A farmhouse in Nebraska as seen aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr

2021 summer adventure part 2: Amtrak to Denver

Our day began like a normal day. László and I got up around 6:30, Danielle got up a bit later, and we had Ladybug Cheerios with Owls (AKA Honey Nut) for breakfast in several rounds. We fed the cats, and then instead of heading off to day care at 9, we got in a cab bound for the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to catch a train to Chicago Union Station in time to make our transfer to the California Zephyr bound for Denver.

It’s a good thing everything went to plan today because we started to suspect László thought the whole “we’re going to sleep on a train and go to Denver to see Watson the Dog” thing was a ruse we cooked up to distract him this summer. All week long he’s been asking us questions about the train: When will we go on that train? Will we sleep on that train? Will we walk onto the train? Will we go on that Amtrak train (ie, the Hiawatha line that runs by our house several times daily)? Every day he woke up and didn’t get on a train was just part of this sadistic game his parents were playing on him. Needless to say, when we finally did get on the train, he could hardly contain himself.

A station agent named Joan gave us a warm welcome and helped us check our bags through to Denver Union Station. Then she told us our train was actually running early from Chicago that morning and if we hurried, we could go out to the platform and watch it arrive. She gave László a paper Junior Conductor cap, coloring book, and held our bags while we hobbled up the stairs to the overpass. When the train blew through the station, László waved and shouted “Welcome to Milwaukee!” down to the passengers below us.

While we waiting in the terminal, the engineer came over and introduced himself to László, and another station agent gave him an Amtrack mask and a lanyard he called his train headphones.

Getting into Chicago was a breeze. Orienting ourselves was tricky, and we felt a little silly when it turned out the Metropolitan Lounge was right behind us when we finally asked for directions. Not all that different from an airport, really. László did some echos in the Grand Hall, which I’m sure brightened the days of all the busy travelers trying to ignore each other in peace. Then, the main event: Boarding the sleeper car train and heading to Denver.

Traveling by train in the US is a peculiar experience, especially if you have any exposure to how train travel works in places that prioritize it more than we do, or if you’re expecting the non-stop nature of air travel where even if you have a layover, you don’t stop until you get there. With a train, it’s a little like driving and a little like flying. You get the effect of leaving the “how” you get there to someone else like you would with flying. And you get the ups and downs of overland travel like you would when driving. This means you get slowed down by track construction, but it also means you can read a book, play with your kid, get some work done, or just relax while you travel.

Of the options, train travel may just be the most relaxing and the most fun. If we drove, we’d go until we couldn’t bear it any longer and then stop at whatever hotel had vacancy and a crib. Flying would be tremendously faster, but airports are stressful and expensive, and it’s uncomfortable to be squished into a tiny chair the entire journey.

These speeds would be unacceptable for a commute or a quick weekend getaway, but for as long of a vacation like this, it’s well worth the relative inconvenience to be more comfortable and have more fun along the way.

Going by rail you also get to see the countryside in a unique way. Interstates are designed to go between specific points as efficiently as possible with a viewport limited by the car’s windshield and windows. Drivers are further limited by needing to keep their eyes fixed primarily on the road. On the train you notice the small campsites along the rivers of Southern Iowa. The densely forested pockets of land interrupting otherwise endless fields of agriculture, low lying wetlands, and fleeting glimpses of the main streets of small town America. It lends a different kind of appreciation for often overlooked places.

A farm building at sunrise near Stratton, NE as sean from the rails.

We’ve already learned that we don’t want to plan our vacations back-to-back like this ever again, but we’re glad to be back reacquainting ourselves with Denver and the Rockies once again.