Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Sleeping My Way…Not to the Top But Across Country–Riding the Rails


Train robbers.  Political intrigue.  Murder.  Romance.  The very name “sleeper car” stirs up spectral memories of movies past.  Cary Grant, Cat Ballou, James Bond, Harry Potter.  How can anyone spend the night in a railway sleeper car and not have an adventure?

Last spring my husband and I decided it was time for us to park our car, avoid the airport, and board a train to travel across the continent—or at least halfway across the continent.  We boarded in Colorado and headed for L.A.  Neither of us had ridden a train since we were children.  We were absurdly excited and crammed all our clothing for the week into two backpacks.  I wanted to wear “something fetching,” as they say in the movies – something befitting Audrey Hepburn.  But I don’t resemble Audrey Hepburn except for the gender, so I settled on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers–which turned out to be a good choice.  Train stairways between levels are skinny and steep.

Our little compartment seated us facing one another.  Although our seats were narrower (our train had sleeper compartments on both sides of the central passageway), we were more comfortable than Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express and had a nicer window.  The sliding glass doors dividing us from the hallway weren’t as picturesque as his, but they could be closed and covered with curtains for privacy and relative quiet.  We slid ours shut and settled back, content in our little world.

The ride surprised me.  I suppose I was expecting some clackity-clacking and swaying, but we glided into motion.  We could have been riding on air.  We whooshed forward with no jolt at all.  The scenery slipped past, slowly enough that we could peer at interesting features.  Speaking of slowly, train travel might force hyperactive people to bite their nails.  Because of the precipitous rise in altitude over the pass, we crept along for an hour to cross into New Mexico—a car ride of 20 to 30 minutes on the parallel highway.  We were glad the pass was pretty and included a tunnel to hurry us along.  Then the train stopped to let more people on and off at the next town.

People say train travel is relaxing and they’re perfectly correct.  No maps, no traffic, no rest stops.  You won’t get lost or cut off before your exit.  I couldn’t help drawing a long, slow breath.  The train was the perfect antidote to the wretched stress of the previous weeks at my job.  My husband pulled out his Kindle and started to read.  I vaguely recalled reading for pleasure in my distant past, but I couldn’t do better than nonfiction on this trip.  Better not to shock the system.

Meals came with our tickets, and we were called to dinner according to our time reservations, given to a porter.  The dining car didn’t disappoint me with its white table cloths and real (but not elegant) table service.  The food was tastier than I expected and constructed on site, although we didn’t have many choices.  Even people with hearty appetites seemed content.  To hasten service, each booth must be filled, so a couple shares the space with another couple—sometimes a treat, sometimes not so much.  At last it was time to experience all that the sleeper car has to offer.  We didn’t purchase the pricier room options, so we had to use the public restroom that belonged to the car.  Actually, I think there were two restrooms and a shower room in our car on the two levels.  Neither of us had the bravado to attempt a shower during our trip, but the restroom was pretty much like the ones you enjoy on airplanes—not a place to think great thoughts.  Neither is it a great place to change clothes.

A porter prepared our beds for us while we waited in the passageway, and we stood in our doorway and gawked when we first saw them.  The bottom bunk was an extension between the seats, of course, while the top bunk folded down from the ceiling—not very far down, however.  A teeny, tiny set of molded steps led up to the top bunk.  We had been using them to hold a backpack.

In the United States, we have an unwritten law that says heavy people shouldn’t travel.  They don’t fit well in airline seats and they wouldn’t fit well in sleeper cars.  I have no clue how a truly heavy person would change clothes in an economy sleeper car with the beds down.  He would have, what seemed to me to be, maybe 18 inches to a foot between the door and the edge of the beds.  I balanced on the steps to dress, while my husband contorted himself half in and half out of the lower bunk.  We got the job done, although the neighbors probably thought our giggles had a far racier association than they did.

I volunteered to take the upper bunk.  I remembered years of sleeping in a bunk bed above my sister where I plotted ways to climb down the end of the bed to escape while a murderer was having his way with her.  (I wasn’t particularly altruistic at the time.)  If she could’ve seen me attempting to slip beneath the covers of the upper bunk in the sleeper, she would’ve felt she had her revenge.  As “untall” (no one should be called “short”) as I am, I couldn’t sit up in the bunk.  A crawl was the best I could do.  It took me the round trip to figure out I was happiest keeping my head at the opposite end from the “ladder” so I could have a better chance at maneuvering my legs into and out of the blanket.  (Long people might require contortionist training if they could fit into the bunk at all.)  I tucked my clothes for morning in the net pocket along the wall.  I couldn’t even imagine retrieving anything from my backpack.

The upper bunk had a strap that ran along the open side of the bed—a fact that didn’t inspire confidence.  I didn’t need it, although I thought I did through a few bends in the tracks when I started to roll.  The train traveled much faster at night through the open deserts or whatever was outside.  It developed a little sway when the tracks curved.

So how do I feel about train travel now that I’ve spent two nights (round trip) in an economy sleeper car?  Long distance travel is more fun than the short jaunts between cities—which can be delayed by frequent stops and technical problems more easily, or so it seemed.  A sleeper car is more fun than being crowded into passenger cars—which are still a major improvement over the misery of airline seats.  Train food—which exists, to start—is head and shoulders above anything that has been served on an airplane in the past 50 years—except maybe in first class or on a private jet.  You can even access a snack bar at your discretion.  To date, you don’t have the indignity of body searches and luggage scans before train travel.  I love the glide, and now that I have a technique for surviving the night (yoga practice helps), I could handle the bunks.  I wouldn’t choose a train when I want to be someplace quickly; I don’t want the engineer to imagine it’s a good idea to go faster than is prudent.  But I’ve never experienced another mode of travel I’ve found to be as soothing to body and soul.

(Our next adventure will be a trip we’ve scheduled to Belize—not by train.  Stay tuned!)

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