I’ve just left New York City behind and departed on a nearly nonstop journey across America. It’s June 24, and I hope to get back home to Vancouver by Sunday night only four days from now, so I won’t have much time for sightseeing.
The first leg of my trek takes me from New York through Chicago to Minneapolis by train and Bus.
Music and Rage on Amtrak
I leave from New York’s Penn Station at 3:40 p.m. on Amtrak’s North-East commuter train, the Lake Shore Limited, which travels between New York (and, alternately, Boston) and Chicago via Albany. I descend the escalator from the waiting hall and am corralled towards the end of the train by a series of ushers in uniform. An attendant glances at my ticket and then muses to himself absently about where to seat me.
“Actually, I have a reserved seat,” I say, pointing to the printout of my ticket, which says reserved coach seat. “I’m having a hard time finding my seat number anywhere, though.”
The attendant looks at me with a patronizing smile. “Oh, reserved seat just means that we guarantee you will get a seat,” he explains. How strange. I wonder what general seating would have entitled me to? A square of carpet? He spots another young fellow walking down the platform. “Here, you can partner up with this guy. Don’t lose your buddy!”
My buddy and I board the train and sit down in a pair of unoccupied seats near the end of the coach. As the train lurches out of the station, we strike up a conversation, and I learn that he is a musician traveling back to Chicago for band practice. Jason (my buddy’s name) plays the bass (the orchestral string instrument) and prefers to travel by train because he doesn’t trust the airlines to handle his instrument.
The train follows the Hudson River up the west side of Manhattan, and before long we’re clickity-clacking through the countryside without a skyscraper in sight. I’m in the train’s last car, which allows me to look backwards along the tracks from the caboose window. There’s not much to do, though, and I pass the hours reading, writing, and watching the scenery.
The car slowly fills up as passengers climb aboard at the stops along the way. At one, while my buddy Jason is in the washroom, a large, flushed man in a grey suit plunks himself down into the seat next to me.
“I’m sorry, but this seat is taken,” I say. “He just went to the washroom for a moment.”
The man looks at me with unbridled rage. “This is my assigned seat,” he exclaims, “and I’m not moving just because you want to sit with your friend.” His chins tremble as if electrically charged, and his carotid artery pulses.
I’m momentarily dumbfounded—this man is about to explode! I choose my next words with delicacy. “Er, right…well, you see, the conductor must have accidentally shown you to this seat because my friend is in the washroom and it looks empty. See, there is already a destination card.” I point up to the sticky note attached to the luggage compartment that indicates that the seat is occupied. “I’m sure the conductor won’t mind if you sit in any of those other open seats…”
“I PAID for this seat, I have a TICKET for this seat, and it’s not YOUR job to tell me what to do. The conductor gave ME this seat, and its MINE.” I stare with my mouth open. If I say anything more, he might just detonate, a barrel bomb of cheap woolen fabric and saturated fat.
I glance over at Jason, who has returned from the washroom and is perched on the seat across the aisle. He shrugs, and then disappears again to the front of the coach. A few moments later, the attendant appears. “I’m sorry sir, I mistakenly thought this seat was empty, but it’s already occupied,” he explains. “You can have the seat three spaces back.”
The angry man nods, stands up, and vacates Jason’s seat without a word. Jason, the attendant and I all look at each with puzzlement. What could have happened to this man to make his universe so horrid?
Fortunately for us in coach class, there many empty seats in our car, so when night falls Jason moves across the aisle, giving me the luxury of spreading out over two seats. I curl up awkwardly and get a fitful night’s sleep.
The next morning, I wake up and head to the dining car for breakfast. Seating is limited, so the waitress seats me at a half-full table with some other travelers. Across from me is a couple from California who like to travel by train to “see things close up.” He is a fairly accomplished traveler, unlike his wife, who is afraid of flying, eating unusual foods, getting lost, having her wallet stolen, and conversing with people with accents, among myriad other things. She absolutely rules out traveling anywhere where English is not the official government language and not universally spoken by the entire populous. Her husband, in an effort to reduce his wife’s anxiety level, involves her as little as possible in the conversation and usually speaks of her in the third person, thus allowing her to pretend she isn’t present.
The other guest at my table is an older lady named Rose, who speaks continuously for 60 minutes about her volunteer work with new immigrants near the Texas/Mexico border, where she lives in a trailer (provided for free by the organization) and makes an enormous difference. Say what you will about Americans, there is no doubt they are Passionate about Issues.
The train is supposed to arrive in Chicago at 9:45 a.m., but by 11:00 we’re still trundling along at a slow pace through the suburbs. I start to wonder whether I’ll make my 12:00 connection. When I express my concern to Jason, he sighs. “You don’t take Amtrak often, do you? You should never book such a tight connection.” Two hours and forty-five minutes doesn’t seem particularly tight to me. When I express this, Jason continues: “Once I was six hours late arriving in Chicago. Sometimes the cross-country trains arrive a day late.”
If Amtrak is that unreliable, I wonder how they stay in business. Travelers on a schedule—business people, for instance—could not tolerate such uncertainty. A discount flight is often comparably priced, and faster, than the train (albeit less comfortable), and the bus is cheaper and runs more frequently. A lady in the next seat leans over and explains that it’s not Amtrak’s fault: they’re at the mercy of the freight companies, who own the rails, and who prioritize their own traffic, leaving passenger services to suffer delays. That explains the erratic delays, but it doesn’t explain why anybody bothers to travel with Amtrak.
The train pulls in to Chicago Union Station at 11:35. With only twenty-five minutes to spare, I strap on my backpack and walk briskly to the corner of Van Buren and Canal streets, a few blocks away, to meet my onward bus connection.
Mega Service, Megabus
Although there is a perfectly good train service from Chicago to Minneapolis, the combination of airline-style tiered pricing and an infrequent schedule made Amtrak both expensive and inconvenient, so instead I booked a ticket on Megabus, one of several bus lines that run regular service between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Mega is one of the newer breed of bus lines, with slick marketing and low prices targeted at tech-savvy students who have more interest in texting and listening to music on their headphones than conversing with the invisible person next to them or beheading a fellow passenger with a kitchen knife (ahem, Greyhound…) The bus is a double-decker, with panorama windows, and even offers complementary semi-functional wireless internet service. All for the low price of $24.75.
The bus is already waiting at the curb when I arrive, ten minutes before the scheduled departure time. I have paid a $3 premium for a seat fronting on the stairwell, which gives me better views and freedom from a reclining seat in front. After I board, the driver turns away a small cohort of wannabe-passengers who did not buy a ticket over the internet in advance, which is apparently the only way Megabus sells tickets. This, I suspect, is a big contributor to why their client base is more sophisticated than your standard dog-brand carrier—only those with an internet connection, a credit card, and the ability to execute a plan can get a ticket.
One minute before departure, the driver warns over the intercom that the bus will depart precisely on time due to a corporate directive to improve on-time performance. Sure enough, at exactly 12:00 noon, she closes the door and shifts into drive. I watch as a man in a wheelchair frantically rolls up to the door, waving his ticket, pleading for the driver to stop. No luck—the driver pulls away, leaving the poor man spinning in the dust.
The coach is full, and despite being nicer than your average bus, is nevertheless crowded and noisy. The driver gives a very lengthy safety talk, explaining in detail the various things that are not permitted on board, such as smoking, listening to loud music, drinking alcohol, or walking around. “Thank you… for… your… understanding,” she says for the hundredth time, after explaining that the bus will not wait for tardy passengers who fail to board in time after rest breaks.
The highway between Chicago and Minneapolis is not very inspiring. There are lots of fast food restaurants and shopping plazas. This is one reason to take the train, I realize—the rails run through more scenic territory. We stop for 30 minutes at a service station primarily aimed at truckers. It’s not beautiful or interesting, but it does give me a chance to stretch my legs after hours of being idle.
If you’re into eating packaged crap, the rest stop between Chicago and Minneapolis is the store for you. Cheeze twizzles, ice cream bars, soda, jerky, candy feet, cigarettes, and all sorts of other things that come with a warning label from the surgeon general are available in abundance. An apple? Not a chance. I consider buying a chocolate bar, but they only sell the extra-large king sized variety, two for $2, and since I feel is is unadvisable to eat the equivalent of four full-sized candy bars for dinner, I decide against it. A cardboard stand announces in bold yellow lettering that if you buy their 36-ounce plastic travel mug, your first “cup” of coffee is free. I shudder. Starving as I am, I buy the healthiest option available, a crispy chicken burger from the attached Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
The rest of the journey to Minneapolis goes by without incident. We pull into St. Paul’s (the other Twin City) first, and most of the passengers get off. At about 9:15 p.m. (25 minutes late), we finally arrive in Minneapolis, and I walk the several blocks to my hotel. I basically haven’t slept for two days, so I collapse onto the bed and fall asleep.