Car-free family road trip



How do you road trip across the country when you don’t own a car?

On Amtrak, of course. OK, Amtrak plus a rented minivan because we wanted to go to seven national parks and monuments, and we only found one train that takes you right up into the national park.

Toth ignores the scenery on Amtrak.

Here’s how it went down. On the last day of school here in Alameda, June 12, the Car-Free Family flew to Milwaukee, and spent three weeks staying with grandparents, saying good-bye yet again to our house in Oak Park, Ill. (forever this time), and catching up with old friends. Then on July 5, our good friend Korilu drove us to Union Station in Chicago and deposited us on the sidewalk with roughly 3 metric tonnes of baggage. We had so much because there are five of us, and because we brought pillows and blankets both for sleeping on the train and for the KOA stay scheduled on our trip. And because stupid American Girl dolls. And booster seats.

We thought we’d never be able to get ourselves into the station and onto the train with all that, but it turns out that traveling on Amtrak with a lot of luggage is surprisingly easy. We managed to get the kids to pick up a few things each, and then Car-Free Dad and I shouldered the rest of the load and staggered into Union Station, where we came to an elevator. Right at the top of the elevator was the baggage check, with no line at all. You can check two bags per person, so we got rid of our suitcases and the booster seats. Then we had lunch in the food court and herded our family and still voluminous crap into a crowded underground waiting area, where we had a little trouble getting to our boarding area through the lines of people boarding other trains, but when we finally got over there, we were able to stroll right up to the train and get on, easy as you please, stack our luggage on some shelves just inside the train door, and sit down in big, comfy seats.

Our train was the Southwest Chief, and on this leg, we’d be traveling to Flagstaff, Az. The train left at 3:10 p.m., 10 minutes late, and we were supposed to be on board until about 9 p.m. the next evening.

Pebbles and Nutmeg ignore the scenery on Amtrak.

During the day, riding the train with the kids was fun and easy. I enjoyed watching the landscape change from the suburbs of Chicago to the Great Plains, crossing a very floody Missippi River on the way. We ate sandwiches for dinner and tried to go to sleep. The kids fell asleep pretty easily, and Car-Free Dad and I sipped some bourbon out of cups we’d kept from our cafe car cocktail hour, and eventually I put on my eye shade and earplugs and tried to sleep myself.

That part was tough. The seats recline pretty far, and have a nice leg rest that lets you sort of lie back — much more than you could in a plane. Still, it’s not like lying totally flat. And there are lights that are left on, which bugged me even with the eye shade. A man behind us kept taking phone calls, well past the 10 p.m. official “quiet time,” and he was watching a movie on his laptop with a lot of sirens. After awhile, I asked him if he would like to borrow some headphones, and he finally got the clue and turned it off. But still, my sleep was broken and short.

Daytime on the train, though? Tons of fun. We spent a lot of time in the lounge car, the kids doing their activities on the table, and us listening to the National Park rangers from Trails and Rails tell us about the Santa Fe trail. I thought it must be very odd to get on a train in one town, ride it for hundreds of miles while presenting a program, and then get off in a faraway town. Did they have to stay overnight in a hotel before they went home, I wondered. I bet they did.

It must be even stranger to work the whole run of the train, from Chicago to Los Angeles, like the cafe car manager, sleeping briefly on the train two nights, closing the cafe at 11 p.m. and then getting up again at 5 to open it up again.

Next time, I’ll share how our first night on the train went, and whether we were able to sleep at all in our coach sleeps. Then onto the actual vacation!


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