tells me that when she first began taking the train, it used to travel through Grand Central Station.

"When a man enters New York City from Grand Central Station, he enters as a king," she says, quoting E.B. White.

Sunday

On this last day, it seems fitting that I share breakfast with two of the most ardent train travel groupies I've ever met.

Al and Carol Jones of Connecticut travel a new Amtrak route every year.

Nine years ago, Carol Jones told her husband Al that for his 40th birthday, they could take the train to the city of his choice. Since they lived in Connecticut, she assumed he'd pick an East Coast destination. Instead, Al chose Seattle. Since then, they travel a new route every year. Already they've ridden the Empire Builder three times, as well as the Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief and the Cardinal.

"You really don't get a feel for how big the country is until you board the train," says Al, gazing out the window, a look of pure joy on his face. He admits to me that he collects model trains and has a membership in a model train club. This is definitely someone for whom trains are more than just a passing fancy.

Even Justin, Al and Carol's three-year-old grandson, is showing signs of a serious train attachment.  Recently he and his parents traveled from Seattle to Connecticut for a visit. Yet despite being cranky and tired after a long cross-country flight, the first thing Justin said to Al when he saw him was, "Pa, can we play trains now?"

After breakfast, I return to the passageway outside my room. Groves of smooth ivory birch trees and the golden remnants of old cornfields slowly give way to the outskirts of the city. As we roll through Chicago's backyard, a three-year-old boy traveling with his family joins me to watch the scenery slide past. We talk about real trains and cartoon trains, and all the while, he points out rail cars, naming tankers, engines and freight cars with surprising accuracy. As  we visit, I think of baby Jackson being rocked to sleep by the rails; of the Patterson kids excitement; of the college students who discovered the magic of train travel; of Al and Carol's train-loving grandson, and of course, of this precocious little rail fan. And I realize then, with much satisfaction, that there's a whole new generation of train travel groupies coming up just around the bend.

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