How to spend your Aspen offseason riding the rails for under $700
for the Aspen Times Weekly
HOW TO BOOK
15-DAY USA RAIL PASS
Includes 8 segments
Cost: $459 (adult) $194 (children 2-15)
30 DAY PASS
Includes 12 segments
Cost: $689 (adult) $289 (children 2-15)
45 DAY PASS
Includes 18 segments
Cost: $899 (adult) $374 (children 2-15)
WHAT’S A SEGMENT?
A “segment” entails when you get off a train, either to transfer or at your destination. For instance, if you are going to New York from Glenwood Springs and transfer in Chicago, that is two segments by the time. I stopped in six different cities during my entire trip and only used nine of my twelve segments. So all in all, the amounts of segments provided are very sufficient
SHOULD I BOOK ONLINE?
Nothing beats doing in-person with a ticket agent, as I did in Glenwood. You can book online at Amtrak.com but the website isn’t equipped to sort out the multiple stops a pass requires. You can also get personal service through Glenwood over the phone at 970-945-9563. A phone call to Amtrak’s costumer service line is always an option too, at 800-872-7245 but long hold times are the standard.
HOW FLEXIBLE IS MY ITINERARY?
Once you’ve booked you travel agenda, nothing is set in stone. All dates and destinations are flexible and can be changed up to a day in advance. Again, the easiest way to do that is to phone our friendly folks at Glenwood or to visit a ticket window wherever you maybe.
Who travels by train these days, you may ask? I do. And you should, too.
Before my monthlong journey around the nation on our rail system, I had never taken the time to see large pieces of the U.S. I’d never taken the time to approach my own birthplace like an excited foreigner.
Around these parts we love our offseason trips to Europe, Bali and, say, the outer reaches of Mongolia. Bringing experiences back from these places strengthens our community here in Aspen. But I found we don’t always have to travel the world to find fresh ground to tread and new experiences to seize. Sometimes it’s right here under our noses.
HOW IT WORKS
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As I was sitting at home this past February, it became abundantly clear that I had little to no idea what to do with myself during the coming offseason.
Then I had a bright idea (although rare, I have these at times). I Googled “cheap trips” and not far down the links — past the blinking neon ads for exotic locations — was a heading that read “Amtrak Rail passes.”
I was caught by surprise when, after a click, I found that for the price of a normal ticket out of Aspen airport one could purchase a 30-day pass on our nation’s railway. To say I was sold would be an understatement, but I was still skeptical if this was really a thing. How had I never heard of this? We’ve all heard of the EuroRail pass. In fact, during another lifetime (i.e., my 20s) I had the pleasure of “chugging” around that continent using one. It had just never occurred to me that we would have our own American take on that extended travel option here.
This kind of trip did not need to live in my imagination for very long before the realization washed over me: “Our valley has its own saddling up point to ride the Iron Horse right in Glenwood.”
After reading countless reviews on how to start the process of getting a 30-day pass on Amtrak, it became overwhelmingly clear that a face-to-face interaction with a ticket vendor was truly my only option.
After I had procrastinated for most of the winter, and offseason was closing in, I finally made time at the end of March to head to the station in Glenwood. I arrived armed with a very loose agenda and a buttload of questions. A very friendly and accommodating woman named Dawn greeted me from behind the ticket window. It became clear that Dawn was not only in the business of ticket sales, she also (for a lack of better words) would be my personal travel agent. Now I felt fancy.
With a patience that is rare in almost every industry outside those backed by religious doctrine, Dawn helped me turn a loose agenda into one that was not only practical but that also promised to be easygoing.
That was the last push I needed. I jumped on it and purchased my ticket then and there. Not only did I have a 30-day rail pass for all Amtrak lines in my hand, I also received every ticket that I would need for a circumnavigation around the country.
Folks, it doesn’t end there: with a smile, Dawn let me know that the entire trip was flexible, meaning I could change anything on my agenda (times, destinations, even accommodations). Here’s where my mind got blown: She also informed me that, with a simple call to her or any of her co-workers, they would sort out any change I may want to make right over the phone. In an age where everything travel-related is done digitally and with no personal connection, I could not believe that I was to have a lifeline right here to my home base in the mountains. I did end up using that number a couple of different times while I was on the rails and Dawn was true to her word.
The first time I called the station was the morning before the longest leg of my trip: a 30-hour trek from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana. I was interested to see what the rates on a sleeper car might be ($385 a night was the answer; I decided to save that money for an Airbnb in Whitefish).
The folks in Glenwood always had my back. I found that very comforting, considering I was often in unfamiliar places.
My ticket’s start date was April 25 and its end was May 24.
I left Glenwood for New York and from there headed back west through Montana, Seattle, Portland, Truckee, and many places in between.
What my agenda looked like on paper was something like this: In 29 days I was going to ride nine trains for a total of 155 hours. Starting from the Roaring Fork Valley, heading to the Atlantic and then back across to the Pacific. By trip’s end I would travel through 17 states and place my feet on the soil of 10 of those (sometimes for days, sometimes a few minutes).
I was dazzled by Montana and its crisp spring mountain air blowing off lakes at the foot of ski resorts. Portland had me enthralled with quirky neighborhoods that I explored on a rented e-bike. The thing about this trip is that I got to see America in all its glory – from urban jungles to natural wonders. At times it felt like I was living in my own version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Which ain’t a bad thing.
I love trains, but I learned that I really love sleeping on them. I was able to do this for seven nights during my trip. Now you may ask “What does a rail pass provide when it comes to slumber?” Good question.
The answer is a coach setting, and basically what that looks like is very similar to business class sets on an international flight: a lazy boy or love seat, depending on whether you are sharing the row with anyone. I personally never had someone sit or sleep next to me for my entire trip, mostly due to strategic planning and the fact that the train cars are rarely full. At the end of the day, sleeping on the train is more comfortable than most of the nights I have spent in the wilderness during camping trips. Add in the creature comforts provided and it’s like the best-case glamping imaginable.
I found a lot of satisfaction riding the train for those extended periods of time. Something about train travel ignites a creative spark. It mimics meditation at times. Every train has a dining/observation car that is free for all to enjoy 24/7. As soon as any train began to move I made myself comfortable in one of the booths until I retired to my seat at night. Since childhood I have perfected the art of looking out of moving vehicles and daydreaming.
I can now say there are very few pleasures like having a moving desk (as strange as that may sound). Every booth I perched at became just that. With my writing and reading materials laid out in front of me, hours would pass as quickly as the scenery outside.
I read about the gorgeous vistas that were in store for me along the way: the rainforests of Oregon and Northern California; along the Hudson River Valley outside New York City; the mountains of Glacier National Park. What caught me off-guard was how, though these landmarks were beautiful beyond measure, my favorite moments were sprinkled between these places: the long open plains of North Dakota with a sunset I thought was reserved for beaches; the rundown historic factories of our heartland; the backyards with junk and their own stories strewn about.
Anytime I looked up, something of intrigue captured my eye. I found myself many times not wanting to look away in the fear that I would miss something wonderful.
It is a beautiful thing how the mind begins to work when you are still but moving.
Traveling the rails lets you see things in real time. You are not teleported and rushed in two or 12 hours to a totally different world as you might be on a flight. Your destination slowly materializes in front of you, giving a grander perspective on where you are once you arrive.
You start to see the strings that hold everything together. As we closed in on Chicago, I watched the farmland turn into small towns, then to suburbs right to the heart of it all at Union Station. On the way from Seattle to Portland, I got to see the coastal towns that run on the fruits of the sea and the lumber villages. I witnessed the infrastructures and backbones of the U.S. on a large scale, got to see the entire canvas and all the colors.
The people you share trains with help paint the picture, as well.
As I stepped off the train in Glenwood at the end of my trip, I asked Kevin — a car attendant who had been working for Amtrak a total of 29 years — if he could sum up his experience and he simply replied, “It’s been a journey.”
Miller Ford is an Aspen-based writer and comedian. He is a member of Consensual Improv, based out of Thunder River Theatre Co. This fall he is traveling the West Coast as master of ceremonies for the Warren Miller Film Tour.
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