Mon 6 Jul 2015
Lynn and I took Amtrak halfway across the country and back three weeks ago on a frustrating trip that went nowhere but cost a fortune to get there.
Here’s what happened. I am a member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which this year held its annual conference in Columbia, Missouri. The conferences move around. Next year’s will be in Australia. Last year’s was in Durango, Colorado.
Lynn’s and my conference fees came to $1,250, but we considered it money well spent. Last year’s conference was the first we had attended, and both of us were impressed by the community-newspaper editors from around the world whom we met.
Organized discussions ranged from newspaper ethics to how to cover major disasters. Moreover, the group presented me with its Eugene Cervi Award for my years as an editor, and I returned to West Marin just glowing.
This year’s conference was scheduled for June 24 to 28 in Columbia. Lynn and I decided to travel by Amtrak as we had last year, for we had thoroughly enjoyed the ride. We would take the train to Ottumwa, Iowa, rent a car, and drive the rest of the way to Columbia, so we reserved a sleeper compartment for $1,329 roundtrip.
However, as I’ve noted here before, a year ago I came down with temporal arteritis (an inflammation of the artery in one’s temples that feeds blood to the eye). Left untreated temporal arteritis can cause blindness, so the doctor put me on a 10-month regimen of Prednisone (a steroid). As the months went by, he had me slowly taper off on the dosage until it got down to nothing just before we left for Columbia.
There are numerous problems with Prednisone, however, and in my case one side effect was being constantly weary. Another was frequently losing my sense of balance. Falling down on stairs became commonplace but caused no serious injuries. However, a fall while weed-whacking on Memorial Day and another fall at the end of May bruised my ribcage to where it became painful to walk.
Nonetheless, Lynn and I were determined to travel to Missouri for the newspaper conference. We already had a roundtrip ticket to Ottumwa on Amtrak, and we reserved a car from Enterprise in Ottumwa for $175 per day.
And so it was that on June 22 we drove to the Amtrak station in Emeryville where our train was more than an hour behind schedule, but Amtrak is notoriously late much of the time, so we thought nothing of the delay. Because Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks it travels on, its trains have to give way to any freight trains that come along.
Our engineer was trying to make up time, we were told, but the train was about four hours behind schedule by the time we reached Colorado. And in Colorado things really slowed down. Track maintenance caused more than a few delays, and when we finally reached Nebraska, these delays seemed nonstop.
Part of the problem resulted from a rainstorm in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. In some places the tracks were flooded, and in others, springs gurgled up between the rails.
The view along the tracks in Nevada sometimes seemed a pretty good symbol of our Amtrak trip. (Photos by Lynn Axelrod)
We crept through western Nebraska, getting a good chance to inspect everyone’s back yard. They’re much tidier in Nebraska than in Utah, Nevada, and California where abandoned car parts and dilapidated buildings dominate the scenery in a some places.
I slept most of the way but got up three times a day for meals. After a couple of days, however, the lurching of the train was aggravating the pain in my ribs. Getting to the dining car or the restrooms required walking down narrow corridors in several cars, and despite trying to be careful, I was occasionally thrown against the walls of the corridor.
So I downed a bunch of Ibuprofen. Bad idea. With nothing such as yogurt available to buffer the painkiller, I was sick as a dog by the time we reached Ottumwa. That convinced us to spend the night in a hotel before traveling on. We rented a room near the train station for $90 per night, and I climbed into bed. Lynn meanwhile headed out to pick up the Enterprise rental car we had reserved. The agency, however, told her that because of the rainstorm, no vehicles were available or would be for several days .
Hertz was out of cars too, but Lynn finally found a family business that had a car for rent at $220 a week, and she took it. By the next morning, however, I was ready to go home. My stomach was still queasy, and my walking was reduced to shuffling because of my balance problem.
Amtrak told us the next train west would be that evening, and the only compartment available was a “family room,” which provided more space for stretching out but cost an additional $822. We bought a ticket and returned to the hotel to sleep all day for an additional $90.
Glenwood Springs along the Colorado River was one of the more attractive towns where the train stopped.
When we arrived at the Ottumwa train station that evening, Lynn and I encountered a new set of problems. Our train couldn’t get to Ottumwa because of the bad weather, so we would be put on a bus for a four-hour ride to Omaha where we would catch the train which would arrive from Chicago by a circuitous route. We had become resigned to our fate and agreed to the arrangement.
The bus was full of Amtrak passengers, and when we all got to Omaha about 11:30 p.m., we learned our train wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Lynn and I were irritated. Several passengers who were heading to the airport in Denver were angry about missing their flights. Much of the throng spent the night in the train station. Lynn and I rented a hotel room nearby for $188.
The next morning Lynn and I arrived at the Amtrak station early only to have our train show up an hour and a half late. Our family room was relatively comfortable for resting. That was good because we kept falling further and further behind schedule. The delays were felt even in the dining car which began running out of various foods.
Amtrak serves good fare, but at the end of the trip all it could offer for our last meal was a bowl of rice with three spoonfuls of beef stew on top. The good part was that we were always seated with other passengers who inevitably were intelligent, friendly people.
Twelve hours behind schedule our train finally rolled into Emeryville, and just over an hour later we rolled back into Point Reyes Station. Unfortunately when we began unpacking, we discovered we’d left a $500 camera and a $40 pocket knife on the train. Lynn called Amtrak, but no one had turned them in. At least no one broke into our house while we were gone, we told each other, but then we discovered our stapler was missing. I just about became unstuck.
Our trip to the Midwest had cost more than $4,400, but I wouldn’t have minded had we actually reached the ISWNE conference. From what I’ve now read in ISWNE’s report on the event, those who did make it had a very good time and learned a lot.