Granted, I'm a romantic. And while everyone's notion of romanticism might not so eagerly embrace the idea of a long-distance train ride with two antsy children, 3 and 7, and a mate who grows fur and claws without his full complement of sleep, mine's a severe case.
For me, the appeal of a first-class family train ride -- complete with sleeping berths and dining car -- to southern Florida had little to do with delusions of luxury, but with something infinitely more accessible: Adventure, that all-encompassing term that to me displays such admirable range when applied to traveling "en famille."
The idea suggested a refreshing break from the routine of our annual late-winter flight to the grandparents in Boca Raton.
Imagine, I thought, a return to the old-fashioned kind of travel in which getting there was half the fun. Imagine a slower-paced trip of mounting anticipation, instead of merely preflight jitters, and the novelty of dining cars, sleeping carriages, constantly changing vistas and the unaccustomed stretch of time to take it all in. Imagine not having to strap the kids immobile in their seats for hours. Imagine indeed. What were we getting into?
Fun, as it turns out, and -- briefly -- a more equal footing with our smaller fellow travelers -- both well worth a few hours of lost sleep.
When we first hit on the idea of a trip by train, the kids, of course, loved it. "Can we take the train, can we? can we?" became a regular refrain. And we couldn't use lack of time as an excuse. On the weekend we wanted to head south, all flights were booked until Sunday, so we had a day to kill -- figuratively speaking -- for the 21-hour ride.
Still, we hesitated. Traveling first-class by train would actually cost more than flying: $868 round trip, including a bedroom, for a family of four, compared to $700 in coach air fare. (Coach train prices are less: $450 round trip for a family of four, but no sleeping berths are included.) Going one-way only by train, as we intended, and returning by air would raise the fare still more.
Then there was the question of comfort. The bedrooms with the most ample seating were already taken. Would we be too cramped? Plus the train with the optimum schedule -- leaving D.C. at 3 p.m., arriving Deerfield Beach at 11 a.m. the next day -- was also full. We worried that the other train's schedule -- depart 8:30 p.m., arrive 5 p.m. -- left a dangerously long expanse of daytime for the novelty to lose its charm.
Then the government inadvertently made the decision easier. Its threat to end Amtrak subsidies put the future of budget American train travel at risk. That was it; next year, I decided, might be too late.
We made our reservations, but hedged our bets. For two weeks, we called Amtrak repeatedly, looking for cancellations on Bedrooms A, C or E (the most commodious; we held a reservation for Bedroom F) or the 3 p.m. train. Nothing doing. We asked for measurements and tried them out with a yardstick: room dimensions 5-foot-4 by 7-foot-6, with a 2-foot aisle. And upper and lower berths -- an adult and a child to each -- 24 inches wide. No problem, said one agent. Better you than me, said another.
Three days before our scheduled departure, and on the last day before the reservations would automatically expire, we finally paid for our tickets, reassured by a friendly ticket agent that if our phone calls didn't pay off (call earlier, he advised, about 5 or 6 a.m.), a porter could keep his eyes open for a vacancy when we boarded the train.
At long last committed to gamble all, we got in a cab and headed -- much too early -- for Union Station. We checked the bags without overnight essentials (change of clothing, toys, assorted "lovies," coloring books and crayons and such) -- a good decision in retrospect, considering the limited storage space in our compartment.
Then, in the least comfortable part of the trip, we waited. Till 8, 8:30 -- a plumbing problem made the train late pulling out of New York -- 9, nearly 9:30, while newly and uneasily reminded of the disparity between the sterile impersonality of airport lounges and our initially emptier, shabbier surroundings.
We were relieved to see the waiting room fill with other passengers -- singles, families and swarms of college kids, who ignored the molded plastic chairs to camp out on the floor. To pass the time, we fed the kids their second dinner, privately turning up our noses at the station's oily hot dogs and flat coke.
Only after we unceremoniously boarded (hustling down an escalator and across a darkened platform) and found our way to our compartment did the children begin to flag. We turned a blind eye. Unwilling to pass up a free meal (meals are included in first-class Florida fares) and -- more critical by now -- a drink, we prodded two protesting children down four of the train's 19 cars to the rearmost of two dining cars.
Later, we found that gift baskets of cheeses, crackers and wine had been left in our compartment along with complimentary Amtrak stationary. But our instincts were unerring. In the cheerful dining car, with its white tablecloths, silk flowers and prompt, courteous service, the kids were perked up by brownies and ice cream. Just then, through the wide banks of windows (the dining car is the train's best vantage point), we saw our train pull out past the floodlit Capitol and the Washington Monument. We all began to smile and relax. We were on our way!
We never expected to sleep much that night. But sometimes, rarely, lack of sleep can be exhilarating and this was one of those times. It was also more than a little comical.
The walk -- or, rather, lurch -- back to our compartment through the train was trickier than the trip out.
Even for old New York subway hands like my husband and me, the cross-overs between cars -- as many as four or five in a row -- were tricky with a nervous child in arms.
If you're traveling with young children, you're better off having two adults -- to balance each other and help open heavy doors -- until the kids are old enough or brave enough to negotiate the crossings on their own. Our youngest opted for parental arms each time.
Passing fellow travelers is another matter. Passing requires either that one party defer and back into a compartment doorway (oops, sorry, ma'am) or that both parties flatten themselves, always smiling, against facing corridor walls.
But compression -- an art on a train -- reaches its highest state in the bedroom. We looked at ours again, less hurriedly now. The mystery of the beds' whereabouts was still unsolved. In the widest part of the L-shaped compartment, perpendicular to the window, was a two-cushioned loveseat. Close by, at a right angle, was a single cushioned chair. (More commodious Bedrooms A, C and E have a long couch in addition to the single seat. Be warned, however, that A is over the wheels and nearest the slam of the car door.)
An enclosed bathroom cubicle (toilets in the smaller economy rooms and single-occupant "slumber coaches" have no partitions) accounted for the narrowing of the rest of the room. The first trip to the bathroom inevitably produces confusion. Let's see. There must be a sink. Oh, look, it folds down from the wall. But there's no drain. How to let the water out? Aha. Fold the sink back up.
The only remaining space in the bedroom was taken up by a narrow closet and a small luggage rack over the door.
We rang for the porter. And then gaped at the acrobatics needed to collapse the chairs, pull hidden berths along ceiling tracks and anchor them with hooks and braces and ladders.
By my husband's and my prior arrangement, he and our 3-year-old got the bottom bunk, while our 7-year-old and I got the top. The younger one wears diapers to bed; I hoped the older one would stay dry.
By now we were hurtling along at up to 80 miles an hour. The sounds of the train were the only ones we heard. (Train rules request no radios or tape players without earphones.) Metal joints creaked and rattled, the cars swayed and a mournful, low-pitched whistle sounded reassuringly from time to time. It was easy for the sounds to play on the imagination. Sometimes, the pounding of the wheels became a gallop and we were being whisked along by a coach and four.
The kids fell asleep almost immediately, either lulled by the train's movement or too exhausted to care. It took us longer to settle down. We shifted and reshifted position, vainly mimicking sleep while our brains raced to process the barrage of unfamiliar sensations.
Fatigue and a small arm flung repeatedly across my face forced a new consciousness. I tried a few subtle punches to regain lost ground but to no effect. Then I hit on a plan. I took my pillow and laid my head down by my son's feet. My husband independently arrived at the same solution below.
When morning came, we tried to ignore the outside daylight (blocked out nicely by the shade) as long as possible. But 7-year-olds are hard to fool. So the top-bunkers dressed in the room's dark and struck out alone for the dining car. We were rewarded with pancakes and sausages and juice and -- to our surprise and my disappointment -- our first view of Florida' palms. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia were lost to our dreams (along with my chance to see the mid-Atlantic turn South).
The lazier half of our party stumbled in, missing breakfast (over at 10 a.m.) but finding unexpected courtesy: "I'm sorry. Breakfast is over, but I can give you toast, juice and coffee if you'd like," volunteered the steward as he had to other latecomers before them. With a smile. And a slow voice. Ever hear that on an airline?
Of course, Linzor Rich has had practice. At 60, the dining-car steward has spent 36 years on the train, working three days straight every week on the ride up and back from his home in Miami, then taking four days off before starting the circuit again.
When he finished tallying breakfast receipts, we asked his opinion of the government ax hanging over Amtrak. He was philosophical. After all, he'd weathered such threats in the past. (In fact, this was the third battle in six years.) "It doesn't matter to me so much. I'm near retirement," Rich said. "But the young people. I worry for them."
The rest of the day went by in a blur of walks back and forth to the dining car (mealtimes were big events), games, newspapers and cat naps. By mid-afternoon, we were all beginning to look a little frayed. My husband read, wishing he had a shower to revive him. (There are no showers on sleeping cars on the East Coast, where tunnel clearances are too low to accommodate the new bi-level Western cars, which are equipped with them.) Our 3-year-old stretched out on the seat with her blanket and slept.
My son, delighting in attempts to match the train's movements bounce for bounce, watched the world go by from the hallway windows outside our room or visited me in an adjacent room vacated by passengers who'd already debarked. One of the advantages in heading for one of the end-most points on a route is such unanticipated freedom of movement. Our fears of being too cramped in our daytime seating never were realized; by mid-afternoon, we had a whole car of sitting rooms to pick from.
The train's motion was beginning to get to me -- something else I'd neglected to anticipate. No, the dining car didn't have Dramamine; a kind waiter swore by club soda instead and proferred a glass. I discovered on a later foray that the snack bar, further down the train past the smoke-filled lounge, had Alka Seltzer. It also sold sandwiches (the most expensive priced at $2.50), magnetic games, cigarettes, wine, beer, cocktails and chips. For ambiance, I'd take club soda in the dining car anytime.
We arrived in Deerfield Beach, one of those little two-horse stations, at about 6 p.m., an hour behind schedule. The station attendants retain a sense of humor here. My mother had called ahead to check our schedule and was told that we'd lost an hour out of New York. "Either they'll pick up an hour or they won't," she was told with irrefutable logic.
For the grandparents, who waved as we got off the train, it was only a 10-minute ride instead of the hour's drive up and back to the congested airport. For us, that translated as less time to get to our adopted home and have someone else take over. For the kids, well, the kids didn't have to wait for anything any longer. They had lots of stories to tell, and their grandparents were all ears.