Starting on May 23, Amtrak will no longer be limiting capacity. When shopping for tickets on the railroad’s website, the percentage of tickets sold so far on each run is displayed to help customers make an informed decision. And if the train on which you’ve bought a ticket gets too crowded for your comfort level, you can change the ticket at no cost.
If your budget allows, purchasing a private sleeper room on Amtrak is a somewhat safer option, since you’ll be traveling in your own space, and it’s also a relatively comfortable way to go. On our trip to Iowa, there were a full 90 passengers in these rooms, so the staff had their hands full accommodating them.
For our journey, we took the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago’s Union Station to San Francisco, to Mt. Pleasant Iowa. While we were expecting to box our bikes at the station, which adds extra hassles on both ends of the trip, ultimately we were instead allowed to load our unboxed bikes into the baggage car. (You need to purchase a space for your cycle in advance for an extra fee.)
We spent the first night in Iowa camping at Geode State Park, then rode east again to the Mississippi River city of Burlington and crossed back into Illinois. Heading south along the river (the most scenic part of the trip), we visited one of the most interesting small towns in our state, Nauvoo.
This was where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established an early capital that rivaled Chicago in population by the early 1840s. However, in 1844 Mormon leader Joseph Smith and his brother Hiram were arrested and shot to death by a mob at the jail in nearby Carthage.
The community soon relocated to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young. In recent years the LDS Church has rebuilt the temple and other historic buildings and turned the town into a tourist destination.
After camping in lovely Nauvoo State Park, we headed east to Macomb, Illinois, the home of Western Illinois University, where we stayed in simple cabins at Spring Lake Park, another attractive spot on a lovely body of water. The park is managed by cycling enthusiast and former Macomb alderman Ryan Hansen, who gave us a warm welcome.
On our last day we headed north to Galesburg, birthplace of Illinois poet laureate Carl Sandburg, who first called Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders,” and home to Knox College. In addition to the California Zephyr, the local station also serves the Southwest Chief route to Los Angeles, plus the Illinois Zephyr run between Chicago and Quincy, which we caught the next morning. Like all local routes in our state, it offers roll on service (again, you have to purchase a spot in advance.)
All in all, I was fairly comfortable using Amtrak for this journey, so as long as we don’t see another major spike in cases, I’ll probably make more such trips this year as a safer alternative to flying for a vacation. But hopefully a critical mass of Americans will soon be vaccinated, so that concern will pretty much be a moot point.