Into training in a big, big way

The Southwest Chief , one of many trains that have taken Eileen Schinlever up and down and across this country and Canada. Amtrak
The Southwest Chief , one of many trains that have taken Eileen Schinlever up and down and across this country and Canada. Amtrak

Eileen Schinlever, going on 90, has ridden the rails into every corner of this country - always solo.

Posted: January 09, 2013

Eileen Schinlever pulls out a map of the Amtrak system and runs her fingers along the train routes: the California Zephyr, the Southwest Chief, the Texas Eagle, the Sunset Limited, the Coast Starlight. She has traveled on them all, exploring North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, occasionally disembarking to rent a car and drive around the lakes and mountains of national parks. She has visited 49 of them so far.

Schinlever turns 90 this summer and has already begun planning another trip. As always, she will be a party of one.

"Being an obliging person, I go solo because more than likely, I would accept other people's suggestions about what to do. Alone, I can do my own thing," she says.

A slender, elegant woman with the kind of fragile beauty and fashionable clothes reminiscent of Main Line society in The Philadelphia Story, she wears a hearing aid and walks with a flowered cane, both the result of a bad fall in 1995 that fractured her skull and required four months of rehab. This brush with mortality - and her successful recovery - renewed her determination to travel. As she puts it, "The 'Gentleman Upstairs' and I had a discussion in which I determined that I would continue to see the world before I left it."

She has more than held up her end of the deal.

She has seen polar bears and beluga whales in Hudson Bay, icebergs and puffins in Newfoundland, the Big Dipper and Orion in October while crossing from Iowa into Kansas, and acres and acres of pecan trees spread across Texas. Schinlever always travels first class, hires redcaps to carry her one bag, and packs a different outfit - including gloves and hats - for each night in the dining car.

The special appeal of trains, she says, "is that they are a step to the next step; there are always things to do along the way. With planes, you land and it's done. As for cruises, a friend once said to me, 'When you get on a cruise, you're a prisoner.' If I'm unhappy on a train, I can always get off at the next station."

But it doesn't appear that Schinlever has ever had a bad train trip. Indeed, she sees each one as an opportunity for new experiences, even when things don't go as planned. For example, on her way to Percé (a city on the tip of the Gaspé peninsula in eastern Quebec), she missed her stop because of a miscommunication with the French-speaking conductor. A man she had met on the train offered her a lift to her bed and breakfast in Percé. Wasn't she worried about getting into a car with a stranger? "How else was I going to get there?" she asks.

A willingness to engage with others is key. "As we all know, life is a two-way street," she says. "When I am kind to someone, I receive even more kindness in return, whether it is getting help with my bag or directions to a place I have never been. It doesn't cost anything to be nice."

In Pennlyn, where she lives alone in an apartment complex, she spends her time reading - books on the Civil War and biographies of famous Americans, among other genres - gardening and keeping in touch with friends and family by e-mail and by letter. But on the train, she never reads - except for timetables - or takes photographs. "I am not comfortable with picture-taking," she says. "The travel is about seeing my world, not me."

Schinlever never feels lonely, or alone - "I get along very well with myself," she says - and never considers her trips unsafe. "In fact," she says, "my children are more scared by my travels than I am." Her older daughter, Eileen Togashi, acknowledges having "huge safety concerns" about her mother's adventures. But Togashi, a Manhattan-based photo rep, also knows that her mother is unstoppable.

"She is a very independent person who likes things her own way. The way you get things your own way is to do them alone." Togashi ticks off the characteristics that define her mother: "She is a lady to the nth degree. . . . She knows the history of all the places she wants to see. . . . She has a photographic memory; she can remember every road she has ever been on, what the weather was like on a certain day, and what someone said 50 years ago."

Schinlever grew up on Long Island and went to high school during the Depression. Once it was clear that her parents couldn't afford to send her to college, she attended the Washington School for Secretaries at 46th Street and Park Avenue in New York City. She worked until 1945, "the year that everyone came home from the war and got married." She did as well, remaining in New York, where her husband was employed by RCA, until 1953, when they moved to Dallas.

The next year, the family moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, settling in Erdenheim. Schinlever stayed home raising her two daughters until they were old enough to attend Germantown Academy. She worked there as secretary to the head of the lower school until her daughters went on to college, and then took secretarial jobs elsewhere. Widowed in 1975, Schinlever retired at age 60 and worked as a volunteer in the Chestnut Hill Hospital emergency room for the next decade.

Her first transcontinental excursion was in 1988 - to Toronto, Winnipeg, Jasper, and Vancouver, interspersed with visits by car to Banff and Lake Louise. Her most ambitious journey, in 2000, took her from New York to Chicago to San Francisco on the Zephyr, up to Seattle, a bus and ferry to the San Juan Islands for four days of exploring, a boat to Victoria, a bus and the night ferry to Prince Rupert for a five-day stopover, and then home.

Togashi recently suggested her mother write a book about her life.

"I can't do that," Schinlever says with a smile. "I'm not old enough yet."

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