Railroading North America

00 / Off I go

Today, The North American Rail Pass is gone. But not long ago, anyone could have bought a pass, The North American Rail Pass, and for thirty days ride to their heart’s content anywhere that Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada went.

I had talked about doing this for years. Then, one day in September 2008, I learned that time was running out. On September 30, 2008, Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada would sell these passes no more. While the passes could be used for up to a year from the date of sale, no passes would be sold after September 30, 2008.

It was now or never.

My drive to take this trip came about because I love railroads, and because I ride railroads every chance I get in every country I visit. I have explored Europe twice using Eurail passes for four and six weeks, although, granted, that was decades ago in the 1960s and 1970s.

So I bought a North American Rail pass just under the wire in late September 2008 and planned to get ready to leave on October 20. While I had a year to begin and complete this trip, I really did not. I had virtually no time until April 2009, and at that time I would be returning from nearly three months in Australia. It was unlikely that I would be immediately up for a trip of thirty days. And if I delayed past April 2009 into the summer, I risked being on packed trains with primarily tourists and sleeping car accomodations might be hard or impossible to secure.

In the weeks after buying my Rail Pass I was in Dallas, Oklahoma, Florida, following weeks in Denver and St. Paul for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. I cleared my schedule to set off onto the trains, but serious planning for this trip in the end would consist of downloading some Canadian train schedules, studying a map of Canada over coffee and packing a suitcase and a backpack the night before I left. I reasoned I’d have a lot of time to think and plan on a train. The key would have to be pragmatism, flexibility and willing bemusement.

THE NORTH AMERICAN RAIL PASS RULES:
Amtrak and the Canadians didn’t have many rules, but they both did demand the date I would begin and wanted to know where I would go on my first trips on their systems. I chose to go from Kissimmee to Washington, DC on Amtrak, and Montreal to Halifax on my first Canadian trip. Amtrak promptly sent me a ticket, and the Canadians promptly canceled my reservation for their trip (“and you did that why?” I would later ask — answer “I dunno”).

I made a few tentative decisions: I would plan to go to the Hudson Bay (the Town of Churchill) and to Prince Rupert in the west because no one much goes either place (probably for good reasons I will discover), and because, like Halifax, they are at the end of the lines.

PACKING:
Clothes: There was no way I could haul around enough clean stuff for 30 days even if I wanted to. I usually solve this problem by having plenty of clothes scattered permanently in places I haunt a lot (I have storage units and/or homes in Los Angeles, Orlando, Oklahoma, etc …). This wouldn’t work this time, obviously. I also was aware of several recent trips that had been wardrobe fiascos — I nearly got frostbite in Germany when I didn’t do much wardrobe planning in December 2007, and had a similar experience in Iceland in April 2008.

No shorts and short sleeve shirts this time, big guy.

I settled on four changes of underwear, three shirts, and a pair of sneakers that I would wear all thirty days (we’ll see how that works out). I dumped maps and guidebooks at the last minute (too heavy). Some warm clothes even went. I bought a small suitcase and a heavier Northface jacket with inner fleece. I dumped my hairbrush for a fold-up plastic one some airline gave me years ago while abusing me. Think Charles Lindbergh when he flew the Atlantic.

My MacBook Pro would come, but only with its small inner sleeve case (the full computer case was too bulky) so it fit in the top of the suitcase or the backpack. My iPhone would be in my pocket; my digital camera always would ride on my belt.

A never-used documents folder would hang around my neck with my passport/documents/cash. After I shortened the neck cord it no longer was hanging my underpants. Later I discovered it fit snughly into an inner pocket of my fleece and it found its permanent home . I took about $400 greenback in twenties and fifties and my Visa credit card along with 5-bucks in quarters for those railroad station storage lockers (since 911 they no longer exist — like for the last 6 years they don’t exist).

And then, as prepared as I would ever be, on Monday, October 20, 2008, I boarded the 1:16pm Amtrak Silver Meteor in Kissimmee (Orlando), Florida, (ominously 45 minutes late) for the ride to Washington, DC.

If I had forgotten something I’d just have to do something about it later — or maybe not.

(The picture: Crossing gates, Downtown Kissimmee, Florida, October 20, 2008)

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“Thirty Days on Amtrak & VIA Rail Canada”
Photographs and Copy have been jointly Copyrighted 2008
by Seine-Harbour Productions, Studio City, California, and by Peter M. Crow.

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