We rolled out of Chicago on time at 2:15 PM. The ride to Milwaukee reminded me of the commuter train route I take when I visit the NBC home office in Connecticut. Short, halting and very little scenery. Things open up after that, however, as we rolled through lush Wisconsin farmland dotted with little red barns. Whoever designed the Wisconsin license plates was clearly inspired by a ride on the Empire Builder.
I’m researching and outlining a possible book project on this trip. It involves wading through 350 pages of legal documents and cross-referencing two other books. Based on how that sort of thing used to go back in my lawyering days – and based on how hard I find it to work when I’m on a plane – I was worried that I’d be unable to concentrate. But I fell into a nice working rhythm as the farmland went past.
It’s all about personal space. You simply have more of it on a train than you do when you fly. No, the 8’ x 4’ roomette I’m in is not luxurious, and if you’e expecting your house, a hotel room or the Orient Express, you’re in for a rude awakening. But I can shut out the rest of the world with a door and curtain if I’d like. I can put my feet up. I can scatter my documents all over the place and leave open books lying around without worrying about bumping someone’s elbow. I can walk around if I need to stretch my legs and get a drink if I want a drink. I’d never argue a train is a more quick or efficient way to get one’s ass across the country than flying is, but in an age of security theater, fasten-seat belt signs, air marshals and ever-shrinking legroom it’s certainly more human.
I plowed through a couple hundred pages of work before dinner, which is served cruise-ship style, in that if you’re less than a party of four you share a table with someone. My love of being alone notwithstanding, I found this to be a pleasant experience. I was joined by an older couple from the U.K. who are making their first visit to the United States and an ornithologist from Montana who was returning home after visiting family. We ate our better-then-you-might-expect steak and had a lively chat about the Mississippi River which we crossed during dinner, and English soccer. The Brits thought the Mississippi went east-west rather than north-south and we corrected them. I thought they said they supported Manchester United when they actually supported Leeds United and they corrected me. The ornithologist briefed us about how meals and tipping work on Amtrak, as he has traveled the Empire Builder at least once a year, every year, since the mid-1990s.
Back to my roomette for more work and the pleasure of doing something else I can’t do on a plane: cracking open my own bottle of whiskey I brought along, putting on a pair of pajama pants and laying back with my feet up. Did I mention that train travel is more human?
The sun went down and the sky turned a brilliant red just as we left Red Wing, Minnesota. As I write this it’s 10pm and we’re pulling into St. Paul. I’ve adjusted nicely to the gentle rocking of the train and anticipate a nice night’s sleep. When I wake up I’ll be someplace in North Dakota. I’ll get my bearings, walk down the hallway and get a fresh cup of coffee, stretch out a little and then get back to work.