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Florida to Oregon by Train: Day 1

I'm taking the train from Jacksonville, Florida to Portland, Oregon for the AWP conference, where the team will exhibit. This is the story of that journey.

I love taking the train. I can't really remember when I started regularly riding it — sometime in the past six years of living in northern Florida. But I often get on the Silver Meteor or Silver Star for a relaxing trip up the east coast to visit family in the DC area. Whenever I travel abroad, it's my preferred mode of transportation — whether the Shinkansen in Japan or the many rail lines in Europe. I wish it was possible to travel the United States with the same ease as in those countries, but today I'm content that we have a passenger rail system at all.

There's something about traveling by train that just feels right. To say anymore than that would be to miss the point; I can only describe the experiences around rail travel in hopes that you'll feel the magic of it. That's what I'm aiming for in this series of posts.

Right now I'm hurtling past the still waters and swamps of southern Georgia; Cypress trees dressed in Spanish moss fly past us. It disappears as quickly as it had appeared, but the memory lingers for a bit, like a spot burned into your vision after staring at a bright light for too long. Then it fades as the scenery returns to mostly pine and oak trees, and against this relatively dull backdrop, my thoughts wander a little more.

There's a rattle to the foot rest in my spacious coach seat. My phone says we're going 80 mph (129 km/h), and I can definitely feel it. The tracks in the South are rough, and owned by freight companies; and these cars are old. I mean, they certainly don't look modern, but they're also not really tied to any obvious time period. I only know this train car was likely built in the 70's because I got captivated by that Wikipedia page once.

Ignoring the fact that it's impossible to write legibly in these conditions — hence the typed blog post — the gentle swaying of the train is kind of soothing. You learn to move with the train while on board, much like on a boat. There are no seatbelts; no captain telling you when there's land turbulence (usually in the form of a series of track switches). If you walk around, you do it with hands out, preparing to catch yourself on seat-backs and luggage racks, trying to avoid human faces and heads.

And you can walk around! It's one aspect that makes this form of transportation enjoyable, instead of feeling like it's just 12+ hours stuck in a flying metal tube. The aisles are wide, the luggage space ample. Overall, the train feels human-sized, instead of several inches too small in every dimension, like on a plane.

I find the train is great for long, continuous sessions writing code or reading one of the many books I've accumulated but never read at home. So when the mood strikes, I'll head to the cafe car and grab a seat at one of the picnic-style tables.

In fact, as the world outside gets darker and harder to see, I'll do this now.

The first leg of my journey is on the Silver Meteor from Jacksonville to Washington, DC. I'll have a full day in DC before taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, then a shorter day there before taking the Empire Builder all the way out to Portland.

I'm riding coach for the first two 12-hour legs of the journey, then a sleeper car for that final 45-hour leg. Coach on Amtrak is perfectly fine, but sleeping there can be rough. Seats go back pretty far, but not far enough to make you feel like you're really laying down. It's a tease, really — reclining far enough to know you're not on an airplane, but stopping short of giving you restful sleep. But with the private room, no matter how the next two nights go, I should at least be well-rested for when I get to Portland.

I've miraculously packed everything I need for this trip — clothes, tech, materials for our booth at the conference — into a single 75 liter backpack. It weighs 52 lbs (24 kg), or about a third of my body weight. My thighs were starting to burn under the added load while only standing in line to board the train.

I'm not sure how foolish this decision to pack everything into one bag will be yet, but I'm looking forward to finding out. As we creep into the Savannah, GA station, me still in the cafe car, I'm at least comforted knowing that no one will snatch the bag and get off the train with it. Now, I'll just need to avoid pulling a muscle when I disembark.

Next: Day 2

#travel #FLtoOR #trains