Trains, Strangers, and a cross country adventure


July 22, 2019 by readlisaread

I was given an opportunity this summer to receive recognition for my work in educational technology, specifically as an Apple Distinguished Educator.  I’m still processing what THAT means– to be welcomed into a community of educators who share my passion and values and belief in what is possible. The 27 years or so leading up to that recognition is for a future post.  This is the story of the 4 days leading up to the event.

I was responsible for arranging my own travel, so as I started looking at the flight options, I was reminded that I had often wished I could take a train journey.  The institute was being held for four days in Bethesda, Maryland, which is a short distance from Washington DC. The trip planning was pretty straight forward, the hardest part was waiting for Go day.  Here is a synopsis of the journey, stories from the journey follow…

Leg (by Amtrak):

  • 1-Duncan to Vancouver.
  • 2-Vancouver to Seattle
  • 3-Seattle to Chicago
  • 4-Chicago to Washington DC
  • 5-Washington Bethesda Maryland

Return (By Air Canada):

  • Bethesda to Washington
  • Washington to Toronto
  • Toronto to Vancouver
  • Vancouver to Duncan

So, 1 & 2 are not super interesting — the real journey began in Vancouver, but I had to get to the depot by 5:30 am if I wanted to do the whole route by train.  Otherwise it was a coach bus from Vancouver to Seattle. Perfectly adequate, but they never made a movie about Cary Grant riding a bus. The other advantage of having taken the early train is the extra time it would have given me in Seattle.  As it was, though, I had a couple of hours to walk around Pioneer Square and have some lunch in a funky diner.

Next, boarding the train– The Empire Builder to Chicago.  Tip: I carried on a small case and checked a bigger one all the way through.  However, I didn’t know it, but there are luggage racks in the sleeping cars– I could have left a bag there just as easily.  However, my bag arrived at my ultimate destination, and I didn’t have to man-handle it.  Next… the On Train Experience:

So while all of this looking out the window and yelling (in my head) I’M ON A TRAIN!! there were announcements over the intercom. For the first night, there were two retired park rangers who narrated the travel through Washington and into Montana. As well, the dining car manager came through and offered reservations in the dining car. When you travel in the Sleeping Compartment (as opposed to sitting in coach seats) your fare includes all meals for the journey.  During my journey I enjoyed surf and turf (a delicious steak perfectly cooked to order and a crabcake), mussels, and a delicious steak salad,  Breakfasts were mainly scrambled eggs and bacon. The only thing I wanted to try but just didn’t have time to was chiliquilies. When arriving at the dining car, regardless of which meal, a dining car attendant seats you at a table.  Because I was travelling solo, I sat with different people each meal, and enjoyed the company of a “woofer” from Serbia, several retired couples, a teacher, retired teacher and a few single parents delivering or collecting kids for summer stays. I also met some interesting people in the observation car– a glass-topped car, open to all, with comfortable seating facing the big floor-to-ceiling windows. my favourite interaction, and I am SO ANGRY I was too polite to ask for a photo with this young fellow, so, you’ll have to imagine him as best you can, gentle reader.  Elegantly attired in a fedora, white shirt and tie, suit jacket carefully folded over the chair arm, beautifully polished Oxford wingtips, and a neatly trimmed little mustache adorning his other-wise clean-shaven face. I sat beside him and we commented on the passing scenery, in the way strangers do, as they make small talk. Eventually talk turned to more personal topics.  He was in the airforce, and had been spending a bit of leave time with a buddy celebrating a custom-made holiday of their own design– Churchill Day.  They spent the day dressed as Winston Churchill would dress, eating, drinking and playing golf as Churchill did– including a full bottle (each) of champagne at lunch, cigars, and other post-WW2 extravagances. His future plans include a run for public office once out of the Forces.


At dinner on night 2 I sat with a Father and Daughter pair who were traveling home together after attending a family event out west.  Our fourth was a retired Special Ops-military fellow from Treasure Island, Florida.  We had a great conversation that included whiskey, wedding crashing and world travels to remote places.  I wished we could have talked more, but the turn over in the dining room cut our conversation short.  But not before I remarked to Mr. Florida that it sounded as if he had had some amazing adventures.  His response, in his Southern drawl, was one of the high points of my trip.  “Oh Sweet Child,” he said, “You have no idea.”  Another mystery…


We arrived at the end of Day 3 to Chicago’s Union Station, where I would change trains for the final leg of my journey, aboard the Capitol Limited to Washington, DC.  There was no time for sight-seeing, as we arrived an hour late (be prepared for the Amtrak loose approach to timetables.) We were late arriving, but then further delayed boarding my connecting train due to some sort of mechanical issue. Then, as time passed, the train waited a little longer to await other connecting passengers from a different delayed train and THEN further delayed as the train bridge across the Chicago river was raised for water traffic.  Finally, 4 hours later, we were underway.

As we approached Washington, we passed through major centres in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  There was also a number of Pennsylvanian Dutch and Hutterites riding the train. It was an interesting cultural clash.  I wasn’t able to engage any of them in conversation, but from their bonnets to long dresses and taciturn expressions, it was exactly as one imagines.

Not at all taciturn was the last couple I met at breakfast on the last day.  They were headed home to Washington, and we passed several hours chatting about train travel, the governments of our respective countries, and weather. Somehow, despite the surface level of our conversation, I seemed to have made an impression (of some sort).  Later that afternoon, as we waited for our checked baggage, I waved at my breakfast companions across the way.  One of them came over to bid me safe travels, and to tell me they enjoyed meeting me, and couldn’t believe I had traveled across the country alone- they were impressed with my moxy.  I was touched by the sentiment, but couldn’t imagine a safer and more comfortable way to journey.  It was the perfect end to a (trite, I know, but true) magical journey.

Four days later, I would take a shuttle to Ronald Regan International Airport, where my first flight would be an hour late departing…setting off a chain reaction of running through airports, racing up to gates, and high-fiving total strangers when I made it on the third (and final) plane to get home.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What are you searching for?

Wait…what did you say again?

Skip to toolbar