Chicago at last

We lose more time through Ohio. The conductor tries to placate us by telling us factoids about Lake Erie. We lose more time through Indiana. We've been on Norfolk Southern tracks since Pittsburgh, and at times we pick up quite a bit of speed. But we're so far outside our slot that there's just too much freight interference.

Population density can be gauged by the number of reception bars on the cell phone. It is particularly stark with T-Mobile's GSM network, which, in contrast to the larger carriers' networks, is almost entirely absent outside of populated areas. I get cut off several times when trying to retrieve voicemail, but surprisingly, stay connected though with some garbling when calling Amtrak Reservations. Sleepers are booked out on Amtrak many months in advance during the summer vacation season, but fortunately I get an experienced agent who knows how to find spots. He gets me a room on train 27 to Whitefish, Montana, where I switch to a room on train 7 to Seattle. 7 and 27 are actually the same train, the Empire Builder, but number 27 consists of three cars on the end which split off at Spokane and head for Portland.

As night falls and we roll through Indiana, the crew gathers in the dining car and begins arranging overnight accomodation. Everyone connecting in Chicago has missed his or her train. The crew has ridden the route so many times that they know every little bump in the tracks. "YUE T", one of them writes, stops and waits, bump, then finishes "AO."

The lounge car gives away its pies and cakes for free — there's an excuse to give it away, and it eliminates the inventory paperwork. The attendant is last seen walking along the platform in Elkart, Indiana, in time for dinner. In the dining car, experienced passengers are telling their Amtrak war stories. "That was the rudest lounge car attendant I've ever seen in ten years of riding Amtrak," one says. "Even for an Easterner, he was rude. I don't know why, but west of Chicago the crews are more laid back." I'd find this to be quite true.

Finally, after 764 miles, the Capitol Limited arrives in Chicago at 11:30p, thirteen hours late. The passengers form an orderly line for taxi money, then leave the station singly and in groups. At the Travelodge on East Harrison, I find myself in the elevator with two elderly women from Louisiana who'd traveled all through the Amtrak system visiting family. They're delighted that the train was late. "We'd never have been able to afford this," they say.