A Three Million Mile Flyer Boards an Amtrak Train...

03/05/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

The diagnosis? A torn retina. The eye surgeon's orders? Non-negotiable.

No flying for three weeks.

"But I have a show on the East Coast," I pleaded.

"Cancel it."


"Out of the question."

Long pause. "What about a ... train?"

"I'll allow that. Bring a companion, just in case."

So, with my temporarily worthless American Airlines Executive Platinum tag strapped to my bag, my 75-year-old father-in-law and I purchased round trip Amtrak tickets in Chicago, bound ultimately for Princeton, N.J.

37 onboard hours, 39 stops and one severely disabled lower spine later, I concluded the human race can be divided into three separate categories:

  • Male and female
  • Democrat and Republican
  • Plane people and train people

I have no interest in changing my sex or political ideology. However, after logging more than 3 million career miles on planes and chillingly realizing I've become WAY too familiar with our nation's airports (Want great sushi? Try Matsutake across from gate A18 at Washington Dulles!), I wondered if it would be possible to convert to this often neglected form of transportation. Subway and commuter trains aside, the last train I boarded was the one returning me to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 1984 following a summer-long, post-college jaunt through Europe. I hadn't showered in five days. My pockets contained a tattered Eurail pass and approximately three German deutsche marks. The train's other occupants looked at me with envy.

First, I gamely tried convincing myself that trains would offer all the features I utilized on planes. "Both have on-board lavatories," I thought.

TRAVEL TIP: To prepare for train travel, simply stand in an airplane bathroom, relieve yourself and then ask, "Could I accomplish this same feat in an area half this size?"

Once aboard I realized trains are, in fact, superior when it comes to configuration. A plane's layout remains stationary throughout the flight (cockpit, first class, coach class, standing woman rocking screaming infant). Conversely, train cars can rearrange themselves, as I found out one morning when the dining car, previously one car to the left, was now three cars to the right. On my left was now a door that led to ... a sudden drop onto the tracks. This is the cruelest of jokes to play on somebody with limited vision.

Eventually I realized train and plane terminology was nearly identical, although definitions varied. For example:

Delay: A lengthy airport delay lasts approximately four hours. A "slight" train delay is four days. Tack on another two hours for the train to be "released from the yard," which is Amtrak-speak for, "Hold on everybody. Your train is buried behind a bunch of other trains. Our train jockeys are moving them now."

Overhead storage: An empty space that will hold a roller board suitcase on a plane and an average sized wallet on a train.

Security screening: Airline passengers remove shoes, belts, jewelry, cell phones and toupees before clearing security. Train passengers do it by offering a warm, trusting smile to whoever is collecting tickets. Any illegal, hazardous or dangerous items should be placed on laps and remain there due to the limited storage space.

Meal service: This is non-existent for most flyers but available for anyone traveling by train, provided the famished traveler can locate the dining car and doesn't mind eating with total strangers, all of whom are eager to swap train stories and offer train travel tips (I had neither). I shared dinner and the next day "brunch" (aka "leftovers") with Fargo, North Dakota residents Will and Marge, who, judging from their lengthy rail histories, may have been the first paying passengers aboard the Pony Express.

On board Wi-Fi: Airline passengers use this feature to communicate with the outside world. Train passengers communicate with the outside world by staring out the window, occasionally waving at cows. In the fleeting moments that Wi-Fi does exist, passengers send emails to loved ones stating the train is now running five days late.

Train people, rejoice. I've realized I'm far too cynical and set in my ways to join your ranks. I'm returning to my eye surgeon in a few days, eagerly anticipating hearing those four magical words:

"You can fly again."

If he chooses to add, "The operation was successful," that would be a nice bonus.

2015 Greg Schwem Distributed By Tribune Content Agency, LLC