TagOlympus XA

Thoughts on Amtrak after the tour

I came close as a part of this tour, but I didn’t quite make it. I didn’t cross the country by train. I’ve long wanted to try to do it, but this trip didn’t require me to head toward the west coast. I still have that to look forward to.

Travel by Train That sign won't steer you wrong.

Travel by Train
That sign won’t steer you wrong.

There is some residual romance in train travel. On some level, it’s still a leftover vestige of a long gone time when movie stars took gleaming stainless steel trains on vacation. But the truth is another thing.

Amtrak likes to say it is America’s railroad. Our American railroad is tired and run down. It’s easily outclassed by almost any train in Europe. It’s given short shrift by the host railroads, who seem to go out of their way to push passenger trains on to sidings and make them wait. I remember once waiting on the City of New Orleans in Memphis and being able to see the train, but it was stopped just outside of the station and held so a freight could go by on another track. If they’d let it move a train length, it could have been in the station on time without holding that freight up for more than a minute. This sort of absurdity is how our railroad is run.

Stephanie had never gone on a long distance train ride before this tour. I wanted her introduction to go smoothly. It didn’t. The train was dirty, the crew was tired, and because it was almost eight hours late, they ran out of food. I was half way expecting her to demand we get plane tickets for the rest of the way. It says a lot that she was still game to get on the train the next day.

A few years ago, Amtrak ran more on time. They weren’t perfect, but they had a better chance of making it. The freight railroads sued to get out from having to help move the passengers along and won the first round. Amtrak is still fighting, but it’s been hurting them at a time when ridership is up. Congress, who could help with this situation, instead has been cutting Amtrak’s budget. Congress is the best hope of fixing Amtrak, which is why it’s in sad shape. America deserves a better railroad. I think it deserves a better Congress as well.

shoot-379But on some levels, Amtrak succeeds in spite of itself. When the train was too late to help, they put us up in the Swissotel on Wacker and it was far better than any hotel I expected. Customer service is still alive on America’s railroad. Last time I was on a flight that was too late for connections, I wound up sleeping in the airport.

In spite of all the issues, I still want that cross-country ride. I want to meet people in the dining car, to travel relaxed, and see the country in the way that only rail travel allows you to. I’ll get that ride one day, and I’ll get to take pictures of places I haven’t seen before.

The simple joy of riding a trail- Tour Tales

I saw a lot of things I thought were right on this ride. Like a group of shirtless guys pedaling like maniacs on crap bikes.

We saw the guys every day on the trail except one. On the second day, I stopped to take a picture of the empty trail ahead of us, as I like to do, and the first of their number blew past with flags flying. After we were back on the road, the rest of them came by, giving each other a hard time, yelling out a greeting to us, and moving on ahead of us. There were eight or so of them, mostly wearing nothing more than bike shorts, shoes, helmets, and beards. They were on beater bikes they had bought cheap or in at least one case, borrowed for the trip.

When we caught up to them at Ohiopyle, they were stopped, and one of their number had his rear wheel off and was gone to find professional help. Other members of his crew had stepped in to the bar under the restaurant we had lunch at, and were procuring beer and flirting fruitlessly with the bartender. When we came out, one of the guys was playing Jenga, seeing how many beers he could fit in the nooks and crannies of the haphazard collection of bags he had bungeed to his bike.

shoot-373As would be the norm, they would catch up and pass us on the trail, and we would pass them in the morning since we got up earlier. They would pass us going to lunch, and we would get ahead again since we didn’t spend as much time drinking beer as they did. This repeated until we came off the trail.

They hollered encouragement to us every time the passed, and when we passed them, they would loudly complain “Oh man, the old guy is ahead of us again!” When we were climbing the last bit to the Divide, I was not having fun. It was uphill in to the teeth of a substantial headwind, which are two of my least favorite things. They came up from behind and hauled out to pass when one of them pointed to the windmill on top of the mountain we were climbing and yelled “Don’t worry about the headwind! When we get to that big fan we’ll turn it off!” as they went by. It was a much needed chuckle in the middle of an un-fun slog. They hooted and hollered in the tunnels. Once they rode past and the last one pointed back and said “Bear behind us. Pedal faster.” as he hauled away.

shoot-374This is what bicycle touring is at it’s best. Not a lot of gear. A reasonably serviceable bike. Not a lot of money. Just people out on bikes having a good time and going places, pedaling along and enjoying being outside and on the trail.