Traveling without moving and endless coffee

“I swear if this car rocks anymore I’m gonna just forget sleeping at all.”

I said into the air, exasperated.

I’d taken the Autotrain from Lorton, Virginia to Orlando, Florida over the holidays. I had access to a condo just outside the House of the Mouse. I had no intention of actually going there, but I’d never taken this train before. Being a ferroequinologist, I could no longer make the excuse.

Somewhere in the back of the train, two hundred cars were safely enclosed in their carriers. Cold and dark, gently swaying on the tracks. This was the longest passenger train in the world, but I couldn’t figure out if the people, or the cars, had more space.

I was at the exact opposite end of the train; the cars behind the locomotives, perpendicular to the direction of travel. I was desperate to get some sleep. Every time the train crossed switch tracks, the car would rock from side to side. From this angle, and my position, it felt as if I was jumping in place. Which was all the more disconcerting since I was laying down.

Georgia was particularly bad. Still an hour to go before we crossed the line into the Sunshine State.

*bump*

“That’s it.”

I pulled my headphones off and sat up in my bunk. It was pitch black outside; no stars, no moon. Nothing. We could be traveling in the limitless black of space for all I knew. But it would probably rock less.

Swinging my legs over, my feet instantly found my sneakers and I slipped them on. I took a deep breath and hauled myself up.

My back screamed in protest, almost throwing me back into my bunk. A sore back was precisely what I was trying to avoid.

I opened the door swiftly, wanting to get over the shock of the hallway light as fast as possible. I’ve always been a ‘rip the band-aid off’ kind of guy. The white light slowly resolved into the car. The long hallway stretched down to the opposite sleeper. Doors and windows of the smaller “roomettes” running down the hall opposite each other. It was very uniform and mechanical, but that was somehow relaxing given the chaos of the rocking car.

Halfway down I took the very narrow staircase up to the next level of the car. I could barely squeeze my shoulders through the tight space. It almost felt like a coffin standing on end. Everything on this train felt small. Except me it seemed.

When I arrived on the top level, the coffee and tea station greeted me. “I love endless coffee.” I smiled to myself. But I was going for bigger prey. The cafe car.

For what seemed like a mile of cars I walked. Pushed right up against the right side of the car, my neck strained to bend and yet stay upright as I made my way down the endless hallways. Every six feet a new door and window combination would pop up on my left. Some of the solid doors were open, others just had their curtains drawn. This level was all just rooms with no beds. Like the setting in any movie about the golden age of rail.

The endless sameness of car after car like this seemed to give me speed to move as fast as I could. Also being two in the morning meant that no one was going to be in my way.

Finally I’d reached my destination. I knew this not because I had walked into the car, but I was met by several people coming the other way. Reeking of alcohol, but politely mannered, they walked past me, slurring out a few “hechlows” and smiling. The bar had just closed and they were, hopefully, making their ways back to their bunks to sleep it off.

Walking into the car finally, I was relieved to find I was the only one there. The glass ceiling arched overhead. A cloud-filled sky, and without a moon it was as dark as a cave.

Looking to my left out of the windows I spied a solitary pair of headlights heading south along I-95. The alignment ran parallel to the tracks. What a hard drive that must be; 95 was only one lane in each direction here, and even a slight miscalculation can send you into a guardrail, like Michael J. Fox in Doc Hollywood .

I sauntered over to the endless coffee machine. Took my time pouring my brew, perused the selection of snacks, and finally took a seat in the back corner of the car. In the dimmest spot possible.


The Dining Car, outfitted in its frugal, yet functional adornments. Here set for dinner. Image: Trains Magazine, July 16, 2019

Sitting there, feeling the car rock, in a comforting angle this time, my warm cup in my hand, I slowly sipped. I tasted the exquisite brew filling my mouth. Who was I kidding, it was Amtrak coffee. It’s nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done. It was also endless and free.

Gazing out of the window again, I spied another pair of lonesome headlights. I have a friend who drives this route, and for the life of me I can’t understand why she doesn’t take the train. It’s so much more civilized.

I liked this. This whole experience. The cramped quarters, the rocking cars, the glass ceiling, the amazing staff, the feeling of traveling without moving through the black.

I raised my cup to the lonesome headlights. She has her reasons I guess. But I like sitting here with my coffee. I bet she’d like it too.

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