amtrakWhen I was a kid in the ’40s, riding a train was glamorous. To me it wasn’t tuxedos and cocktail dresses in the lounge car. It was the hobos who hopped on and rode off to unknown but exciting places. They were the ones who saw new places while living with only what they could carry. That was my idea of creative travel.

I never had the chance to ride a real train until I was in college. I took a couple of trips from Springfield, Missouri up to the majestic Union Station in Kansas City. Not exactly the hobo adventure I’d dreamed of but, it was a train. 

After I married and the children came along, if we were going to go anywhere, it would be by car. In later years it would be by air for business and to see our grown children who have scattered themselves all over the country. 

Now that I’ve come to the “slow down” phase of my life, I’m back to a little bit of train travel. My mom still has the yen to travel and about three years ago she and I took a trip from Philadelphia to New York City and then up to Boston.  Last year my husband and I took a longer trip from Portland, Oregon down the west coast to southern California and back again. These two trips brought back the old hobo dream. 

So, a few weeks ago I took Amtrak’s Starlite Coach from Martinez, California down to Simi Valley, California. What a great way to travel! 

Here are some things I saw on the trip:

  •    The busy harbor south of Oakland
  •    Neon art work (some call it graffiti) on fences, buildings, boxcars – much of it quite beautiful
  •    Castorville – home of an annual Artichoke Festival. First queen of the festival? Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe
  •    Acorn Slough – home to thousands of migratory birds and two seals lounging on their backs
  •    Miles and miles of vineyards, some with green leaves, some brown and some with no leaves
  •    Old fashioned (late nineteenth century) train depots that have been refurbished
  •    Acres of green fields planted with broccoli and tomatoes
  •    The Pacific Ocean right outside the window, closer than any road

Inside the car you’ll find roomy seats equal to the size of first class air travel with plenty of leg room. Two levels of travel – upper level if you want a better viewing vista, lower level if you don’t want to climb the stairs. They have a snack bar (sandwiches, etc.) and a dining car (full breakfast, lunch and dinner). 

I think Amtrak has done a good job of customer service training because we have yet to encounter a grumpy employee, even during last year’s very busy holiday season. The porter on this last trip was fun and friendly, made sure people were awake and got off at the right station, offered to get things from the snack bar, helped with luggage, and all without the expectation of being tipped. He was genuinely surprised when I tipped him.

I’ve read and heard complaints about Amtrak. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. I studied my fellow passengers to see if this was a travel mode for the desperate who couldn’t afford anything else. I saw nicely dressed people with good quality luggage. Most were in their twenties/thirties or sixties/seventies. There were some families and a few businessmen and women. 

I think that to be a successful train traveler you have to not be in a hurry. They do not always keep to a tight schedule. Freight trains have the right-of-way so passenger trains have to wait for them. If you have the time, and most of us retirees do, this is a fun way to see all or part of the country. Did I mention that the trip through California cost me $44.20? I wouldn’t have been able to drive it for that. So if you too have that yen for a rhythmic ride on the rails, check out the Amtrak schedule and routes at Amtrak.com. Happy travels.     

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