My sister says you couldn't pay her to spend four nights on an Amtrak train, and I can see her point, but that's just what I am doing with my two sons. It will be a sentimental journey, because it is probably the last time the stars will align around vacations from work, school, and deadlines. Both boys have always loved trains; Alex has long wanted to take the California Zephyr. Can you blame him, with a name like that? The thought had never occurred to me, but I got right on board. I've been humming Sentimental Journey to myself for the last week--and please, while we're on it, give yourself a few minutes to listen to it on this YouTube link, and look at these pictures of Doris Day. I mean, does chic get any better than this? I learned this song as a child from my aunt, and I used to sing it to my sons as a slow lullaby, until the evening Theo looked up sleepily and begged me to stop, it was too sad.

In anticipation, my son Alex, who is responsible for organizing the whole trip, has worried about:

"Mom, you know, a train is a sort of a social place, and people, I mean strangers, might want to sit at the dinner table with us, and, um, you know, people talk to each other, I mean, people you don't know, and they kind of expect you to be friendly, you know?"

I snarled at him, just to put his mind at ease.

In anticipation, I worried about:

1. Having enough books, but being able to lift my bag for the plane ride home.
2. Having enough snacks, which goes with enough books, so that I don't have to pay the exorbitant bar car prices.
3. Having enough water, same as #2.
4. Having a comfortable enough pillow. I really hope Amtrak linens don't turn out to be those awful papery things they give you on planes.
5. Having enough games to play. So my son has bought the travel version of Settlers of Catan, a game with which we are all obsessed. And I have a deck of cards, though no idea what to do with cards. I plan to learn.
6. Having access to electricity, so I can use my computer.

That last is particularly irritating. I'm told there will be no access to the Internet on board. I wish this were a proactive decision on Amtrak's part: be quaint. Unfortunately, I think it is just another sign of how backwards things are getting. No Internet, however, is not what irritates me. What irritates me is my anxiety around being cut off from the Internet. I have grown to depend on it--for contact, for information, and for, yes, I admit, distraction. Being online does something to my frontal lobes, lights them up, activates them, juices them, and keeps me feeling lively. I flit from thing to thing, lighting everyone, settling nowhere. For the next week I am going to have to find a quieter rhythm of reading books and playing cards and looking out the window as the scenery unfurls. Just like the good old days. How quickly we make the future our present; how hard it is to disconnect from something that only a few years ago was a negligible part of my life. Another dimension to the journey, I suppose. Penn Station, from which we depart to catch the route from Chicago, is hardly anyone's idea of an elegant, promising place for a send-off. But who cares? This whole thing is magical. Like a child, I'm all anticipation, waiting for that All Aboard!



Your trip sounds wonderful and with your sons? You are creating a wonderful memory for the whole family.
It could be nice not to have access to the Internet. More time for talking, musing, reading and dreaming .. you know, what we use to do.

Ashling said...

What a fabulous adventure, especially for such a gifted writer! Enjoy every moment with your sons, and know that you have many fans waiting to hear all about the trip.

JD said...

What I would give to be able to be with my son on such a trip! And what a nice way to start the NEW Year!Have FUN!jd

Anonymous said...

Where are you ending up? I think blackberries work on a train. Have fun, relax and stay in the present. I took a river rafting trip with my sons one year after I got divorced. It was memorable for so many reasons. Have fun.

quintessence said...

Oh I'm so envious (of yet another trip of yours). When I was 9 we went cross country on the 20th Century Limited (from NY to Chicago) and then the California Zephyr from Chicago to LA. I still remember it like it was yesterday - we had so much fun - the train ride was better than the vacation!! And then right after college I took the train across Canada - also memorable - stopping at Banf, Lake Louise, Jasper and ending in Vancouver. I must add that if you wish, there is a solution to your internet situation. I recently bought a verizon portable MiFi. It is amazing!! My service is actually with AT&T but for an extra monthly fee I have this handy wonder which supplies an internet connection via 3G anywhere they have phone service - and the best part is that it doesn't have to be plugged in to your computer - just nearby - and supplies the connection for up to 5 appliances (ie - laptops etc).

Anonymous said...

My family (two boys also) took the old silver Burlington California Zepher in 1968 from Chicago to LA, I was 10 and my brother was 12, it was dreamy. We stopped along the way staying at the Broadmoore and generally touring the American west. We took the Southern Pacific down the coast to Texas from LA, then we flew home, it seemed to take all summer. My father died that September- the trip was his idea, he knew the Burlington line was slated to close and be replaced by Amtrak so he wanted his children who only traveled by plane to know the quite pleasures of rail travel. He was 60 in 1968 so his vision of travel was much more old fashioned...your 2 sons are very lucky.

If you have the time while stopped in Chicago catch a cab to the Museum of Science and Industry-they actually have an original silver Zepher on display!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

My father worked for Southern Railway, so I grew up on trains. Mother and I would often travel to visit out of state relatives. Magic, magic trips for a child. You might want to read about it here....


Have a wonderful time!

My Dog-Eared Pages said...

It sounds like SO much fun to me! I must check out Settlers of Catan - I've never heard of it. Have a wonderful trip ; )

Judith Ross said...

Have a wonderful trip. We also love playing Settlers of Catan with our two grown sons. Glad to know there is a travel version. We may be doing a similar trip across Europe with at least one of our young men this summer, so I especially look forward to your post-trip update.


Beth said...

Have a wonderful trip! I once rode an Amtrak from Boston to Florida, it was quite an adventure.

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming you will have a berth. Take pillows, down comforter, flashlight, wet wipes. Really. And you can have your meals brought to your berth.

Lisa Stockwell said...

I have wanted to take that trip for years to duplicate the one my grandmother made two times a year between Oakland and Boston when she attended Wellesley from 1916 to 1919. She wrote about it often in her diary and I keep playing with creating a fictional version of her life.
Are you adverse to carrying a Kindle instead of a suitcase full of books? They're great for travel. And an iPhone because it let me check out stuff on the Internet without obsessing over it. (It also has a great time-wasting game, Angry Birds, that is a kick—and I've never been one to play computer games.) Of course in between the chattering with strangers, you will have more time than ever to pull out a blank pad and write for as long as you want. Sounds like heaven. Enjoy the journey!

Thea said...

you are so lucky. i'd give anything to take a road trip with just my boys. they're married now so it shall never happen. but we did go on a carnival cruise back in '05 - just the three of us and it was hilarious. so have a great, great time. and i'm thinking you won't even miss the internet!!

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

1. "Thea" is right...once those boys are married (no matter how many times they do it), you'll not have this chance again.

2. Actually, my first REAL memory is of taking the Crescent line down to NOLA with my mother and older (by less than a year) brother. I was about 3 or 4 at the time. I recall being utterly fascinated by some huge, metal rack/stand..on which were suspended hundreds (or at least it seemed so to me) of bags of various chips and snacks...which swung back and forth when the train went around curves.

3. And back to the previous topic of handling boys who are caught in that tiresomestage between 18-&-the-time-some-other/younger-woman-takes-them-off-your-maternal-hands?.....

During my junior year of high-school, my favorite great-aunt (who was, indeed, a grand old lady of a quite readily identifiable class and background) had a stroke. It fairly scrambled her brains, although she was, actually, more bird-brained happy than she'd been since sometime during the Lydon Johnson adminstration's innovations.

In any case...I paid her a call at the rest-home the week before I was scheduled to haul my 17 year-old tail off to Sewanee (otherwise known as the University of The South....an old-line Episcopalian school which she and my extended family have cause to know quite well).

She told me (or sort-of-me, since she seemed to think I was my father's favorite cousin) that she was glad to have heard I'd chosen Sewanee over Princeton. And then she added "Just promise me ONE thing....ALWAYS wear a hat on the train. ALL the men in our family do. People get on trains these days and dress as though they haven't even gone downstairs yet...." (i.e., she meant that people dressed on trains a though they were still in their bedrooms).

I told her that I would make sure I wore my hat. I did not tell her (and this was in 1978) that we hadn't had a nice-folks' passenger train running in our end of Tennessee for at least 25 years.

Anyway....tell those boys of yours to wear hats on the train.Otherwise, they might be taken for someone who could be just anybody.

Advisedly yours as ever,

David Terry

Anonymous said...

Bon Voyage! I'm looking forward to hearing all about it!

mary said...

You are so blessed that the boys want to both go!! This will be a trip of a life time. Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Great adventure! I'm sure you will make copious notes (though you didn't say anything about writing on board, just reading...) and share all the details with us when you get back on the grid. Four days with my 25-year-old son captive would be this mother's dream. Have a marvelous time.

Karena said...

Dominique you will have such an adventure with your boys!!

I am excited to hear more!

Art by Karena

Warren said...

Enjoy the endless vibration. Get into a Zen space! I spent a passionate year traveling around Amtrak and photographing. I discovered when you backward panned the camera (holding on an object) you got great blurring effects the made the image iconographic. Try it.
ALSO don't leave your bags outside your compartment. I had a camera stolen from one.
And look at that dining car as one moving communal table. Enjoy.

Hilary said...

If you really really REALLY want internet access on the train, get a dongle. But even that will be intermittent. Better to switch off and enjoy the ride--every moment you're online is a moment not present on the journey...
If you find you hate the dining car experience, you can have meals served in your cabin. Going through the Rockies last year we resorted to this, but that was more because of the truly terrible dining car service.
It will be a wonderful experience. I'm so happy for you!

Nancy EB said...

Best of luck on your journey! I got so many great idea reading these comments - even checked out the verizon mobile thing. I would love to try this train trip and it would be so nice to go with my 24 y.o. son. He would need internet I think as he's quite attached to it. Hopefully they would have some gluten-free food options! I also did the cross Canada train in the 70's. Magnificent views careening thru the mountains. Looking forward to your stories! Bon voyage.

Layanee said...

I know you love books. I love books but, for train, plane and automobiles, get a Kindle. Bon voyage!

Anonymous said...

I did this with our girls several years ago. They had a forest ranger on the train that highlighted elements of the track through New Mexico. It was wonderful. We have made train voyages in West, Central and Eastern Europe, China, Mongolia, Korea, India and Indonesia. My girls loved everyone.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco as part of our honeymoon two years ago. You absolutely will not be bored. We had a wonderful time talking and relaxing, reading and watching the gorgeous scenery.

Part of the fun is eating with other folks in the dining car. We met fascinating people with great stories to tell.

Oh, and pack some wine and a corkscrew. We bought a couple bottles in Chicago and were glad to have this with us. Socializing with new friends is fun, but we also liked having some drinks in our sleeper cabin.

vicki said...

i am so envious! Enjoy!! Eager to read your posts, whenever they come.

Anonymous said...

from Garrison Keillor today

Night Journey
by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems) -->
Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night.
To see the land I love.

"Night Journey" by Theodore Roethke, from Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems.

Streams Full of Stars said...

Guess that's why a journey by train is so pleasant - being cut off from the world at large! One day dream of the Orient Express...on the Bucket list for sure. Such a rush of nostalgia re. the song Sentimental Journey and the Doris Day era - when we knew all the words by heart, and she was elegant, funny, feisty, and all the things movie-going girls longed to be! Hope the three of you enjoyed your trip. What a fine memory!

Aaron said...

Happy new year, hope you had a great trip, come down to Texas in April, another garden party for Great Dixter, would love to talk when you have the time.


c said...

I'm with your sister - not enough money in the universe to make me be a passenger for 4 days. (Only once did my husband and I take a cruise and we will not book another one anytime soon).

Give me a plane ride, with all the annoying security issues we endure these days, even a really long car drive. BUt no trains, thank you very much. I think my problem with a long train ride comes down to being unable to just get out and explore whichever town seems intriguing ... lack of control?

But I'm all for the amazing memories you and your sons will create. Imagine telling your future grandchildren about it!

So, yes. I wish you and your boys safe travels, and most of all a very happy-memory-making-time.

btw, I recently and reluctantly acquired an e-reader. Downloaded enough books to keep me happy for the 10 days we were away. Weightless wonders, those e-readers! Now that I'm back at home, I'm back to real books. I will never travel with heavy books again

Katie said...

I took a short ride from SF to LA on Amtrak once and it was one of the best things I remembered from my one month in the West coast. Traveling by train is definitely the way to go.

BTMo said...

How exciting...

I took a similar Amtrak journey/vacation in August last year. I traveled for about 12 days from Washington, DC to Boston then across country through Chicago to Seattle, WA, then south to Portland, OR, then even further south to Sacramento, CA then northeast through Colorado and the Rockies to Chicago and then finally southeast back home through West Virgina to DC. It was amazing, the scenery across the US is gorgeous, the people were surprisingly calm and quite interesting in their individual ways - I guess with hours and hours until you reach your destination and a car full of people you've been with for 2 days, you don't have a choice but to relax and be nice. The food on board was surprsingly good. And buying random items at the rest stops in places like Grand Junction, CO was so exciting.

The stories could go on for days. I hope you all took lots and lots of pictures. It helps to explain things like what a sea of trees looks like at the top of the mountains where only the Amtrak train goes in Washington. Or the wild animals roaming free in Montana and Nebraska.

I hope you and your boys had an amazing trip and that you are inspired to do it again sometime soon.

I'm strongly considering the across Canada trip as my next adventure. Will keep you posted.