How to get to Chicago
The Lakeshore Limited pulls out of Penn Station right on time at 3:40 p.m. To most, my delight at resorting to this mode of transportation between New York and Chicago is somewhere between a chuckle and a horror. Admittedly it is not for everybody. Anyone in a hurry, for example. Or not at one with a wide and eclectic mix of travelers. You meet precious few Quakers on American Airlines between LGA and ORD. Or ex-cons. Or foamers.
Amtrak Train #49 hugs the Hudson River for the first two hours of the journey. The left side of the coach car is paramount. Bring food. The snack lounge does not open until six.
In Albany/Rensselaer there is an hour-long stop where the Boston leg of the train meets up with the New York faction. This is where the smokers smoke and the foamers (rail fans who purportedly drool at the sight of a locomotive or similar) foam. It is a good time to stretch your legs. The night on The Lakeshore Limited is long. It is where the action is.
Outside of Utica we come to a halt. On an airport tarmac, this is known as a problem. On Amtrak, it barely registers. By now I have retired to the Café. If one is desirous of Amtrak pizza, or perhaps an Angus beef burger, this is the place to be. It is not as dire as it sounds. There is also a faux-elegant dining car attached, where I always go with the kids when we do this trip together. It is a cherished highlight. The pasta isn’t bad.
A tree has come down on the tracks somewhere up by Syracuse. We pace the night platform, strangers puffing away like old friends. We have nothing but time on our hands. Where else in the world will you ever hear the words: “All aboard!”
We are three hours late into Erie. I only notice because my whisky is running low and the sky edges are growing crinkly blue and pink. I find two empty seats in coach. The legs extend like business class on an airplane. I can curl up just enough to simulate bedtime. I awake to “Indiana’s early morning dew” (thank you Billy Joel). Two hours later we are coming out into a chilly drizzle by the Chicago River. Over the course of 800 miles I’ve snacked and napped and plowed through half a pint of Clan MacGregor (Johnnie W. would be an awkward stranger on this run). I've also written 14 pages of a chapter of a new book. It feels like trains were made for this. I am rested and energized and ready to meet my wife for lunch.