This morning I am officially sick of summer. So instead of getting out in this heat and pulling crabgrass from the pineapple patch, I’ll stay in air conditioned comfort and think about snow.
When I planned my cross-country train adventure last winter, I had no idea the severe cold that gripped the country through January was about to get a whole lot worse.
To travel anywhere from Florida on Amtrak one must first go up to DC or New York, and then transfer to one’s destination. This was fine with me. I looked forward to viewing areas of the country that I hadn’t seen before. To achieve some flexibility I purchased a two-week rail pass.
You can use a two-week pass for up to six legs of a journey. This was just perfect for my needs. Still, to be assured of a seat on a specific train, you need to plan the itinerary in advance. Having the ticket in hand turned out to be the only thing that saved me from getting stranded in DC during “Snowmageddon”.
Snow! Yes, let us think about snow on this hot August morning. There are many kinds of snow. I experienced several varieties while standing by the rails waiting to board the next train. In Virginia the snow was wet, heavy; Santa Fe, light, blustery. The flakes in Chicago blew relentlessly.
One thing I found intriguing about train travel was how effortlessly people banded together to form instant traveling parties. With plane travel it is rush to get into the security line, race to the plane, take a breath or a nap and just like that, trip over. On a train you have time for conversations. You can wander up to the snack car or viewing car and meet new people.
When I boarded in Orlando, my seatmate was Mary. She was headed home to Ohio with her daughter after vacationing in Florida. Mary and I struck up a conversation and it was like we had known each other our entire lives. We were too much the same sort, talking and laughing and quickly earning a reputation as the car troublemakers. Bigmouths, true enough. I don’t think we actually caused trouble. Anyway, we were having a grand ol time.
We were supposed to arrive in DC the following morning around 7:30. Some time during the night I woke to find that the train had stopped. Only darkness outside. We were sitting at a dead stop in the middle of nowhere.
We were moving again before dawn and when I went for coffee learned that around midnight a freight train stalled in front of us. We had been stuck sitting idle about four hours, and now would not arrive in DC until noon.
The conductor arranged for Mary and the other passengers headed for Ohio to get off in Richmond, VA, and then take a bus to Charlottesville, VA. This way they could still catch The Cardinal and arrive home on schedule. I showed the conductor that even though I was going to Chicago my ticket was also for The Cardinal. You know, part of my see-as-much-country-as-possible plan? The Cardinal goes through West Virginia and I had hopes of beautiful mountain vistas.
Six of us got off in Richmond: Mary, her daughter, me, a couple of other women and a gentleman who regaled us with stories of walking across the country. We became an instant traveling party, staying close together, watching each others stuff. Soon, we would part company, each going on to a ticketed destination. For those brief hours we were family. I think about Mary. We only knew one another for about 24 hours, and will probably never meet again. But we shared quite a bit during that brief acquaintance. Train Time is its own measure of time. One morning in the dinette car I listened to two older guys talking. Who could tell if they had known each other for decades or met ten minutes ago? Such is the nature of relationships on a train.
Anyway, I got my first real taste of winter while we waited to board The Cardinal in Charlottesville. Snow pelted us without mercy and the wind blew freezing cold. Once on the train I quickly gave up any thought of lovely mountain vistas. All was gray and frozen.
On my return trip to Florida I stopped off in Chicago to visit my mother-in-law. This worked out beautifully as I could catch the commuter train from Union Station right out to her suburb. Of course it also meant waiting for more trains in the snow. Ahh, sounds delightful right about now.
Even before I left Marci’s house we were hearing news reports about the massive storm aiming for Washington DC. I left Chicago Thursday afternoon, would arrive in DC Friday morning and leave for my return trip to Florida around 7:00 p.m. Friday night. This was cutting it close since the snow would begin falling after sunset Friday. They were predicting two feet of snow in DC, and soon they dubbed the storm ‘Snowmageddon’.
Thursday afternoon, back at Union Station in Chicago, they were already announcing train cancellations. The Cardinal would not go farther east than Charleston WV. Fortunately I was taking The Capitol Limited. We waited to see if our train was still scheduled. I wasn’t particularly worried about cancellation in Chicago since I could always go back out to Marci’s house and wait for conditions to improve. More than anything else at this point, I felt exhausted. The Santa Fe visit with my mother and sister had been wonderful, but hectic. I had reached that point in my journey when all I really wanted was to get back home to a hot shower and my own comfy bed.
The Capitol Limited made it out of Chicago on time, and was absolutely packed. I don’t recall much about that leg of the journey because soon after we left the station I positioned my travel pillow, settled under a travel blanket, found a book to listen to on my MP3 player, slipped on ear buds and lavender-scented sleep mask, and immediately fell asleep. When you travel prepared, it’s not at all difficult to get cozy, tune out your surroundings and sleep on a train. The seats recline and are actually fairly comfortable.
We arrived at DC’s Union Station around noon, Friday. The place was an absolute madhouse. I’m not kidding. It was like something I might have described in And The Dominoes Fall. That morning, while still on the train from Chicago, some of us discussed getting the earlier train leaving DC. If our train arrived on schedule, we thought this just might work. We should have known better. Union Station in DC was so packed when we arrived, we could barely squeeze toward the ticket counter. Long before we got that far we learned that both the earlier train and ours were completely sold out. With flights being canceled many travelers had scrambled for last minute train travel. Anything leaving DC that Friday afternoon was sold out.
Eventually our little group gathered, those of us who came in together from Chicago. There was a Cuban couple, she, noticeably pregnant. They were on their way to visit family in Miami. A young woman from Colorado with a small baby harnessed snug against her chest soon joined us. Her son, around five, quickly found new playmates and oblivious to the stress level among the adults, made a game of chasing pigeons. OK, I have no idea why there were pigeons in the train station. I never try to make sense of stuff that happens in DC. Anyway, the children were having the time of their lives. As we watched the crowds thin, and shops close up, we wondered if our train would really make it out before the snow fell too heavy.
I was regularly checking Amtrak updates on the Blackberry and Don monitored the storm back home. As the time for our departure passed without our train showing up, we became even more uncertain. Beyond our group Union Station was deserted. Ghost town, deserted. Shops shuttered. I think even the pigeons had moved on by then. Our train was arriving from New York. What if it had been unable to get through the snow? Being a Friday night those that could get out of DC had already done so. The people who worked at the station headed for home before conditions got too bad. As a veteran of many a hurricane I know how it is. I just wasn’t sure what would happen to our group of anxious travelers if stranded. So I sat there between a pregnant woman and another with a few-week-old baby snug to her chest and we waited.
Finally our train arrived, actually only about a half-hour delayed. Just seemed longer to us, knowing that “Snowmageddon” had already arrived. Similar to Union Station in Chicago you go through a tunnel to get to the trains. But even rushing through that tunnel we were pelted with snow and rushing forward on slippery ice. The train was absolutely coated in snow.
Our conductor was the same from my outbound trip from Florida two weeks earlier. And she remembered me. “Not you!” she greeted me. “You’re bad luck!” Sure, like I was in any way responsible for a freight train stalling in front of us, or for this terrible snow storm? Besides, I’d left my two black cats at home. I wanted to say something about women conductors maybe being bad luck, but thought it best to say nothing. We were boarded and headed south, away from the snow!
Saturday afternoon we arrived in Orlando right on schedule.
Much more to say about my six nights on a train, but that must wait for another post.
Two months have passed since I returned from my cross-country train excursion. I have wanted to share some thoughts and photos, but where to begin? This will be a multi-part series, but how many posts and how long to write, who knows?
I have plenty to say, but until this past weekend I wasn’t sure where to begin. Then Sunday I caught a news report with the president of Amtrak saying they were on track toward the highest number of passengers this year. They are up by four percent in the first quarter.
The news account went on to say Amtrak attributed increased ridership to an improving economy and higher gas prices.
Higher gas prices, yes. I certainly agree this is one reason. An improving economy? Where? Certainly not around here. During my six-day train trip – three days to reach Santa Fe and three back to Central Florida – I never once heard a single person say, “Now that the economy is improving I decided to take a train ride.” Actually, the reverse seemed closer to the truth. I met more than one young person returning home after being unable to find work out west. While talking to many people during those six days I do believe I have some idea why train ridership is up. Here are the reasons most often given.
Frustration with air travel was clearly the number one reason.
- Frustration with time-consuming and invasive security measures.
- Frustration with cost, particularly the add-on costs, such as higher prices for checked luggage.
- A consensus that air travel is not as appealing anymore.
A surprising number of people were going to or returning from funerals. When you think about it, this makes sense.
- Hastily arranged air travel is very expensive and will almost certainly guarantee closer scrutiny by security.
- Again, the increasing cost of checking luggage becomes an issue. If one is attending the funeral of a close friend or family member, odds are pretty good they will want to bring keepsakes back home. Amtrak is pretty generous with luggage rules.
Other reasons for train travel included price or a preference for the leisurely nature of train travel. I talked with college students, young families and vacationers who traveled by train because the price was more within budget.
My reasons for traveling by train included several of the above. I was going to Santa Fe to help my sister clean out our mother’s place, since she can’t live alone anymore. The three day journey would take me from Orlando to DC, then across to Chicago and finally out to Santa Fe. Originally I planned to stop off in Chicago to visit my mother-in-law. But then we realized if I went straight through I could arrive for Mama’s birthday. So that was the plan, and I would stop off in Chicago on my way back.
I have no objection to flying, but twice now the pre-boarding security has led to panic attacks. The security setup seems to combine about every panic-attack trigger, at least for me. There are some things that I don’t handle very well – Like crowds of strangers pressing in from every direction. Like strangers prodding me with wands and shouting orders. This is the truth. I would rather sit on a train for three days than go through one airport security line.
When I decided to travel by train, I had no idea what to expect. Two months later I can honestly say that the experience was far more interesting than I anticipated. The journey became an adventure in itself.
Next: The Adventure Begins