Sleepless After Seattle
by Tricia Dower
I can’t ride more than two hours in the car without falling asleep. I thought it would be like that on the train. That gentle rocking and the hum of the wheels would lull me to sleep. But it was more lurching than rocking, more screeching than humming, punctuated by long, mournful whistles at crossings and the slide, bang, thump of doors as passengers got on and off at various stops during the night.
Luckily, we had gotten a good night’s sleep in Seattle at my nephew’s place before boarding Amtrak’s colonial-sounding Empire Builder train. We had booked a “roomette” for the two nights it would take us to get to Minneapolis: a space that at 6’6” x 3’6” is smaller than a standard burial plot. Nevermind. It’s cleverly designed, with two facing seats that fold down to make one bed, a pull-down bunk for the second person, a retractable table, privacy curtains, and a door you can lock from the inside.
Down the hall from our roomette was an airplane-sized toilet and sink compartment and a surprisingly generous shower room attached. Such fun, soaping and shampooing while trying to maintain my balance. Our roomette had an electrical outlet and I must say I got a charge out of drying my hair while a spectacular Montana lake passed before my eyes.
(1) Despite the smallness of our roomette, we were part of the privileged “sleeping car class,” given tiny bottles of champagne when we boarded, and invited to a wine and cheese party. But lest we got too full of ourselves, to reach the dining car, we had to pass through the First Class Sleeping Car and see the more expensive bedrooms with sofas and sinks.
(2) Affirmative action seems to have skipped the railroad. The waiters and porters on our train were men. When there was a shift change in Shelby, Montana, only men got off and walked across the tracks to their waiting 4x4s. Only men got on to take their place. The only female crew member I saw was the dining car hostess who took meal reservations and seated people. She did get to wear the snappy black and white uniform, though, so maybe that’s progress.
Since Sunday, we’ve been stocking up on sleep at my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Tomorrow morning we will be back on the train, on our way to Maryland. Rookies no longer. We’ll take only essentials into our roomette, checking as much of our baggage as possible. We’ll try to take showers during station stops. We’ll perfect our straddle-legged balancing act as we make our way down narrow corridors while the train is in motion. We’ll meet more great new people in the dining car and we’ll see more great scenery. But I don’t expect to sleep.
Photo: As our train left Seattle, we passed by the Victoria Clipper dock at which we had arrived.