As November ended, we realized Stacy had the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day off; we deliberated about what we could do that didn’t include our normal hometown routines. We were up for a winter adventure.

With Oliver, long car trips are a challenge, so we resort to other forms of transportation to travel farther, faster. We typically fly, but lately we’ve been contemplating the train. It’s cheaper than flying and more accommodating for toddler entertainment. And, as is the case with most toddlers, Oliver is fixated with trainsanything, really, involving wheels or wings.

After mapping out Amtrak’s East Coast route, called The Carolinian, we discovered we had family and friends in D.C., a city we’ve yet to visit as a trio. We bought our tickets, and excitement started to build for our first train trip. Since we were leaving a few days after Christmas, the train would be empty, we assumed. No one takes Amtrak, right? Well, unless it snows.

And it did, from the Deep South through North Carolina to New York and Boston and beyond. Flights were cancelled. Cars camped at hotels along interstates. Amtrak was bombarded by a rush of travelers anxiously trying to return home after the holidays. We arrived at the station hoping for a peaceful ride north. We were met with a slew of news trucks, a two-hour delay and sold-out trains for the next 48 hours.

The conductor said he would open extra café cars to seat the unexpected overload of riders. Luckily, the long delay had postponed Oliver’s nap, so he fell asleep just after the train left the station. One hour later, he was up and ready to play. Not yet out of North Carolina, the adventure was a go. From books and videos to toys and coloring books, from multiple trips up and down the packed aisles to long stints in the café cars, we tried every trick we had. We found the conductors so Oliver could hear them yowl, “All aboard.” He still mimics them.

Life was more stressful for Amtrak, though. As the train headed north, passengers kept piling into already packed cars. Not expecting this amount of riders, the cafés had lines that snaked through multiple cars. They ran out of multiple entrées, drinks and almost all alcohol. The trip trekked into nighttime. We had a restless toddler.

Nearly four hours later than expected, we were greeted by Stacy’s family with dinner and drinks. Oliver crashed almost immediately; we soon did the same. What could have taken us two hours by plane took a little over 10.

The trip home on New Year’s Day was a reminder of the general Amtrak routine: The train left on time and arrived in Raleigh only six minutes later than predicted. Unfortunately for Amtrak, I imagine that many of the previous week’s first-time riders had never experienced the serenity and potential of the train. They probably wouldn’t return. For us, though, it was a successful first train adventure. Maybe next time we’ll give Mother Nature a ring to see what she has up her sleeve before buying our tickets.