Riding on rails through the Canadian Rockies at 40 miles per hour was the last place I expected to find myself hunched over a Bingo card, teeth clenched, and dauber poised in anticipation of a single number: B-10. Oddly, however, there I was, ready to yell that magic word and bask in glory.
Our train, the VIA Rail Canada flagship dubbed The Canadian, was somewhere between the mountain town of Jasper, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and my wife, Nikki, and I were killing time until dinner.
Outside, glacier-capped mountains and pristine lakes chugged by in the soft light of dusk. Inside, under the glow of overhead fluorescents, I sat and dabbed my card like mad. This game, the last of the night, had everyone riveted to the action. I was determined to take home the prize: a shiny Canada sticker.
"B-8," intoned the caller, who happened to be an engineer when he wasn't encouraging Bingo-mania. He repeated the number again, as if to rub in the fact that it appeared on exactly none of the cards in front of me.
Then, from the back of the train, came the dreaded cry: "Bingo!"
No, I didn't win. But truthfully, it didn't matter. When you travel by rail the journey is just as grand as the destination itself.
In the age of iPods and seat-back DVD players, on-board Bingo and the constant clickety-clack of the rails are throwbacks to the days when ribbons of steel were the only thing linking ocean to ocean, reminders of the way families traveled when they had to interact to pass the time.
On that trip, Nikki and I were taking The Canadian to finish the last leg of a cross-Canada adventure. It was the high point of our travels last winter. Years ago, though, I took another storied train trip from Cumberland, Maryland, to Chicago: Amtrak's Capitol Limited, which follows the historic B&O Line from the heyday of American railroading.
While the VIA trip was fun, we only purchased coach seats, so it wasn't what I'd call an indulgence. The trip on the Capitol Limited, however, was a much more elegant experience. My Superliner Bedroom cabin boasted a bed big enough for me to stretch out. Elsewhere in the room, there was a sink, a collapsible chair, and a tiny closet.
At dinnertime, in the dining car, I climbed into a booth festooned with fine china and white linens. I shared the table with two independent travelers, and conversation came easily. The waitress brought tomato soup first, followed by salad, and our main courses of chicken and fish. Dessert was a scrumptious chocolate cake.
My belly full, I explored the train a bit and ended up in the Sightseer Lounge. There, with a brand new issue of The New Yorker, I sat back and watched the countryside glide by. As time passed, a gaggle of teenagers gathered to play Monopoly while their parents sipped champagne. Everyone seemed completely relaxed.
Finally, around 10:00, I was ready for sleep. Returning to my cabin, I brushed my teeth in the tiny sink and jumped under the covers. The bed was surprisingly comfortable -- and certainly better than sleeping in a chair. In the dark, I watched the lights whiz by outside. Every now and again, the whistle howled.
I lay there for a while, listening to the soft squeaks of the train as it rolled toward Lake Michigan. Slowly, peacefully, the gentle rocking acted like a bassinette, and I fell into a deep, restful sleep. Bingo.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.