Traveling with Children: Riding AMTRAK


August 2008

There’s nothing that conjures up adventure like a long, long train ride.

Rowan, age 6, and I just returned from a trip to the Midwest—spending 30+ hours on the legendary Southwest Chief from Union Station in Los Angeles to the small town of Newton, in the middle of Kansas—and then back again for 30 more hours.

Oh, it was nifty when we first saw “Our House” on the second level of the Chief’s coach car. Our House was what we dubbed the roomy side-by-side blue reclining chairs, across from the narrow twisting staircase to the upper level that we navigated with our bulky backpacks.

The spacious legroom in Our House was astonishing; Amtrak train seats totally trump cramped airplane seating. The overhead bin was virtually empty—perfect for the portable car booster seat we carried and Rowan’s pack. And the big windows had curtains!

My backpack—a large frame one I’m carrying (feeling foolish and conspicuous though I’m in training for long walking pilgrimage)—fit easily on the floor and made a divider of sorts between us.

Mom and brother Colin (age 3), who drove us to the station, seemed envious when they saw our traveling digs. But they kissed us goodbye and retreated down the stairs to the platform. The train pulled out; they waved and blew kisses and disappeared—and our adventure was underway.

Almost immediately, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder came out of the backpack. This was our read-aloud Trip Book to introduce us to the beauty and glory of the vast American Southwest and Midwest. (ALERT to others reading that book to children: I found a few places in that great book where the white pioneers’ prejudice against Indians was blatant, I chose to simply invent new dialog on the spot.)

But first, before we started reading, the underside of Los Angeles flashed by our window: huge parking structures, the city jail (I believe), acres of sorted recycled materials, miles of graffiti-covered industrial buildings. What a great way to see what really exists in LA!

Then came exploration. We’d had Vietnamese soup for supper before we left, right near the station in Chinatown, so we ignored the call for dinner in the dining car and did a brief walkabout.

The best thing was the large Dressing Room bathroom on the lower level via the steep twisted stairs. Two or three people could easily fit in it, for there was an enclosed toilet area and a large dresser-type mirror, bench, and sink. Sure beats the airplane bathrooms, hands down!

Next was the Observation Car. I loved this space—huge windows, plenty of light, the hubbub of happy travelers, meeting and greeting. Rowan, on the other hand, asked to return to Our House. What bothered her when we were there, I never figured out—perhaps she just wanted to be near her backpack in Our House. Or perhaps it was that her baby-doll needed to be fed.
Rowan feeding doll on train
Still we ignored the call—multiple calls—to the dining car. I have to say those officious announcements were the most bothersome thing about the whole train experience; they interrupted conversation, awakened the dozing, and on our first leg, had a down-right rude overtone. Fortunately the train crew changed at some point and more gracious attendants took over that job.

Finally we ran out of places to explore and got to our Trip Book. Chapter after chapter flowed by—and then it was time for bed, actually far beyond regular bedtime. Out came floppy brown Hippo (the most beloved stuffed animal in the entire world) and blankie (a small old quilt). Rowan changed into long pants while I held up blankie as a modesty curtain. I accompanied her to the restroom; she wouldn’t go there alone yet.

And then we tried to sleep. The announcements continued—for the dining car, for passenger stops along the way: “Please check the area around your seating and make sure you have all your belongings. This is not a smoking stop. We will discharge and board new passengers only. Do not step off the train if you want to continue with us to ___. We will leave prompt at ____, and if you’re not on the train when we pull out, you’ll have to continue on your trip on another train tomorrow.” Yikes!

All night: Barstow, CA. Kingman, AZ. Flagstaff. Winslow. We must have slept some, for suddenly it was Gallup, NM. The sun was coming up.

I was desperate for coffee; we went to the Snack Bar that opened before the Dining Car. And then it was time for real breakfast.

How civil to sit at the linen-covered booth tables, across from a pleasant retired couple eager to engage us in conversation, and have scrambled eggs and croissants!

Albuquerque was our next adventure. Our train came in early, surprise of all surprises, and it was close to lunchtime. We would have an extra 45-min at the station—and smokers could safely puff-away without fear of being left behind on the platform. Vendor tables lined the platform: Indian jewelry, fabric bags, souvenirs.

The station and fast-food area was not appealing. But it was what one encounters in hundreds of travel stations throughout the world—where staffing is minimal, restrooms are left filthy by travelers, food selection is limited, post-card and curio prices are high, and drifters nod on benches.

Hey, it’s a good experience to see this, to figure out what to eat as a vegetarian from a meat-sandwich-filled menu, to decide what postcards to send home to young brother. And to resist buying yet another stuffed animal.

Then it was back to Our House. The vast expanse of New Mexico sped by: the mesas, the scrub brush, miles and miles of that beautiful ochre soil, occasional grazing cows, horses, goats, even llamas. Distant glimpses of home in the distinctive Southwest and Santa Fe architectural style.

We made more forays into the Observation Car, though Rowan remained reluctant to go there. High school age eagle Boy Scouts headed for Raton, NM, were boisterous but polite; they played board games and cards together. Very few pieces of modern technology emerged. It was like the old days, when entertainment was interaction between live human beings.

Afternoon drifted into evening. Dinner was announced. We made early reservations so we’d have a chance of early sleep. The food was acceptable. The tail end of the Colorado mountains flashed by the dining car windows as the track led further east.

Then the endless plains and prairie appeared. Darkness fell. We brought out Rowan’s sketchbook and collaboratively—she dictating, I prompting and writing—we recorded the story of our day.

A few more read-aloud chapters, and we were ready to sleep. We would reach our destination at 3:30 in the morning. Uncle Jim was scheduled to pick us up at 4:30am.

Rowan slept; I dozed. In early morning darkness, we disembarked with many others in Newton, Kansas. I was surprised to find people from Oklahoma had driven there to get the train, for there is no east-west rail service in all of the vast Oklahoma plain.

What we did in our four days in Kansas is another story. It included a picnic in real tall-grass prairie, the kind a child or small woman could get lost in. It included multiple visits to Great-Grandmother Tillie in her nursing home, several prairie museum visits, picking tomatoes in Uncle Jim and Aunt Susan’s garden, walking in unexpected rain, lots of experiences with taking photos, and more reading—into another Wilder volume.

The return Amtrak trip was similar, but reversed: Uncle Jim took us to the station at 3:00am. This time Our House was in a less-traveled location. The seats across the aisle were open. We could spread out and sleep better.

And Rowan discovered a way to make a hide-out, which made the trip even more fun. By pulling out the tray table from the seat in front, and covering it with a scarf, it became a tiny secret cave—big enough for one six-year-old girl and her small trove of toys.

Union Station in LA appeared about 8:00am. Again we were early. But cell phone calls to Mom and Dad brought an on-time pick up and a very happy-to-see-you-again little brother.

“Grandma, next time we do this, maybe my friend, Alex—she’s five—and Colin could come, too!”

Categories : Traveling with Kids

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