Before I stepped foot on the 51 Cardinal, a train that connects Philadelphia to Chicago, I befriended a fellow passenger on the platform. Or rather she befriended me.
The lady, henceforth known as The Nice Lady, was sweet and Midwestern in every way. She was a veteran of #trainlife, having made the trek to visit family on the east coast many times. I couldn’t believe I had found someone else who actively chose the full 26-hour ride to Chicago (instead of a 2-hour flight), let alone someone who had been making that choice regularly for decades.
The Nice Lady told me she preferred the train.
“It’s safer,” she said and upon seeing my incredulous face, added, “And if I’m gonna die, I’d rather be close to the ground.”
Possible Amtrak Ad #1
Headline: Travel like nice people
Subhead: Close to the ground, always
After The Nice Lady helped me figure out where to board (neither of us had gotten sleeping cars), I found an empty row to make my home base. Holy leg room. The seats were wide and spread apart, designed for either NBA players, sumo wrestlers or medieval giants. My gams were free-swinging with abandon as I flicked on “Train Tunes”, a playlist made by my friend Jill who, among other talents, knows a lot of locomotive-themed music.
Train Tunes on Spotify
Earbuds in, I looked around at my fellow passengers. The car held quite a few obese people, elderly couples, a few families with young kids, several nuns and more Mennonites than I expected. So this is who takes the train, I thought. People hesitant with technology, demanding of space and comfort, the very tall, the very fat, those with time to kill and a few people like me who still possess nostalgic notions of cross-country train travel. Long live the outcasts.
Possible Amtrak Ad #2
Headline: We put the sure in leisure
Subhead: Legroom? Sure. Smoke breaks? Sure. Little to no security? You know it.
The train pulled out of 30th Street Station and we were off. The train cut through Delaware and Maryland and continued south to Washington DC. The track then passed through Virginia (and lots of it), West Virginia, a bit of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and finally, the one and only stop in Illinois, Chicago.
Efficiency is not the Cardinal’s forte. But making stops sure is.
Having a whole row to myself didn’t last long.
In Washington DC, I acquired my first of three seatmates. (The Nice Lady sat several rows in front of us). For most of Virginia, I sat next to a girl who was my age but dressed much nicer. She fell asleep fairly quickly.
When I got hungry, I slipped past my sleeping seatmate and headed to the dining car. Walking through a moving train was a less graceful experience than I anticipated, but with the most literal interpretation of the word swagger, I made it.
My options were the cafe car or the dining car, the latter having white paper tablecloths and waiter service. I couldn’t resist the artificial formality of it and decided to dine in, restaurant-style. I ordered the rigatoni pasta and it tasted like warm rigatoni pasta. What more could you ask for?
Possible Amtrak Ad #3
Headline: Like wine on ice? You’ll love our dining cars
Subhead: The best food available at 100 mph
Over the loudspeaker, the conductor announced the train was fully sold and all available seats would soon be filled. In Staunton, Virginia, my first seatmate got off and my second got right on. This guy, also around my age, was wearing a Packers shirt, and thus we didn’t talk.
I started The Girl on the Train instead and took in the view. Of all the states we passed through, West Virginia offered the best vistas: green rolling hills, wispy layers of fog, waterside shanties made of wood and glass.
Somewhere in West Virginia and also the only photo I took
For dinner, I got some hummus from the cafe car and then settled into my seat for the night. As the sky outside darkened, the air inside became icy and I pulled out my rain jacket as a makeshift comforter. I only slept for an hour at a time, but I managed to string several one-hour naps together as the train coasted through the rest of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.
Possible Amtrak Ad #4
Headline: Don’t be pig-headed, get a sleeping car
Subhead: Lie flat like a real person
At 5 am or so, my second seatmate got off in Indianapolis and I got the row to myself for a few stops. Since the seat was open, The Nice Lady came by to set her luggage there and reorganize. She was putting a blanket and pillow back in her bag, two items I definitely didn’t have with me.
“That was smart to bring a blanket,” I said. “It got so cold last night.”
“Oh, I would’ve moved next to you sooner if I’d known. We could’ve shared my blanket, it’s big enough.”
The Nice Lady, everybody. You just don’t find people like this on airplanes.
Possible Amtrak Ad #5
Headline: More stops, more smiling faces
Subhead: Meet the nicest people in the world on the slowest form of transportation
Somewhere in Indiana, my third and final seatmate boarded. Like The Nice Lady, she was also a Midwestern grandma and we became fast friends. Her ride to Chicago was only three hours long and she had many questions for me. It only took 23 hours, but I had become the resident train expert.
“Have you walked through the train?” she asked me.
“Yes. The next car is the cafe, then the dining car where you can sit down. Then there’s more seating beyond that.”
“You’re so brave. I couldn’t do that.”
Correction: I had become the resident train expert and a beacon of bravery.
We hit some freight delays, but were only a few minutes late pulling into Union Station. I lifted my backpack over my shoulders, grabbed my giant duffel bag and was thusly reminded that I hadn’t just hung out on a hotel on wheels, but moved my entire life across the country. It was so cushy I almost forgot.
That may be the real beauty of train travel: there’s an incredible amount to be distracted by—warm food, legroom, expansive views, nice Midwesterners you’d otherwise never meet. I highly recommend it. If you have the time to kill, go forth and kill it. Maybe that should be Amtrak’s next ad campaign.