Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 286 Amtrak: Boston to Bellingham

Youthful dreams sometimes become a reality. When that happens we have to be prepared. Prepared for the excitement and satisfaction that accompanies the actualization or the disappointment of dreams becoming something less or even nightmares. These thoughts went through my mind as we boarded an Amtrak train in Boston with Bellingham as our destination. Coast to coast via rail - that was the dream.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

Brenda couldn't sit up in her bunk. She took the top bunk as we thought it to be a bit shorter. I'm not sure it was. We were on the Lake Shore Limited that runs from Boston to Chicago. We did manage to get all of our stuff including my previous days purchase of a cheap guitar into our compartment. All of our stuff meaning our two smaller bags that fit under an airplane seat. They had just the minimum amount of clothing we would need for the trip, all of our toiletries, an iPad and charging chords. Our two small suitcases (carry on size for flying) were stowed down below in general storage. It was cramped.

My memory of the size of our sleeping compartment always focuses on my feet and sandals that I wore on the train. When I rose in the morning and swung my feet over the edge of the bed they did not have room to extend straight out in front of me before hitting the cabin door. I had to get dressed sitting sort of sideways.

But we liked our little nest. It was comfortable for sitting and letting our eyes gaze out over the American countryside and comfortable for sleeping. We did rock a bit from side to side but it did not prevent sleeping well.

When you book a sleeper on Amtrak you are also purchasing all of your meals. We ate well during the trip. I heard that Amtrak took some criticism a few years ago concerning the quality of the food it served. Our experience was that of general satisfaction. It wasn't the best food we have ever had but it was good.

We did enjoy the seating arrangements for eating on train. Breakfast and lunch were a come as you wish basis and the maitre de would seat you together with other passengers. Dinner required reserving a specific time period for your meal. We enjoyed meeting other people and the conversations that ensued. Some were enjoyable because we were like minded folks and others were enjoyable because we were poles apart in our thinking. Not that it ever caused problems. When controversial topics would surface they would either be ignored and the subject changed or when harmony was sensed we would relax and let the topics develop. Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior.


Time stands still on a moving train. I rarely looked at my watch. We had no where to go or be other than right where we were. We could neither hurry it along or slow it down. We gazed out the window at fields, farms and factories. Small towns appeared and disappeared with regularity. We saw few people. The houses looked empty as we ramble past. We didn't see many people sitting in their yards, walking the sidewalks or participating in some group activity. The country seemed void of people. We live inside.

We talked. We talked to strangers. A man and wife from east Tennessee. He was a Vietnam vet and shooter - he had lots of guns. We were of different minds but I loved to hear the east Tennessee drawl and see his mischievous smile.

Our other table mates included a couple from Long Island that fit the stereo type of arrogant New Yorkers; interesting because of their obsession with their own lives; a couple from Saint Louis who were on a different channel from us; a friendly mother and daughter from Whitefish, Montana who were set on helping other people; and another Vietnam Vet from New Orleans who after Katrina moved to Seattle. He had, as they say, "been around". We spent three hours talking of Vietnam, Katrina and civil rights.

Then there was the nurse from San Francisco. He rides trains whenever he has time. He told us a lot about our train, trains, and routes. He also told us about "foamers". He said that refers to people who eat, drink and sleep trains. They are obsessed. We met four of them. They commandeered four premium chairs in the observation car and never relinquished them. They had gotten on the Empire Builder when we changed trains in Chicago. They knew more about trains than I cared to hear. They planned on staying in those chairs all the way to Seattle and then to Vancouver, BC where they would board a Canadian train for Banff. They would then return to the coast via train and ride down in the Starlight Express to Sacramento and then change to some other train to Denver. And then some other train back to Chicago. It is a subgroup of our culture of which I had never heard.

Time evaporated as country side slipped in and out of view. No stops for photos. No stopping for food, rest or bathrooms. No stopping to sleep. Fall asleep in Wisconsin; wake in North Dakota. Fall asleep in Montana; wake in central Washington. We missed a lot of mountains.

We missed a lot of America. Brenda and I agree that riding a train across the country is not a very good way to see America. We slept through much of it; much of the best part of it. Then we rolled through the rest without stopping, smelling or seeing what was on the other side, ahead of us or behind us. We missed the lilt of language changes. We missed the change in local food. We missed the local signs and conversations with waitresses, shop owners, or pedestrians. We missed the wind, the rain, the heat, the cold. We missed the local music stations, religious radio, historical sites, farmsteads, fields of cattle, cattle smells. And of course we missed the local coffee shops with homemade pastries and uniquely done decor.

Was it a dream satisfied? Indeed it was. Would I do it again? I'm not sure. When you ride the train across the country that is exactly what you do. You ride the train. You walk the train. You meet the people on the train. You see the train and catch glimpses of whatever lies on one side of the track for a few seconds. For my money, it is not the best way to see the country.

What I loved was the lack of anything else to do. No newspapers, no magazines, no phone calls, no television or movies. We were out of touch. I had electronic access to  much of these things but never flipped the switch. The change was just so enjoyable. But the best part was that I did not have to go through airport security and sit in a cramped airplane. I stepped off the train in Seattle well rested.

The train to Bellingham had already left. Amtrak brought up a bus of theirs for the final 90 miles. We didn't mind. It left us at the Amtrak station and we pulled our small pieces of luggage up the hill to our house. It was the perfect way to end a trip.

This is Retirement Talk.

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