Dateline: Cumberland Gap

More updates from the road, as your Not Fake News action correspondent continues his travels.  For research purposes only, of course.

One of the things I love most about traveling by train is the completely different attitude by passengers.  I’ve seen fights break out over who gets which taxi, whether people have the right to lay their seats back on a plane, or who let out that legendarily nasty fart that cleared the bus.  (Note:  Anchovy paste, boiled eggs, cabbage, and wasabi sauce may be delicious appetizer ingredients, but they are not to be consumed in quantity before long journeys in an enclosed space.)

But on a train, things are different.  One example is this lovely display of Christmas cookies donated by a fellow passenger to be consumed by all and sundry in the Observation Lounge.  He gets two trays every year from his local church bake sale just to bring on his annual trip east; speaking as one of the “all” (or perhaps “sundry”), I can attest to their deliciousness.

For the benefit of those of you who have never been fortunate enough to experience the Observation Lounge, I shall say a few words.  This compartment runs the entire length of the Café Car, on its own level above the concession area.  Comfortable seats face a continuous line of wide plexiglass windows that offer some of the most amazing and glorious views imaginable — some of which only rail passengers will ever get to see.

(Unfortunately, my attempts to take pictures through the plexiglass weren’t very successful.  Judge for yourself; this is ice on the branches.)


There is, however, one thing about the Lounge — or, more particularly, the Café Car — that the uninitiated must be warned about.  This is the coffee.

For the rest of the menu, the café attendants do their best with what they have, which is large coolers and an industrial microwave.  The bagels, for example, are soft and chewy but not toasted; the breakfast bowls are the best Jimmy Dean can provide.  And the donut bites are almost worthy of Tim Horton’s, which is as high a compliment as I can imagine bestowing on anything not TimBits.  But… the coffee.

The French have a term for American coffee; they call it jus de chaussettes, which is literally translated “sock juice”.  And, yes, in general our coffee is watery, bitter, and faintly unpleasant (unless it’s from Starbucks, in which case it’s also burnt).  This does not describe Amtrak coffee, however, which is quite strong.  My first vial of cream sunk without a trace; my fifth managed to turn the mixture a murky brown.  But Ahhhh!  the taste!  Oh, so delicious!  Almost as good as my grandfather’s coffee from long long ago — but that’s another tale.

I collected the following reviews from my fellow passengers between 6 and 7 A.M.:

  • “Coffee ain’t coffee unless you can chew it.”
  • “They could use this to patch roofs.”
  • “Don’t they drill for this down your way, Pardner?” (to a Texan)
  • “Stood my spoon straight up in it, didn’t hardly tip.  Or melt.”
  • *cough* *wheeze*
    “You okay there, buddy?”
    “Whooo!  Day-amn-nation!  That there’s some good coffee!”
  • “That’ll sure keep you going a while.”

At the end of the evening, any coffee in any pot anywhere in the world will have a flavor reminiscent of battery acid.  Some particularly noteworthy pots, having been left on the hob for a week straight and only occasionally topped up with water, will achieve the remarkable status of being foul, burnt, flavorless, and entirely bereft of caffeine.  The wise consumer will bear both concepts in mind when visiting the concession counter five minutes before they close and instead select tea or cocoa.

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