It was the Rand Paul incident that finally did it. The senator from Kentucky was going through airport security en route to D.C. in January when a metal detector went off. Paul said there was a mistake and wanted to walk through the detector again to clear it up. TSA wouldn't allow that. Its agents insisted on an enhanced pat-down. Paul, a vocal critic of the agency's intrusiveness, wasn't up for being groped that day. He missed his flight in the ensuing standoff.
Paul is a sitting senator in the United States Congress and thus enjoys constitutional protections against being detained on his travels to and from D.C. This isn't one of those so-called dormant clauses of the Constitution either. Patrick Kennedy once invoked congressional privilege to beat a possible DUI charge after a fender bender on Capitol Hill.
The reason Ron Paul's son didn't assert his enhanced rights is that he is indignant over the government's enhanced inspections of ordinary Americans. It's a noble sentiment that we can applaud him for. Yet I have a hard time imagining TSA would have just let him go and not added him to a no-fly list if he were simply Rand Paul, eye doctor.
For me, that tore it. I had to go to D.C. for the CPAC conference that starts today, but there was no way I was going to fly there and I had no desire to personally reenact Forrest Gump. So I took the train.
When I told people I was going to do this, their first reaction can be summarized as "Are you nuts?" Their second reaction was quite different. They asked about the cost and length of the trip. When they learned that the trip was three-plus leisurely days of room, board, and travel with at best a spotty wifi connection, they were envious.
As well they should have been. If they flew while I took the train, they had to deal with long lines, luggage restrictions, cramped seating, and a culture of cost-cutting that gouges you for everything -- from checked luggage to stale bagels. First class is a little better, but not much, and it doesn't seem worth the expense for the short duration of the flight.
I walked onto the train with only minutes to spare; gave them my ticket but didn't walk through any screening apparatus, take off my shoes, or show ID; put my own bag in one of the large storage compartments without anybody fussing over its size; and kicked back in my own room with facing benches, which made into a bedroom at night.
All meals are included in the ticket cost. You can have them either delivered to your room or take them in the dining car, which has "community seating." The host plops you down with fellow train riders, mostly other sleeping passengers, and you hear stories and accents from all over the country.
The other riders told me how not to hail a taxi cab in Argentina, how small towns in North Dakota have turned into boom towns because of oil development, how much real estate prices have shot up in certain ski spots, and how annoyed Americans all along the 49th parallel are with Canadians.
Amtrak also came up with other ways to keep the overnighters engaged. My car's attendant gave me a bottle of champagne upon departure. One afternoon, the dining car had a wine and cheese tasting that I'm not sure I signed up for, but got roped into anyway.
Nearly every first-time rider told me "This sure beats flying!" at least once, and many movers of the air traffic industry agreed. I took several meals seated next to actual pilots. When not in the cockpit, they told me, train travel is more fun. It gives you room to stretch and some time to think, uninterrupted by most of the noises of modern life, and you can step out for actual smoke breaks without being fined.
And the views! You can see some marvelous things from far above the earth, but closer is better. I saw the sun peak through the clouds after a hazy day and set over the waters of the Puget Sound; Montana's panorama of stars at night; Glacier National Park covered with snow; lakes in the process of unfreezing, with chunks of ice cracking off near the shore and drifting into the watery center.
There is no rail-driven equivalent of flyover country. We rode through major metropolises, booming areas, poorer patches literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and plenty of small and abandoned towns not along the interstate that I would one day like to find the time to explore. If I ever get around to it, odds are I'll be taking train.