When we stepped up onto the California Zephyr in Denver one hot July evening, my family had no idea what to expect. I’d booked the trip on the strength of fond childhood memories of chugging up the Northeast Corridor in the 1970s, in the infancy of Amtrak.
My husband, Todd, had no such memories to buoy him. As we found seats and settled in, I caught a fatigued, this-could-be-a-really-bad-idea look. He’s usually the better trooper when we travel with our three kids, but it was clear that I’d be heading the cheerleading squad to Chicago.
I reminded him that our train tickets had been darn inexpensive. Round trip for the five of us was about the cost of two plane tickets. I brought up the environmental advantages of trains, which are among the lowest carbon emitters of all travel options.
Todd didn’t seem to care. I was running out of upbeat commentary, when the kids came back, breathless, from their initial round of exploration and urged us to look at the sunset.
As we pulled out of Denver, the sun was a brilliant orange, slowly dropping behind the peaks we were leaving to the west. Todd leaned his forehead on the window, smiling. The magic of train travel was taking hold – and just in time, as it was almost bedtime.
To save money, we had foregone a sleeping car. Train seats are similar to first class airline seats. They recline, to some extent. We’d brought sleeping bags and pillows, but I was still expecting a rough night, similar to camping out. The kids, ages five, eight, and ten, slept great. As for Todd and me, we survived. We’re parents after all: a good night’s sleep is never guaranteed.
When we awoke the next morning with most of Nebraska behind us, the kids wanted to show us the Observation Car they’d discovered. It had a lounge-like feel, though not the dark and smoky kind. The seats, with small side tables, faced toward the enormous windows and swiveled, and there was more room to walk around than in the other cars.
It was fun to sit and discuss the passing scenery. A game of Train Bingo really kept us going, drawing in fellow child travelers. Here’s how it works: Adults make up a list of items likely glimpsed from a train window (a dog, a red truck, a windmill). Kids cross them out as they spot them. Our game focused everyone on the gems of the rural landscape.
The kids came up with names for each state we passed through. My favorite: Iowa, The Land of the Sinking Barns. You’ll get the image if you take the train through Iowa.
The community and camaraderie of the train continually surprised me. It was natural and easy to ask a neighbor where he or she was headed, or to chat about past travel experiences. No one was in a rush. The kids met and spent time with other children, and we didn’t resort to the novelty of the snack bar as much as I’d thought we might.
To this day, I can’t put my finger on exactly what made our children love the trip – both ways — so much. Yet they responded as I had as a child. I still remember the look on the face of Stephen, my ten year-old, as we crossed the Mississippi River which he’d just studied in school. He was awed and utterly amazed at the size of it.
Recently I came across the term, “slow travel” in Juliet Schor’s new book, Plenitude. The slow travel trend stresses travel to a destination as a full component of the vacation experience. Similar to the slow food movement, it seeks to “enhance the quality of the travel experience, as well as lighten the ecological footprint.”
As for Todd’s slow travel by train experience, he’s agreed to use Amtrak again at Thanksgiving. This time the five of us will take the train to Los Angeles. I think he’s coming around.
Have you had an especially positive (or negative) slow travel experience? Leave a comment below!
We did travel by train to Los Angeles last Thanksgiving and it was a lovely trip. We especially enjoyed watching the northern New Mexico landscape though our train window, and even saw some buffalo. Unfortunately for us, the L.A. bound train cannot be accessed in Denver. Thus, we drove four hours south to the cute town of Trinidad, CO to catch our train.
Luckily for us, our destination of southern Colorado had experienced a rich history of mining and labor uprisings, and we had a western historian behind the wheel. Numerous short stops were made, and small roadside plaques were read along the way. Don’t be too jealous. (And do consult with me first before making the Ludlow Massacre memorial a vacation destination with young children.) But I don’t mean to belittle this, it is truly a significant, and actually very sad, part of history in the western U.S. and you can read more about it (and other weird Colorado phenomena like having a Ku Klux Klan governor in the 1920s) in Todd’s new book!