I was just talking to a co-worker the other day. She had returned from a cruise with her mom on one of those “tropical” packages. Now me, being one of those people who reads of cruise ships in the news and the kinds of whacky stuff that afflicts cruise-goers, I was of course interested to hear what she had to say about her experiences. One always reads of cruise ships losing a balance thruster and veering to the side, nearly knocking passengers off the deck, of outbreaks of unsavory diseases from the food or sick passengers, or of large scale failure of the toilet system. While my co-worker didn’t describe anything on that level of awful, her experiences were suitably “cuckoo” enough for her to render the phrase, “The Cruise Dimension.”

Ahhh. I know her tale well from my own travel experiences. Many of the things she related to me could easily have applied in some way to my own travel adventure. I’m talking about the Amtrak War Hellride that K and I went on one fine summer for vacation several years back. A tale so sordid and unbelievable it will take two posts to tell it properly!

We decided to visit Portland, Oregon and take the train there. Take the overnight from Union Station in DC to Chicago, then switch to the Empire Builder and take the two-day trip to Oregon through the northernmost United States. The Empire Builder stops through Glacier Park, Montana in the summer, and moves through the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side. What could go wrong? Sounds idyllic and romantic, right? Harmony joy train-ride, here we come!

For reasons of economy, we decide to travel in a Roomette, which is two seats facing each other with a fold out table in the middle. A bed folds out from the ceiling and the two chairs fold to create a bed. A little cramped, but up close and personal as this is supposed to be quality romantic time for K and myself. There’s air-conditioning/heating, light panels, and piped-in music. Whee!

See, there’s this movie Silver Streak, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, where Mr. Wilder plays a book editor who gets involved in a caper involving an international forgery ring. It has a pretty girl, murder most foul, and lots of absurd situations. It’s a pretty good mix of laughs and action, and it’s one of my favorite movies. Yes, yes, I’m getting stars in my eyes thinking I’m going to go on a train ride and experience the coolness factor of the movie in some way, right? Wrong! K and I are going to get the life-threatening peril and abject stress-out terror of the action, but none of the scenic beauty or comedy of this movie. Which, in a way is more realistic than the undefined fantasy.

I’d been on trains before, back when I studied in Japan and took several long trips around the country. The train system there is nothing short of impressive, so I was expecting, well maybe not as good, but a similar experience. How bad could it be?

So K and I board the train and reach our appointed sardine can. Whoa, smaller than the Amtrak 3D picture made it out to be. This is, well, very small and cramped. We stash our luggage and anipals where they will fit on the sides and at our feet, pull out the miniaturized table that might hold two sodas if they’re close together, and sit down on the rather uncomfortable fossilized cushions that will be a bed later tonight. Already I’m thinking we should have gone for a larger cabin, this is ridiculous. After one day of this we’re going to be crawling the walls!

I pull out my MP3 player and plug in the adapter. Both electrical outlets are dead. Good thing I brought batteries! K tries to adjust the air unit. No luck, the hot/cold dial has no effect on the trickle of tepid air coming out the vent. I try the music jack and get static in my headphones on all channels. The light panels work, thankfully. K tries the shades, even though it’s a cloudy day. We find out that the shades don’t work very well at keeping light out, nor do they move out of the way easily to allow light in. They work in a kind of nebulous Twilight Zone area of “almost but not quite” useful I find annoying.

We settle in for the ride, me with music and K with one of her new books on knitting. She’s brought a number of projects to work on, while I’ve brought some writing and drawing materials along. We plan to be artistic during this long trip, as we figure the ride will be conducive to quiet meditation and relaxation. Wrong! The first thing I notice is that the train jolts and makes a lot of noise as it travels over the tracks. The tracks must be in really poor shape to make such constant, annoying noise, and the train’s mechanical elements must be in need of repair to have no muffling effect on the jolts and swerves the train is making. I scratch my head, as this isn’t high technology railway stuff here. With over a century of railroad behind it, Amtrak should be at a Harley Davidson motorcycle level of tried and true tested design by now. It doesn’t bode well that the maintenance and upkeep is so poor.

Since we can’t relax or concentrate, we watch the landscape go by and make snide comments about how crummy Amtrak is. One thing I notice is that while we do pass some areas of nice natural beauty, we also pass a lot of decrepit old places. We go by an automobile and truck graveyard filled with rusty and broken frames overgrown with vines. Abandoned homes, burnt out old shells of factories, run down neighborhoods, and busted stone foundations. This motif is repeated all along the entire trip, and I can’t help but feel I’m seeing a vision of the United States as a third world country. Where entire sections of the country’s infrastructure have been left to deteriorate and crumble in silence. It’s a depressing sight, and it makes the journey less of a sightseeing expedition and more of a nightmare premonition of things to come.

Hungry or thirsty? Each car has an attendant who maintains a station with fresh coffee and juice. You want food, you have to hit the concessions stand in one of the observations cars, where they charge you outrageous prices for a candy bar. You can get microwaveable items or a sandwich, as well as beer or other drinks. In order to reach the concessions watering hole, you have to brave the coach cars, filled with smelly and obnoxious people, which struck me as odd as they also stand in the way between you and the dining car.

I have to admit that the coffee is really good, and the juice at least keeps you hydrated, which is important because the crummy air system seems to suck the moisture out of you without making you comfortable in any way. The coffee and juice station is going to be the only bright spot in what will be a horrific experience for us.

Now, when it comes time for a meal, breakfast/lunch/dinner whatever, the event is announced over the loudspeaker, which blares into your cabin like a holy terror on wheels. You can’t turn it down, it has one volume – loud. As K and I find out, by the time you traverse the half dozen cars to reach the dining car, the coach passengers are already in line ahead of you being seated. You are guaranteed a seat and a meal, but the coach passengers have already started making a dent in the food selection, of which there is a limited amount, so you might order say, the pizza only to be refused because it’s just run out. Meanwhile, the drunken jerk from coach who kept singing while you were in line at the concession stand is eating a pizza right across from you.

You also have to sit with total strangers at random. This is supposed to give you a chance to socialize and meet new people, but I find it only introduces me to people I find annoying and repulsive. For breakfast, K and I found ourselves sitting across from two stragglers put together at random. A white, conservative old woman and a young conservative black woman dressed so that only her face was not covered. Neither one of them made particularly good conversation to begin with, but once they hit the issue of politics K and I felt we were in a nest of rattlesnakes.

Come to think of it, that about sums up the general feeling of this trip by train. Being in a nest of rattlesnakes, in constant fear of being bitten. Nice, huh? Go Amtrak!

The food tended to vary in quality, but was generally speaking on the level of slightly-better than cafeteria food. It’s sometimes good, but most of the time it’s a little better than average. Nothing to smack your lips over. Breakfast tends to be the best, as it’s really hard to screw up something like eggs and toast. The concession food was on the level of average, at times threatening to drop to poor but not quite that awful. You can always count on a Snickers bar or a bag of Doritos giving you a dependable experience, but what, you going to eat that for six days of train travel? Get ready for gastric gripe as that delicious cafeteria food flows through your intestines like gravy on an incline.

The toilets on the train are nothing short of grotesque. Trying to balance yourself above the pit of despair while the train rocks and jolts, even in the tight quarters, is an exercise in panic and fear. The showers are tight quarters also, and the water pressure pathetic, but at least it’s hot. I would rate the shower experience as passable.

The attendants vary in service from “you don’t exist and I am in hell” to fearfully helpful, as if they are about to enter hell and want their last acts to mean something. This does nothing to dispel “The Rattlesnake Dimension” of train travel. K and I brought lots of fives and ones to tip the attendants whenever they helped us. We wanted to show our appreciation and be polite, after all. In all cases, the attendants accepted our money as if we were handing them a lit stick of dynamite. That floored me. I couldn’t help but imagine that they were all being watched by Big Brother and for every dollar they receive, they get an electric shock when they go on break. Speaking of which, they often seemed on break, and I’m not sure if the “page attendant” button really works, because it never once worked.

Then night falls, and the nightmare really begins. Your not-so-fun train experience goes from pathetic and uncomfortable, to Night of The Demon. See, after the sun goes down, the train speeds up because there’s no reason to go slow in order for people to view the trashy landscape anymore. Seriously, it becomes so dark you can’t see any detail out the window. As the train speeds up, the noise and jolts of the train going over the run-down tracks increases dramatically. And since you can’t see anything, you start to lose a certain amount of perspective, so that when the train swerves, it feels like the car is about to fall over for just a split second. This ratchets up the fear factor of the trip to unimaginable heights. The train begins to honk its horn regularly, so at times a jolt or swerve of the train is accompanied by a loud blare as if you are about to go careening off the tracks into the depths of hell. Reading, knitting, writing? Ha ha ha ha ha! Romantic cuddling? More like clutching each other in fear while praying you make it through the night.

The attendant comes by and sets up your beds for the night, then disappears before you can ask any questions. Well, K and I are definitely tired now, but sleep is impossible. Let me say that again, sleep is impossible. Lying horizontal while the train swerves, bumps and clickity-clacks like the sound of the hooves of the four horseman of the apocalypse? Closing your eyes while you bob and weave in your bed, the rope netting keeping you snug in your pod capsule? Drifting to sleep when every sound tells you that this is the last ride of your entire life? What drugs are you on, because I want some! Good Lord, I wouldn’t wish this on my enemies, it’s beyond cruel. Every waking moment is spent in mindless terror, and every waking moment lasts an eternity. You sweat bullets wondering when the nightmare will end, and this goes on hour after hour until you literally pass out from exhaustion due to terror.

This is the first day of the trip.

About half an hour after you pass out from exhaustion, the sun starts to come up and the train slows down. Half an hour later, the loudspeaker begins announcing breakfast for the various car sections. K and I shamble to our feet and make our way to the food queue like newly minted members of the living dead. By the time we have acquired a shower and a new set of clothes, the train is rolling into Chicago. We disembark and settle into the station for the layover until our sardine slot on the Empire Builder is ready. The food in the restaurants is an order of magnitude better, the walking around stretches our legs, and we call the folks from a payphone to let them know we made it. There’s a special lounge for the purchasers of cabin space, which we take advantage of. Plenty of comfortable furniture to sit on, free snacks and drinks, television, and a kindly, helpful staff. What, did I just land on Mars? I want this to be our train experience! And oh my God, real functional toilets that don’t look like they came from the mind of some mad scientist.

And to boot, I get to wander around the station where the finale of Silver Streak takes place. It’s a slight kick, and recovers me a few hit points of damage from the war hellride.

The wait is interminable, but at long last we board our new sardine can on a superliner, a train car with two levels to accommodate additional passengers and baggage. There is no increase in floor space, however. The train rolls out and it all begins again. This time it’s going to be two days of hell before we get any relief. I still hold out the hope that this leg of the trip will be different, that last night’s ordeal was just a fluke. But, I’m afraid my hopes are dashed against the rocks. The experience ends up being repeated along the entire length and breadth of this trip. I sure hope I get a vacation to recover from my vacation.

Now that the trip is getting out into the heartland of the country, you’d think the scenery improves, right? Nope. Still passing by the junkyard detritus of America. The landscape lacks trees of any size, and is mostly rolling hills and overgrown fields. Pretty unimpressive. It’s nice when we pass homes where the occupants have settled outside to watch the train pass in their lawn chairs. I get a good feeling out of knowing that our passage is a positive event, even if those folks have no clue of the monstrous horror within the iron horse as it toots by. The stops are somewhat picturesque at times. We get to stretch our legs for a few minutes, while K takes pictures.

We’ve discovered that you can catch brief naps during the day before cramps force you to wake up and shift around in the fossil chair. A second night of fearful sleep has turned us ragged and grumpy, but the day naps help. It’s not as if there’s anything historical, scenic or wholesome out the window. We’ve figured out that you have to hoard food and drink from the concession stand, because they don’t restock it regularly, oh no. They let it run dry and don’t replace it until they reopen every morning. You haven’t lived until you’ve fought the mutants for the last bag of BBQ Utz for the night. The previous drunkard has disembarked, but has now been replaced by a new guy who insists on the staff opening the secret Bat-stash of beer so he can have one last ticket to paradise city. The coach class did a run on the hamburgers, so dinner is reduced to slop meat sauce on garbled mixture of protein material, or pig knuckles on a hot croissant served with radioactive Chernobyl sauce green beans.

Oh yeah, because we’re on the second story of a super-liner car, when the train speeds up for the night, the swerves at the top of the train are worse than for the single car. Imagine being at the top of a tree swaying in the wind and you’ll get the idea. Panic and fear receive a bonus to their roll, so the stress level amps up beyond any reason. K and I suck down the wine we smuggled aboard, hoping to pass out drunk and at least get a decent sleep at the expense of a hangover, but it fails. Something about the Terror Train makes getting drunk impossible, and you go straight to throbbing headache with dulled reflexes, which makes moving about something of a fun house in terms of trying to stay sane. Curse the fates all you want, you still have to stay awake in fear until you don’t. Suicide? What if that doesn’t work? Nothing else seems to work, and what if it makes things worse? Remember, panic and fear in “The Rattlesnake Dimension”. No hope, only fear.

Glacier Park, Montana actually turns out to be scenic. We coil and twist through the mountain range, and get grand views of forest and valley. The stops are nice. Unfortunately, the track switches and we get a beautiful view of a cliff wall from then on after. And since we didn’t come upon it until the evening, the sun soon sets and we can’t see even that. The train speeds up, and we’re barreling through twists and turns at breakneck speed with the horn of hell blaring the final crash at any moment. We run out of snacks and water/soda, which is a minor emergency as right now the last battle at the concession stand is being fought. But we’re too worn out right now to care. The only thing keeping us sane is each other’s company. We can’t do anything other than sit, stare, nap or talk. The train makes anything else practically impossible.

Another night of “stay awake or die” passes, and we wake to the train entering the Columbia River Gorge. Now this mother-scratcher is scenic! The place looks like it hasn’t been totally devastated by humans, nor is there the ever-present sign of decrepitude I kept seeing. Just picturesque beauty and nice, unobtrusive signs of human habitation. Despite a gnawing hunger and thirst, K and I are too tired to go to breakfast. Thank the Maker for the coffee and juice station. The only sign of humanity in the entire damn train. The end of this leg of the ordeal is in sight, and all we can do is think about how it will soon be over. The wait is excruciating agony, especially when the train has to stop for a brief service check in Vancouver. So close!

We arrive, and stumble off the train with our luggage looking like a pair of refugees. The station is a nice, small, old school structure downtown. We are so out of it, we don’t call a cab and walk six blocks to the rental car agency, stash our stuff in the trunk, and walk to an actual café where we grab a vegetarian meal. Everyone is smiling and gossiping, having a good time. It’s like we just walked into happy land, and we’re so stunned we can’t talk. We eat with the slow weariness of victims. A random person walks by us on the street and asks if we’re okay and need help. I start shaking from shock. It’s too much, the lack of panic and fear. I get a tasty burrito and coffee into my stomach and I start to respond. K and I are alive, and it’s real vacation time.

But four days later we must face the unthinkable again, only worse, for another three days. Hell just got an upgrade, but we wouldn’t know that until later.