I booked two different kinds of rooms for the two legs of the trip: a bedroom on the Lake Shore Limited and a Superliner roomette on the California Zephyr. Both of my cabins were very comfortable and clean. I mention this because I think Amtrak has an undeserved reputation for ickiness, and so I am doing my part to rectify this. An episode of Sex and the City portrayed Carrie and Samantha’s trip out to California as an elaborate form of torture – they could not fathom showering over a toilet, and they were reduced to subsisting on turkey club sandwiches. Writers, do your research! There is plenty of food on the train other than club sandwiches. (I would also like to mention that in this scene, Carrie is holding a large vintage suitcase that obviously doesn’t have anything in it. She just keeps tossing it about willy-nilly. This sort of thing makes me crazy. Use your props, actors!) It turns out that everything about the characters’ experience is anathema to their nostalgic fantasy (yes – I admit that I have nostalgic desire in common with these lame-o characters). Samantha is upset to find that all the men on the train are good ol’ married American boys (read: wealthy, urban single men are another unavailable luxury commodity on the train), and Carrie takes to her bedroom because she can’t stand anyone to see her with a pimple. The episode is really just one example of the characters’ classist approach to all things, but I mention it because I really do think it is a total misrepresentation. But we do not look to Sex and the City for realism. So here are my boudoirs…
My Lake Shore Limited Bedroom: I had Room B in the sleeper car of the Lake Shore Limited, and it was very comfortable and relatively roomy. There was a sofa-type seating area that faced forward and a swiveling armchair opposite. I set up my champagne on the little fold-out table and set my suitcase aside and settled in for my trip to Chicago. Across from the couch were the sink/basin and little shower/toilet room. There were curtains on all the windows and on the door, so you could seal yourself up in a cocoon if you so desired. Above my seating area was another berth that could be folded down, although I left it up for my trip. I turned off all the wall and overhead lights so the room was just filled with natural light.
I pretty much stayed in my room the whole time as we went up the Hudson, but I kept my door open so I could look across the hall to the river. (I figured that I would explore the train before dinner, but it was also nice to soak in the views by myself.) My room was lined with large picture windows on my right, and the wall across the hallway was also covered in windows. With my door open, the space felt very open.
We rushed up the river in the late afternoon light, past boats that had been brought up onto land and covered for the winter and ducks that wandered along the shore. The river was icy, and the cliffs were dark in a Romantic sublime kind of way. We passed that old ruin of a house out on the island. I’ve never known what that place is, but it looks downright Wordsworthian. By 5:00 p.m., the sky was the color of a peach: a real magic hour. Very few people walked along the hallway, so I felt that I had the whole sleeper car to myself. And no one played music or yakked away on cells phones. Amazing. Total silence other than the sound of the train. In fact, it was all a bit like being in a Frederic Church painting. As the sun went down, the light became more and more intense and flashed through the cars of trains moving in the opposite direction. By 5:30 p.m. or so, the sky had gone pretty dark, and soon thereafter the windows went black, and it was nighttime on the train.
The major stops on the Lake Shore Limited are Albany, Cleveland, and Chicago, and the train also makes about six stops between each of these destinations. In Albany, we picked up another sleeper car from Boston. I also went to eat dinner when we arrived in Albany. Afterwards, at about 8:00 p.m., Jose came by to fold the couch down into my full-sized bed. He then placed a bedroll made up with a fitted sheet, flat sheet and blanket on top of this surface; this had been stored on the top berth. It turned out that there was one small problem with the room: my toilet froze and would not flush, so he opened up the door between my sleeper car and the one next door so I could use that bathroom. This was pretty fabulous as it doubled my space.
The train rolled over the snow-covered tracks; I could only see the rails. We passed Valero stations and stoplights and non-descript factory buildings. I took a hot shower (not bad at all if you can brace yourself for the movement of the train) and got in my pajamas and watched Strangers on a Train and then read Middlemarch until about midnight. All under my snug comforter.
Incidentally, I should mention that Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot had quite a pre-bed ritual in Murder on the Orient Express. I particularly like his…well, I don’t even know what to call it – it’s a moustache holder that he wears to bed. I suppose it keeps his well-waxed moustache in place. I could have used something similar for my hair as it tends to stick straight up in the morning, but alas, I had no such contraption.
When I got back from breakfast the next morning, Jose had folded the bed up and stored all the linens, so I could sit on the couch and gaze out the window as we cruised into Chicago. One of the waiters brought me another cup of coffee, which was incredibly nice. I was not aware that any group murder-revenge plots were carried out while I slept.
My California Zephyr Roomette: My roomette, a smaller sleeper option, was on the second level of the Superliner sleeper car, and the toilet and shower were down the hall. There’s a pretty significant price difference between a bedroom and a roomette (about $100-200 per night, depending on when you book).
It’s tough to say whether it is worth it to splurge on the bedroom. I really liked the space I had on the Lake Shore Limited, and you have larger windows, as well as windows across the hall. In the roomettes, you have a smaller but still very decent picture window, but across the hall are more roomettes. So it’s more snug, but it’s luxury compared to even the space you get on a first-class flight. The chairs are wide and deep, and you can stretch your legs out or kick them up on the seat across from you. Like the bedrooms, there’s an upper berth that folds down, so a roomette could sleep two, and a bedroom could sleep three. Personally, I think one per roomette and two per bedroom would be the best way to go. I don’t know if it’s possible to be claustrophobic while you sleep, but I suspect that it might be if you crammed two people into a roomette. (I also wouldn’t suggest the roomette if you are much taller than 5’9” as the bed is shorter than in the bedroom.)
The roomette had some handy little storage nooks and what amounted to a small bedside table, so I was able to pile my books and magazines on a little side shelf and hang my PJ’s and coat on the wall. You have to leave your suitcase downstairs in the luggage storage area as there’s no room for it in the roomette, so I just took what I needed for the night. (I didn’t bother getting out my pillow and comforter for this leg of the journey – the Amtrak bedding was a-okay by me.)
On the California Zephyr, it makes more sense to spend one’s time in the Vista Dome than in one’s room, so in some ways I don’t think it matters if you book the larger bedroom. That said, I liked having a private bathroom for the first leg of my trip, and if I did the whole three-day trip from New York to Emeryville, I think I would want a private bathroom. (A number of other lines like the Empire Builder have toilets in the roomettes; it depends on the train.) And it is quite nice to be able to keep your suitcase with you, which is a score for the bedroom.
In the picture above from my 1950s brochure for the California Zephyr, a Veronica Lake look-alike in full hair and makeup is sleeping soundly in her roomette. This is exactly what I looked like, I’m sure.
A final thought about sleeping on a train: I think I would need another day or two to get used to it. I slept both nights, but lightly. The rocking motion was very soothing, and it was really lovely to just lie in bed and feel the train bumping over the rails below me. But I definitely felt that I was sleeping on a moving thing, and this is an odd sensation. I think I kept waking up in part because it felt so, well, cool.