Massive train journey from Chicago to Texas - 30 hours and over 1100 miles.
Saturday 21st & Sunday 22nd May
After only spending five days in Chicago I was packed and ready to move again. I had originally planned to stay in Chicago a little longer, but booking the train to Texas proved to be a pain in the ass with the pricing changing crazy amounts depending on the day, so I had to cut it a bit short. Still, I wasn’t exactly downgrading or going home – I was off to Austin, Texas!
For the longest time during the planning stage of my trip I hadn’t intended to go to Texas. My trip missed out a lot of the southern states but in the last couple of months I figured I should fit at least one in. The hardest thing wasn’t a case of money, but trying to fit in all these massive states and cities within the measly 90 day visa. England can fit inside Texas alone over five times. My train journey would be the longest duration single journey of my life at a non-stop thirty hours, covering over 1100 miles. I was praying that the seats would be comfy.
First thing first, I had to get to the Amtrak train station in downtown Chicago. Backpack on my back and daypack on my front I headed for the local metro station. A little snag straight off; my ticket had run out of days. No problem I thought, I’ll just get a single journey ticket. The information man tells me the only way to buy a new one was through an automated machine, with cash. I had no cash. I’d been using my card for everything as you rarely need cash in the great first world. No ATMs in sight. Crap.
I started to think I might miss my train if I couldn’t get to an ATM pretty sharpish. Instead of going looking for one I had the idea of just asking the ticket man if I could go through, as I was leaving Chicago anyway. I’m not sure why I thought that would work, but it was worth a shot. He looked me over and said okay no problem, and he gave me a one journey ticket to go straight through the gates. God bless America.
I took the fifteen minute metro ride to downtown Chicago and got out the map looking for the train station. Due to not feeling all that great over the course of my stay in Chicago, and the fact I had only spent five days here, I hadn’t wandered the streets as much as New York and I wasn’t as confident at finding my way around. The streets weren’t as easy to locate yourself as NYC either so I wasn’t 100% sure where I was on the map but time was ticking so I headed off in the direction that I thought the train station was. Not wanting to mess the journey up I popped into a hotel after five minutes walking and asked some staff members where I needed to go. They promptly told me I was going the complete wrong way and it was ages away. Although I wasn’t completely sure of where I was going, I questioned them to make doubly sure. After they both had a gander at my map it turned out I was right and I was going in the right direction.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived at the train station, sweating. The station was huge, resembling an airport more than a train station. I went to the check-in desks to find out what I had to do and I even had to check my big backpack in like you do with a flight. I had about half an hour to spare which I spent wandering around the shops and got some food.
I hung around in the gate lounge for the last fifteen minutes to make sure I got on quickly for a good seat as it was first on first choice. The gate opened and we all walked out to the train and there it was. The biggest train I’d ever seen; made all of silver metal and higher than a double-decker bus. This thing looked menacing. A lot of tourists stopped to take photos, and in hindsight I wish I had too, but I headed straight for the doors. I didn’t want to spend a thirty hour journey in a crap seat. I got on and was told I should go upstairs, which I was hoping for, and I found myself a nice seat next to a window. By the time we set off the seat next to me was still free so I was happy as can be. The seats were great; they reclined backwards, footrests came up, there was enough legroom for a giant. Combine two seats next to each other with footrests up and reclined and you’ve effectively got a small bed.
A voice over the loudspeaker informed us that we had two stops in quick succession within the first hour for more passengers and then we were not stopping again for hours upon hours. I looked around and saw quite a lot of empty seats so I was hoping that no one would sit next to me. The first stop was called St. Louis I think and quite a lot of people came on, they all looked like locals rather than travellers. A lot of people had brought on full duvets and pillows with them. It only just dawned on me then that I had no cover or pillow for this thirty hour journey - I’d checked my backpack in that contained my sleeping bag so I was a bit gutted. Oh well, I was happy, I was on the train, I hadn’t missed it and nothing had gone wrong.
The train stopped again not long after for the last load of passengers. It was the last hurdle; I sat there again hoping no one would sit next to me. Just then a massive duvet landed next to me. It was so big it filled its own seat and came on to mine. I looked up to see a massive fat black guy that had just offloaded the bedding. I’m not sure why I’m telling you that he was black – I just feel it adds to the imagery. Anyway, luckily after a few minutes he must have spotted a better spot because he got his bedding and disappeared down the train. I was home free – two massive seats to myself!
Even though I had no bedding or anything, I was prepared for the thirty hour journey on another level; to not get bored. I had my laptop with movies on, my Kindle e-reader, and my mp3 player. I wasn’t going to get bored easily. I spent the afternoon and evening doing a mix of reading Carl Sagan’s brilliant Cosmos and making a video compilation from my time in Washington D.C. I’d also tried to prepare a little bit on the food front, buying a load of stuff before arriving at the train station. I thought I had enough for the whole journey but I got greedy and ate it all in that first evening.
As night time approached members of staff came around and handed out small pillows, yes! The thing was pretty small but I was pleased all the same. I set up my two-seater-bed not long after and got off to sleep fairly easily.
I woke early at around 6am because seemingly everyone else who rides overnight trains gets up at that time and doesn’t mind making noise. I felt groggy and my eyes were full of that sticky eye-bogey stuff. I didn’t exactly have anything to jump up for so I slowly let myself wake up and watched an episode of the Peep Show. My right eye was feeling irritated. I’d slept in my contact lenses. My lenses are month long ones that you can sleep in but my eyes still weren’t fully used to them so sleeping in them was always a gamble if you wanted good eyesight in the mornings.
Usually if I sleep in the lenses my eyes might feel a bit crappy for a short while but then they’d rectify themselves, but on this morning my right eye was still hurting after an hour, so I went to the toilet to take the lenses out. I looked in the mirror and bam, my right eye was fully red, totally bloodshot. I looked like a zombie or something. I thought back to all the people that I’d made eye contact with since I’d woken up, I must have looked like a druggy. The strange look that a small girl gave me now made sense. Maybe she just hated my face anyway – no it would definitely be the scary red eye.
It looked really bad and I felt paranoid to look at anyone now.
A thirty hour train journey sounded so much when I booked it. Coming from England, the longest train journey I’d ever done was probably only about eight hours. Why didn’t I fly you might think? Well one thing was the money - a flight was over a hundred dollars more - but I felt it would just be cool to do a mammoth train journey all the way down the middle of America. It felt more travellery than just flying everywhere.
But saying that, overall it went pretty quickly. Once you take out the settling down for a few hours in the first afternoon, meal times, plus six to eight hours of sleep, it isn’t all that long.
There was a big restaurant carriage in the middle of the train, plus an observation carriage filled with big windows. The food was expensive but that was to be expected. You would maybe expect some food included if the journey was that long but oh well.
I arrived in Austin, Texas in the early afternoon. I stepped off the train to be hit in the face with hot air – not warm air – hot air. It was exactly like having a hairdryer aimed at your face. I’d had quite a lot of nice hot weather in America up to now but this was the real deal. Even the, usually cool, breeze was now just dry hot air.
I’d written down some basic directions on my phone to get from the train to the bus stop that took me to my new hostel. I set off walking, immediately realising that this heat was going to take its toll on me with my weighty bags. Not wanting to get lost I double checked by asking a random man walking along the sidewalk. He was a tanned (not surprisingly!) old guy plodding along in a cap and sunglasses. He said I was going the right way and he was going the same way so we walked together and got talking. Turns out he loved ‘soccer’, and of all teams that he could support; he followed Blackpool! I have no idea why, but of all the teams, Blackpool was his. I told him that I came from a city literally around the corner from there. I didn’t tell him of the hatred both Preston and Blackpool have for each other – but what a small world.
We parted ways and I carried on for another ten minutes to my bus stop and a muchly needed bench to get my bags off. I sat down and gave my back a rest and asked a woman next to me if she knew how much the bus would be. She looked a little hesitant to speak to me. I remembered my, probably scary looking, bloodshot eye and tried to avert my gaze while we spoke for a minute. Any normal blog would now say: I got on the bus and I went to the hostel, the end. But nope, not this blog.
I got on the bus and told the driver (who notably sounded just like Denzel Washington) that I didn’t know the area and could he tell me when to get off at the correct stop. He said he knew where it was and no problem he’d let me know. You can guess where this is going… I had no idea how long the bus journey should have taken so I just sat there patiently waiting and trying myself to see if I could spot the street name that I needed to get off. Lots of people got on, lots of people got off. I was going back and forth whether the driver had forgotten about my stop or not. Forty minutes on from my initial boarding I was the lone passenger, and now definitely thinking I’d missed my stop.
The driver suddenly swung his head around when we stopped at the lights, ‘’was I s’pose ta’ tell you sumin’?’’
Yes. You. Effing. Was.
Turns out that my stop was only about fifteen minutes into the journey and here we were forty minutes in. He told me he was sorry and that we were going back that way as soon as he had a ten minute rest at the end of the route. So, on top of a thirty hour train journey, I had a needlessly long hour and a half bus journey. To save me getting annoyed again we’ll cut forward in time; I finally got off at my stop about an hour later.
Fuck you Denzel Washington - you may be a great actor but you can’t drive buses for shit.
It was now 9pm and after a further fifteen minute walk down an unlit scary looking road filled with gangster type looking Mexicans, I arrived at the hostel. I got some food and got in bed. The end, finally.