What with all the talk about Amtrak Writer Residencies, it seems appropriate to give y'all a small taste of the writing on the rails experience. Conveniently, your Boulder Writing Examiner happens to be on the train even as we speak. So today you get Part 1: The Coach Experience, and next week you'll get Part 2: The Roomette Experience.
Getting to the New Union Station
Rejoice! The California Zephyr has returned to service historic Denver Union Station on 17th and Wynkoop. That doesn't mean that construction is complete, however. Thus finding your way through the cone zones to the terminal can be less than intuitive.
If a friend is dropping you off by car, have them bring you to 17th and Wynkoop, from which point you'll follow the big cement barriers toward the only entrance into the building that the chain-link fence will allow you. Go in the doors. Do not go downstairs. Go around to the left, down the little hallway, and through the door. This will put you in front of the Amtrak ticketing window. Ta-da.
If you're taking the B/BX/BMX down from Boulder, get off at the light rail depot just off of Wewatta. (There's a little jog onto Chestnut just before the stop.) You will not actually go to the light rail depot, nor will you take a free mall shuttle. Instead, cross the street where the bus drops you off and follow the helpful signs with their helpful blue arrows indicating Amtrak This Way. This will involve a labyrinth of chain link fences and a little bit of squiggling. Do not lose faith! It will deposit you at the terminal's back door.
Waiting In the Terminal... or not
Remember that huge and stately hall furnished with grand, impressive wooden pews? Apparently that's one of the rooms that's still under construction. Instead, there's a tiny terminal with about a third of the seating capacity of now-shuttered temporary station at 21st and Wewatta. It's a little cramped. There's no wifi for customer use yet (or so they told me), and the room has very few accessible outlets. So if you've got more than, say, a half hour until the train arrives, you might as well take a walk.
If you need to stow your carry-ons, talk to the Baggage Department (to your left as you face the ticket window). For a small fee, maybe $4.00 or so, and if they are not too terribly busy, they will hold onto your items for you. But you must return to pick them up before the train actually arrives; otherwise they may be too busy loading checked luggage onto the train to give you your carry-ons back.
Leaving the terminal via the Wynkoop exit, you take the door pictured here. It's the same door you came in by if you entered from Wynkoop, but you might not have noticed how narrow that door looks from inside, how far back it's set in its frame, how oddly it's lit. It's like a closet for very slim giants. Apparently one gets to Wynkoop Street via Narnia.
Three pleasant places to pass your time await you: the Common Grounds coffee shop at 17th and Wazee), the Tattered Cover Bookstore at 16th and Wynkoop, and the Wynkoop Brewery at Wynkoop and 18th. The bookstore has a cafe, the coffee shop serves beer, and the brewery serves dinner. All three serve free wifi, useful for any last minute downloads.
The Ups and Downs of Writing in Coach
At last you are on the train, getting settled in your reserved coach seat. If you're new to Amtrak, the first thing you'll notice is that it's arranged much like airplane coach seating, but everything is bigger. There's more leg room, the tray table is larger, the seat inclines farther. At least, that's the case on the California Zephyr and other long-distance (overnight) lines with double-decker coach cars. (I'm told that short-distance single-level cars are furnished less comfortably.)
Another way in which this isn't like an airplane: You don't have to wait to turn on your electronics. You can turn on your laptop or tablet immediately. You can plug it in right away--there's a pair of 120v outlets at every pair of seats these days. (At certain stations they will reboot the train's entire electrical system, resulting in a bit of a blackout, but don't panic--it's only for a few seconds.) And there's no period during which you have to "put your seats and tray-tables in the upright and locked position." Analog or digital, you can get right to your work in progress, pausing only to offer your ticket to the conductor when he or she is ready to scan it.
The downside of writing in coach is, generally, other people. (Says the easily irritated introvert.) Maybe it's the low ceiling, maybe it's magic, but somehow voices in normal conversation travel a ridiculous distance down the coach car. And that distance doubles at night. So when a passenger three seats ahead has a midnight cell phone conversation or simply suffers from the illusion that Headphones Happen To Other People, it can make it hard to focus on your manuscript. Good thing headphones can happen to you, right?
Enjoy the View While Writing in the Sightseer Lounge
Typically located between the coach cars and the dining car, the Sightseer Lounge is where you'll find cafe-style seating, huge floor-to-ceiling windows, and a decent selection of slightly overpriced food and drink. Here's here you can spread out your work and enjoy the sunlight. Each table is also equipped with a pair of 120v outlets, so you aren't limited by your battery's lifespan. However, you may be limited by the amount of people riding your train with you, especially if you're traveling west from Denver where the views are really divine. If the tables are filling up, please be kind and limit your time in the lounge so that others can have a turn. And don't be shy about sharing your table; those things seat four easily.
Onboard Wifi? Not from Denver... not yet, anyway.
Amtrak is slowly rolling out its wifi onboard program across the country. Unfortunately, the California Zephyr is not one of the midwest routes that recently got hooked up. (See this list for routes and stations that are currently wifi-enabled.) Denver passengers in need of internet on the rails may wish to invest in a mobile wifi hotspot. And even then, you'll be limited by the inevitable dead zones where cell phones get no signal. You'll run into some big ones right after you leave Denver, whether you're rolling across wide-open, rural Eastern Colorado or climbing up into the Rockies.