Every year Kate and I go to Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day weekend for the annual Welsh Family reunion and “WeLush Pub Crawl.” The crawl started with a dozen members of the Welsh family hopping from bar to bar in Wrigleyville over 10 years ago and has swelled to include as many as 70 crawlers in 2011. This year was a much more manageable number of around 30 or so and Kate and I had the best time we’ve had in years. Part of it was due to our means of transportation…the Amtrak Southwest Chief Overnight Train.
Wichita, though named the “Air Capital,” has had issues getting good airline routes from our airport my entire life. Often times one has to fly south to Dallas to go north to NY – or west to Denver to go east to Florida. We have a limited selection of places we can fly and almost all of our planes are those tiny sardine cans I don’t fit into or Southwest‘s Greyhoud Bus With Wings. Our main flight destination option is my least favorite airport in all of the U.S., Chicago O’Hare; where dreams of making connecting flights come to die. However, if you need to fly to Chicago its great to have a direct flight! Unfortunately, Kate and I did not book our flights early enough and the prices skyrocketed due to it being St. Pat’s Weekend. Refusing to spend a ridiculous amount of money but aware that our 1-year-old Max would never survive a road trip to and from Chicago in 1 weekend we explored other options. Bus? No way. Drive to KC and then fly? Not worth it. Overnight Amtrak train? Bingo.
The last time I took an overnight train I was a young boy traveling across Canada with my family. I remember crawling into my bunk at night and thinking, this is so cool! The bunk had a curtain that kept my sleeping area private from the public hallway down the middle of the train, my dad slept in the fold down bed below me, my mother across the hall from him, and my sister in the bunk across from me. My sister Lindsey and I stayed up with our heads poking out the curtain and talked late into the night, there was no more foot traffic down the hall as everyone was asleep, till my dad’s voice bellowed from the bunk below telling us to go to sleep. We were in trouble. I pulled my curtain shut, turned off my little light and closed my eyes. “Pssssst! Ryan! Ryan!” I heard my sister whisper from across the hall in her bunk, “Ryan…I need to show you something!” I did not move but whispered back, “Leave me alone, I don’t want to get in trouble.” Lindsey replied, “Just poke your head out!” I was curious…but frustrated, “No…go to bed.” She persisted, “You have to see this!” My curiosity grabbed hold and I pulled back the curtain. My sister had dropped trousers and was mooning me from her bunk by sticking her rump through the part in the curtains. At the exact moment I saw this I noticed another passenger was walking down the hall to go to one of the restrooms. He suddenly saw the rump, saw me, and snickered as he passed by and opened the door to the next car. The sound of the car’s door opening qued my sister to quickly cover the moon and then sheepishly poker her head out from behind her curtain, just as the door finished closing. “What was that?” She whispered. “Nothing.” I replied and disappeared behind my curtain for my first night on a sleeper train. “Nothing.”
That trip was my impression of train travel so I was excited to see how Amtrak had done with it over the years. The answer? Its pretty much the same…minus the mooning. It was an adventure! Kate and I woke Max up at 2 AM for the 30 minute drive to Newton, KS where we would board our train. The station was a testament to the old days of travel and seemed like a building lost in time. Travelers wandered around the florescent-lit linoleum waiting room, sleepily awaiting the 3 AM train that would whisk us off to Chicago. Max, ran in circles excited to not be asleep. The train was 45 minutes late which made wrangling a baby even more interesting and impossible.
At about 3:45 AM we boarded the sleeper car and entered our Superliner Roomette, a charming closet with seats. Two seats face each other, there is a bunk above, a large window, a few nooks for storing things, an electrical outlet, a tray table, but most of all there was privacy. We had the room made into bunks for sleeping and Max went out like a light as the tracks below lulled him to sleep. Kate crawled into bed with him and I shimmied into the top bunk and cuddled the ceiling. Sleep was short-lived and soon Max was ready to roll, so it was off to the dinning car for breakfast where we shared a table with an elderly couple as the train pulled into Kansas City’s Union Station. We had omelettes, sausages, coffee, juices, and simply enjoyed the meal and experience. When we returned to our room it was made back to seats and we proceeded to have a grand time in our little roomette. Max pointed to all things he saw out the window, we read books, we took naps, we had snacks, Max walked around, we played games, we went to lunch, and then all of a sudden we were there! It went by so fast! 12 hours after leaving Newton, KS and we were in Chicago at about 3 PM Friday afternoon.
Our hotel was 2 blocks from the station which was awesome and we were immediately on the CTA Brown Line to see family and get the St. Pat’s celebration started. This year’s Saturday crawl was accompanied by 78 degree weather, new pubs, new faces, old friends, and good times. We sang, we drank, we reminisced, we danced, we slurred, we got tired, we passed out on Kate’s uncle’s couch at 9 PM.
On Sunday we took our time in the morning and then had a leisurely afternoon with the family before boarding our afternoon train back home. Boarding the train in Chicago was an experience in itself as we started in the lounge before being escorted to the track. This is when all the sleeper car people meet and tell tales of all the train rides they have been on. I’m not sure how to put it…but they are “train people.” People who spend days at a time on these trains and watch the landscape pass by…which is very relaxing I must say. They are like front porch people…but the porch moves. The destination is not the point of the trip, the trip is. I get that…I’m one of those people…that is why I love road trips and travel campers…and now trains.
For the return trip we had a roomette on the second floor which was great as you see so much more out your window! Fields of Illinois, rivers of Iowa, the Mississippi, Missouri skies, and the Flint hills of Kansas. Max played and read books till he passed out (twice!) as Kate and I zoned out while watching the countryside zip by. For dinner we had lasagna, steak, cheesecake, wine, and returned to our room to put Max to sleep. The sun had gone down, the bunks had been made, and it was night night time for all of us.
Sleeping was much harder on the return as the second floor (while great for seeing out the window) moves side-to-side much more on the tracks making for a bumpy ride. We made a bag barrier on the top bunk and put Max to sleep. Kate and I stayed up drinking wine and talking about our favorite parts of the trip. Eventually we all crawled into bed and slept till about 2:15 AM when the conductor woke us up to let us know our stop was in 15 minutes. We gathered our things, jumped off the train in Newton, made the easy 30 minute drive back to Wichita, and crawled into our own beds.
A very successful trip indeed!
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! It took longer than a plane but with a 1-year-old it was so much easier. By booking a room you can check 3 bags for free and bring 3 on board (per person), all your meals are included, free water & juice, and you have privacy. It isn’t outright luxury but it is better than first class on a sardine can with wings! The food was extremely good, the convenience was amazing, the staff so well-trained, and the experience was outstanding! Getting to Chicago became part of the vacation…not just the travel day, it was an experience! It was cheaper than a flight as well. Kate and I are already planning 2 more trips, to LA and to Albany. I highly recommend it and promise you it is an experience you will fall in love with. I slept to the rocking of the tracks and still hear the whistle blowing in my dreams. There is something magical about it and in a time where the sex appeal of air travel is dead (replaced by self-serve airlines and Juicy Couture sweat pant suits) the sleeper train has maintained its old world charm. Travelers tucked their shirts in to dine and raised glasses with strangers. Passengers mingled in the lounge car where kids played, people read newspapers, and panoramic windows let the world in. Conductors made announcements like “Next stop: Galesburg, Illinois…a fine railroad town!” A good night’s sleep is easily attained, families will bond, and the moon shines down on you through your window…or from the curtain across the hall!
Max now says, “Wooooooooo! Woooooooooooooooo!“