YOU CAN SET YOUR WATCH by Amtrak’s trains. You’ll be late, but you can still set your watch by them. Of course, as every veteran train traveler will tell you, “If you’re in a hurry, don’t take the train.” Yet this throwback to the days when travel and Xanax weren’t inseparable has an undeniable nostalgic appeal. On the other hand, is such a leisurely mode of travel remotely practical here in Texas, where the tracks go on forever and trains are scarce? To find out, I decided to jump aboard the Los Angelesto-Orlando Sunset Limited in San Antonio. And although my destination was action-packed New Orleans, the focus on this trip would be the (scheduled) fourteen-and-a-half-hour journey itself.
Boarding the train at five-thirty in the morning, half an hour before the departure time, wasn’t as painful as I’d imagined. With no metal detector and no one inspecting my stinky shoes or ordering me to display my embarrassment of electronic doodads, my sleepy stupor was almost enjoyable. Besides, once aboard I could fall back into bed, since I’d reserved one of the smallest sleeping pods, called a Superliner standard, for my husband, Richard, and me. (Don’t tell him, but I took him along because the price of a room is the same for a single or a double and includes three meals a day for two travelers.) An amazing number of conveniences were crammed into this compartment, which wasn’t much bigger than an instant-photo booth: two facing recliners that converted to one comfy single bed, a pull-down bunk overhead, a foldout table, and lots of cubbyholes and coat hooks. (Warning: As you and your traveling companion make up your beds in the tight space, your relationship may change.)
With Richard safely stashed in the top bunk, I slipped under the sheets, but I couldn’t sleep; I wanted to watch the world go by. I stared out our window for a while as the sky lightened, but my worldview was limited to the edge of the depot roof, the Tower of the Americas, and an occasional flock of grackles. Somewhere around a quarter to seven, we left the station and began inching through town. Richard and I moseyed to the dining car and had eaten most of our French toast and pancakes before we finally put the Alamo City behind us.
Welcome to Train Time. As one conductor said, “I tell all the passengers that the train is always on time. Sometimes the schedule is wrong, but the train is always on time.” And the longer you’re on the train, the more you come to enjoy this laissez-faire attitude toward punctuality. Harried clock-watching is for all those poor air travelers. On the train, you trade speed for comfort. The size and the cush of the seats rival an airline’s first-class offerings. There’s lots of roaming space and leg room, even in coach class, and a dining car with white tablecloths, real cutlery, and food that’s cooked to order, like Richard’s medium-rare filet mignon that came with a baked potato and steamed broccoli. If all that isn’t cause for celebration, the $2-margarita happy hour kicks off at three o’clock.
Although passengers packed the lounge car to watch the movie Sweet Home Alabama at four, I preferred the pointless but fascinating documentary that played continually just beyond the window: primordial swamps laced with flowering wisteria and dogwood, manicured industrial parks, gritty urbanscapes, and tidy small towns hugging the tracks. Almost every person the train passed smiled and waved, even some guys in a junkyard who were whacking on cars with crowbars. Horses and cows stopped eating to look up. And as Richard said every time we chugged through the intricate geometric framework of a river-spanning trestle, “You wouldn’t see this if you were on an airplane.”
You also wouldn’t see so many strangers interacting. A dreadlocked Rastafarian played with two towheaded kids, a good old boy bought a yuppie couple a round