Somewhere along the Colorado-Kansas border, our Amtrak Southwest Chief rumbled Eastbound. In the iconic observation car, the four of us assembled at a cafe table. Beautiful western landscapes whoosh by, but no one really noticed. We commandeered this space and created our little war-room to hash out a strategy to deal with a huge problem.
Hotel rooms needed to be cancelled and rebooked. Car rentals had to be re-scheduled. Plans had to come together quickly, and agreement was needed all around – that we were getting off this train at Kansas City, some 500 miles (and many hours) earlier than expected.
[Russ working the reservation situation. Photo by Conrad Padilla]
The Southwest Chief was behind schedule and the four of us were determined to get to Sioux City Iowa on time to start the 2023 RAGBRAI, a weeklong bicycle event that takes riders across the entire state of Iowa.
Yes, we could have taken a flight. But on previous trips I’ve argued for the train, with its lower carbon footprint, easygoing boarding, simple baggage process and far more scenic experience. This time, there was no resistance, everyone liked the Amtrak idea.
Part of what makes Amtrak so unique is its basic process of dealing with passengers and luggage. There's a do-it-yourself aspect to it that seems antiquated compared to flying with the airlines. Need to check a bag? Bring it on board and find a lower-level bin. Checking larger items like a bike? Walk it down to the baggage car and hand it to the attendant inside.
But there are conveniences. No TSA security lines, metal detectors or removing shoes. Amtrak station attendants never bark orders about laptops or electronic devices. There's no waiting to be "free to move about the cabin". You can get up to walk the length of the train any time you want. When the train pulls into a station, you can hop off to stretch or walk the along the platform.
But those perks were starting to lose their shine at this point.
The signs of trouble started straight out of Los Angeles. Not long after leaving the station it was apparent the car I was assigned was having problems with the air flow and air conditioning. Later, the entire train started losing – then regaining – electricity. The apologetic announcements from train staff became tiresome.
At each stop, the train was delayed further while local rail workers tried to fix the issue with little results. By the time we pulled into Albuquerque, the situation came to a head. The conductor announced that one of the two engines had crapped out. He explained that this line to Chicago requires two engines because of the high elevation passes in the mountains along northeast New Mexico and Colorado border.
We were informed that Amtrak officials were in contact with BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) to procure one of their freight engines as a replacement. You can do that? It sounded like a desperate measure - like sleeping with the enemy. Not to mention time consuming.
Time consuming, it was. Several hours later we pulled out of Albuquerque donning a dirty orange BNSF locomotive.
[Who's in charge here?]
Based on Amtrak staff’s estimates on our arrival to Chicago, we were on the edge of being able to keep reserved hotel rooms and other connections.
But the freight engine had problems working with the remaining Amtrak engine which caused further delays. Eventually we fell 14 hours behind schedule.
At some point we knew our hunch was right. We had to get off at Kansas City and switch from rail to interstate to have any hope to make the RAGBRAI start on time.
With scant cell service out in the prairie, we were lucky to be able to make the arrangements from our huddled space. Amtrak staff was notified of our early deboarding. Now we just had to hope we could make the final stretch across the state of Kansas to the Kansas City (Missouri) station without any further problems.
Sometime around 8pm we finally arrived. Our mission was to quickly get the bikes from the baggage car, configure them with the luggage to make the ride to the recently booked hotel - in the dark.
[Finding our way out of the Kansas City Station proved to be a challenge. Where the heck is the exit? Photo by Conrad Padilla]
I was the only one who had bright lights mounted on the bike, so I took the lead while having the hotel address plugged into Google maps on my phone. We were pleasantly surprised to find bike lanes and bike signals throughout downtown K.C. But in the dark, it wasn’t a total cakewalk. Finally, we were able to check in and get some sleep.
The next morning, we all rode across the city once more - this time to the car rental – which didn’t have our mini van yet. Negotiations were required to switch to the last vehicle on the lot, a Toyota Tacoma. Luckly, it was good fit for 4 humans, 4 bikes and 4 sets of bags. Alan and the rest of the guys broke down the bikes to fit in the bed, while I worked with the agent changing the rental details.
[Trains, trucks and bicycles. Whatever it takes to get to the start on time.]
At last, we were on our way up interstate 29 heading north from Kansas City to Sioux City. We arrived at the city limits some 4 hours later among similarly outfitted vehicles – everyone had bikes mounted all over!
[Huh. Looks like we're getting close to the start.]
Happily, we merged into the city among the hordes of other would-be Ragbrai-ers. We’d made it on time and would soon ditch our vehicle and start biking.
Amtrak isn't considered a chic travel experience. It has many issues that can pop up to derail (all pun intended) your travel schedule. But we were able to use some of its old school ideas to our advantage. With our bikes as transport from station to hotel, we took matters into our own hands, created our own "Plan B" and just got on with our trip.
Being with like-minded friends, our situation became sort of a challenge as well as a neat little side adventure to drop into an unfamiliar city - at night - and find our way.
As Yvonne Chouinard famously said: “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Indeed, an adventure was had before our planned adventure had started.
As our Ragbrai ride unfolded, much drama and many stories became part of our trip. Stay tuned for “Bike Fever”, my Day 1 experience.
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