Mealtime in an Amtrak dining car is always a surprise. With family-style seating, you never know who’ll be sharing your table; and in the course of many long-distance train trips I’ve drawn everything from a Japanese doctor specializing in organ transplant to a 300-pound biker in a tank top.
Today, I’m about to have breakfast in the dining car of the Cresent, en route to Washington, D.C., from New Orleans. Moments after I order orange juice, coffee and an omelet—hold the grits, please—the steward appears and seats three youngsters at my table.
Little by little conversation builds. I’m breakfasting with Jazzy Mears, 9, and her brother, Rico, 13. Their cousin-companion is Alexis Bautista, also 13. All three are from Calhoun, Georgia, and they boarded the train last night in Atlanta.
By the time the Cresent has us somewhere between Charlottesville and Culpepper, Virginia, they’re sharing their enthusiasm about this adventure—an overnight ride to Washington to visit their relatives. The trip was the idea of their grandmother, Sheila Powell, who, I discover, is seated at the table directly behind us.
“I want my grandkids to see our Capitol,” she says, “and the Black History Museum.”
The children, fascinated by their first experience in a rolling restaurant, are sawing away at slabs of French toast.
Two hours later, the Cresent glides to a stop in Union Station. I head off down the platform as Sheila counts heads and bags and backpacks.
Riding north to Boston later that day, I thought about when my grandparents treated me to my first overnight train ride. It was unimaginably exciting, and I have no doubt it was the genesis of the passion for train travel I have to this day. No matter the generation, kids love eating in the dining car and snuggling down into a real bed while cities and towns and fields and mountains pass by just outside.
A week later I’m on Amtrak’s premier train, the Empire Builder, a day out of Chicago, heading for Seattle, and rocking along through vast North Dakota wheat fields. And it happens again! I’ve just taken a seat in the dining car and am scanning the lunch menu when a woman with a shy smile is seated at the table with me.
Once our orders are placed, conversation begins. Carol McManus, as I discover, is also a grandmother treating seven grandchildren to an overnight train ride and a week of horseback rides, hikes and boating in Glacier National Park. The kids, ages 8-12, are scattered among other tables in the diner, looked after by two McManus daughters and a daughter-in-law.
“I thought the train ride would be a novelty,” Carol says.
I ask the four seated across the aisle what they like best about the train ride. “The shower!” they chorus. (Each sleeping car on the Empire Builder has a shower on the lower level, and according to one of the moms, the kids were lined up last night to try it out.)
When I check in on them later in the afternoon, the children have roamed throughout the train: Some are in the lounge car buying snacks, others in their bedrooms reading or playing games or peering out the window. The Rockies are up ahead now, massive slabs of gray rock, evergreens somehow clinging to their flanks, still snow-capped in late June.
At 7:20 p.m., just a bit over 40 minutes behind schedule, the train stops at East Glacier, Montana. The McManus family—six girls, one boy, three moms and one wise grandmother—clamber off the train and head into the station, ready to beging their week in this magnificent national park.
As the Empire Builder starts moving again, still with 650 miles to cover before reaching the Pacific, one of the kids turns, stares and waves.
Not at me. At the train.