Featured image by Nan Palmero
Any frequent Texan traveler knows the horrors of driving IH-35. The heavily trafficked interstate is an anxiety filled road of 18-wheelers, frantic fellow drivers, countless construction zones and the infamous parking lot that is Austin traffic. There are several respites from the misery including kolaches at Czech Stop, milkshakes at Health Camp, and the Buc-ee’s megaplex. But these stops only put a Band-Aid on the inevitable halt around Georgetown.
I often find myself traveling from Dallas to San Antonio to visit family, and have always been on the look out for alternative modes of transportation. I’ve been a huge fan of Megabus, but their schedules can be a bit limiting. Airline flights can be another option, but buying a few weeks out can be a fairly expensive endeavor. A few months ago, I found myself in a unique situation of needing to get home but with flexibility on arrival. Not wanting to break the bank on the journey, I did a bit of internet research and came across an option I’d never considered before: Amtrak.
Train travel is always a great option in Europe and I have enjoyed the trips I’ve taken on rail in the past. Of course, Europe has mastered high speed rail, while America . . . not so much. Rail is a great option in a crowded Metroplex like the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but for long range travel, train travel takes time. Also, Amtrak seems to get plenty of bad press over accidents, even if the vast majority are caused by automobile drivers maneuvering around caution signs to try to beat the train. But with a full afternoon and evening to spare, I figured I’d take the dive and take the 7.5 hour train trip from Fort Worth to San Antonio.
Thanks to the AAA card provided by my parental units, I was able to acquire a ticket online for $32.50 on the Amtrak Texas Eagle. Considering the convenience of being able to sit back and relax for the full ride and not have to gas up my vehicle, the fare was a reasonable acquisition. I arrived at the train station early to get my bearings and was greeted by a friendly employee who helped me find my way on the train. I stowed away my luggage and explored my surroundings.
My coach ticket gave me a myriad of seating options. There were seating havens in the downstairs areas of all four coach cars along with long spans of seats upstairs. I roamed around to find my ideal spot and sat back with a truly massive amount of leg room. My feet struggled to meet the foot rest, and with the seat leaned back, I gave into temptation and took a nap. The seats had outlets nearby, so my fickle iPhone maintained its charge, but the absence of Wi-Fi access on the train was a huge letdown.
Once the train left the station, a hilarious coach car attendant came in to announce the basics regarding our trip. She was present throughout the trip and seemed to have a great rapport with the guests who had been on the train since Chicago that morning. Soon after, the café attendant stopped by to take reservations for dinner. I am one to have dinner several hours after the sun has set, but the latest reservation available was 5:30 pm. Wanting to get the full experience, I relented in taking the reservation, fully expecting a dining car full of seniors awaiting me.
With several hours to kill, I took my massive book club book and lugged it to the sightseeing lounge in hopes of getting a few pages knocked out. A gloomy day along with some flat and uninteresting Central Texas landscapes made the lounge a bit of a letdown, but I would imagine other legs of the trip would lead to a rewarding visuals. The train rarely topped 50 mph, so the slower speed allowed plenty of time to take things in.
And there in lies the magic of Amtrak.
The train gives you time to slow down and enjoy the journey. Occasional stops at larger stations provided a chance to get outside, stretch my legs and take in the fresh air, usually a few yards away from a huddled mass of cigarette smokers. The slow slide through small Texas towns provided me my first glimpse of the small little Main Streets that are always tucked away from the busy highway. It is a snapshot of days gone by, when the railroad brought vibrancy and industry to towns throughout the country. In a sense, riding the train was a history lesson.
The charm of the trip continued when I took my seat in the dining car. The space itself seats about 28-32 guests with booths of four and, since I was riding solo, I was placed at a booth with an older couple from Minnesota. After some awkward initial moments, I began to learn more about the couple across from me, including the many times they had taken Amtrak in the past, the benefits of getting the sleeping car upgrade, how they became a couple, their exes, their love of the Minnesota winters, and so many other tidbits that seemed to be shared freely like I we were old friends. I can’t speak towards their opinions on their entrees, but they seemed very pleased with their steaks. I chose an adventurous route and picked the shrimp biryani which was a specialty of the Chef who designed the menu. I must admit, it was absolutely tasty, with a perfect amount of spice along with a healthy portion of rice and vegetables along with well cooked shrimp. It was a definite upgrade from a meal I would have received in the economy section of a long haul airplane flight.
I parted ways with the couple and went back to coach to found the snack bar located below the sightseeing lounge. The selection included a variety of salty and sweet snacks, microwave meals, and a variety of items you’d traditionally find in an extended stay hotel’s gifts and sundries area. Being full from a solid dining experience, I drifted to the full selection of alcohol and opted for a bottle of beer. And then another. Those two bottles were a great way to culminate a long train ride that ended in San Antonio a few minutes earlier than promised. A family friend awaited my arrival and I promptly shared with him the pleasure of the experience. Because sometimes, the joy of the journey is found in being able to sit back and enjoy the ride.