Friday, Dec. 14, 2001, 12:55 p.m.
The sight of the Southwest Chief sends chills down my spine after Jennifer and I arrive at the downtown Albuquerque station. I marvel at the train’s sleek stainless steel body and muscular engines till I’m bursting with pride.
Four locomotives, two coaches, two sleepers, a dining car, a sightseer car, a baggage car, and 16 freight cars creep to a halt. This 40-minute “service stop” is to gas up, clean the windows and refill the water tanks. Weary travelers climb off the train onto the sun-soaked platform, stretch and inspect Indian jewelry from local Pueblos.
The original train station burned down years ago, leaving a few charred tiles and red bricks set in a herringbone pattern. Amtrak’s waiting room and ticket counter are now housed in the lone surviving gift shop of the Alvarado Hotel, demolished in 1970.
I check my bag and wheel the carryon to the train. I give Jennifer a farewell kiss and climb aboard.
A conductor assigns me to a window seat in a gleaming, renovated double-decker Superliner coach built in the 70’s. I have a glass of wine in my hand, a striped Canadian National Railway engineer’s cap on my head and a $423 North American Rail Pass buried deep in my vest. My boss has given me four weeks off and I’m ready to get out of town.
I feel the exhilaration of being my own man as the Chief’s massive 4200 hp GE engines come to life. The train creeps past the station and picks up speed on steel rails owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
I’ll be traveling through the arctic Midwest as well as the torrid Caribbean. This itinerary presents me with space and weight problems. I spent half my paycheck on a new set of luggage and a packing system that compresses 12 inches of clothes into four. And I studied a book on packing each night before I went to bed,
I have always packed too much and never regretted that fact except when it comes to lifting bags up steps or onto vehicles. The Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared,” is deeply etched into my brain, but Lord “being prepared” weighs a ton.
I would need plenty of casual clothes, plus formal wear for the cruise. My carry-on holds bathroom essentials, blanket, CD collection/player, laptop computer, heating pad and fresh underwear.
The carry-on is a gym bag attached to a two-wheeled cart with cable ties and bungee cords. I haul nothing on my back or my shoulders.
The only electrical outlet in the coach car is located in the seat behind me, occupied by a priest who plays solitaire on his laptop. I covet that outlet. I want to plug in my heating pad and nurse my aching tennis elbow.
The Southwest Chief follows the route of the Old Santa Fe Trail and passes through Raton, New Mexico, ascending 175 feet per mile to its highest point: 7,588 feet. Martha H, a massage therapist from Albuquerque sits next to me.
Martha is a 40-year-old new age gal with headband and crewcut. I share two days of The Wall Street Journal with her. She marvels at the quality of the writing and I, like a beaming missionary, delight in spreading the Progressive Conservative Word.
The conductor announces first-call 5:30 dinner, and the train is packed to the gills. Clearly I will not have two seats to myself tonight, but that’s OK because Martha is delightful company.
We breeze past pinon trees and dry, red rock. Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax plays through my headphones and Amtrak’s horn scatters a distant herd of grazing cattle.
Congress wants to shut down passenger rail travel in October 2002 because it doesn’t turn a profit. Amtrak gets 500 million dollars a year from the federal government but that’s not enough to keep it running.
After paying out retirement benefits, Amtrak is left with $231 million to run a railroad that criss-crosses 25,000 miles of the U.S. By comparison, San Francisco’s 95-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit District has an operating budget of over $300 million.
The federal government gives the airports 13 billion dollars a year. The highways get 30 billion dollars.
The federal government spends over one billion dollars a year removing road kill and salting the highways. And yet it expects Amtrak to operate on crumbs.
I can’t fly: My eardrums burst when the plane lands, causing me to release blood-curdling screams. There are also lots of handicapped people who rely on Amtrak to get them and their delicately tuned wheelchairs from place to place.
And don’t forget the Amish, the Buggy People, who rely on Amtrak to get them to their destination. Then there’s millions of Americans who dream of the day when they can cross the country on a long-distance passenger train, a day that may never come.
The September 11th attack on the World Train Center might have been Amtrak’s saving grace.
When all air traffic was grounded, Amtrak was the running on schedule as if nothing had happened.
The Southwest Chief plows into the darkness, reaching an astonishing speed of 90 miles an hour. We bounce a little bit, but the CD player isn’t skipping and my fingers have no problem hitting all the right keys on my laptop computer.
I’m amazed by the generous width of the train. Each row has four huge, reclining seats with fold-down trays, foot and leg rests, overhead reading lights separated by a generous aisle. I will sleep well tonight, especially after I take my sleeping pill, a necessity for traveling coach.
Saturday, Dec. 15, 2001
I awake at 7 a.m. and Martha joins me for breakfast, saying she’ll just have some coffee.
We make our way to the dining car, cheerfully decorated with Christmas lights. She wants to sit across from me but the maitre d’ insists that she sits beside me, a dining car tradition. She resists, but comes around after I nudge her.
A gruff Italian gambler is placed across from us. He had been on the train for days and looked like hell, with stubbly beard and bloodshot eyes. He swears he will never ride Amtrak again and I shudder.
The food arrives and Martha is pleased to discover that our attentive waiter, who assumes we are a couple, delivers my generous meal on two plates. I smile painfully. The Santa Fe omelet is a delicious combination of well-sautéed vegetables with bits of chicken. Fresh orange juice and cup of coffee brings the final tab to $10 including tip.
I drink three cups of coffee before I make my way to the dressing room where I wash my face, brush my teeth and powder my sweaty balls with Gold Bond Powder (getting a lift from that tangy methyl kick).
I put on a pair of fresh, ripped underwear. Following a suggestion in my packing book, I bring along old underwear and worn out T-shirts that I throw out after a day’s use. My luggage slowly grows less bulky.
We are meandering through small towns in Missouri, past lovely old barns, silos and acres of flat cornfields. The sky is sprinkled with clouds and trails from over flying airplanes. Beside us is a small road and cars that try to pass us by.
Martha and I have been sitting side-by-side for over 20 hours now and we’re still getting along great. She is reading “The Lipstick Proviso, Women, Sex and Power in the Real World” by Karen Lehrman.
I ask Martha, “If you were on a sinking ship and the Captain shouted, ‘women and children first!’ would you consider that a politically incorrect remark, and would you board the lifeboat before the guys.
She says, “I would do exactly what the Captain told me to do.”
Martha tells me I have just got to read is “Tale of the Talking Jaguar,” as she makes her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth with my toothpaste. She is tossed about the coach car like a rag doll. She doesn’t seem to understand that the best time to use the bathroom is when the train comes to a stop. Or perhaps she just can’t wait.
Noon. Somewhere in Missouri, passing rolling fields on a jumpy track that is buffeting people side to side.
Martha is downstairs, smoking a cigarette. She gave me a great massage on my right arm; the one that has tennis elbow and it did wonders.
She has her own technique and combines it with some moves she learned in Hawaii known as “Lomi Lomi.”
I’m not exactly bright eyed and bushy-tailed, but I did manage to catch six hours of sleep last night thanks to my black eye masque, ear plugs and sleeping pill. The skies are overcast and the sun is peeking through the winter haze, displaying acres of yellow dormant farmland broken by small rivers and barren forests.
We’re leaving Missouri, the “Show Me” state, and entering Iowa, the “Hawkeye” state, dipping into a valley and crossing the Missouri River. The intercom mentions these landmarks to me, so many of them I cannot keep up with all the ancient battlefields, trestles, bridges and landmarks.
I eat a Roast Beef Hoagie sandwich in the dining car with a side of home fries, pickle and coffee. A Catholic Priest and a black couple are seated at my table. They have been traveling by Amtrak for decades. They assure me that inter city travel would somehow survive, despite the likes of John McCain and the Amtrak Reform Council, its two biggest enemies.
I tell them I have written my Senators and my Congressmen. I have letters published in local papers and call in on talk shows. I am totally obsessed and drive my friends and family crazy: I am an Amtrak Activist.
Amtrak Activists don’t worry if our tires will be slashed or our windshields broken. We don’t fear being spit upon because everybody loves trains. Democrats love trains. Republicans love trains. Even the Sierra Club loves trains.
And yet there are a few grumpy people in the federal government who want to shut down Amtrak forever. Perhaps they never read “The Little Engine That Could.” Maybe they never got to play with model trains.
Entering Illinois is a dreary affair, flat and overcast, the people grim and serious, but Martha makes up for that with all her cheerful chitchat. She is on vacation but very much focused on her occupation, reading trade journals and chirping about Ayurvedic approaches to massage.
The Southwest Chief is hauling ass and we should arrive in Chicago on time.
4:40 p.m. We approach Chicago and the conductor cries, “Next stop Union Station!” After 28 long hours in coach, I give Martha a hug goodbye and assemble my carry-on (with its tangled array of bungee cords) and slowly make my way down to the lower level.
The conductor chases me down and lectures me about bringing my bags to the lower level of the train after his final announcement was made. “I explicitly told you not to bring your bags to the vestibule and yet you did it anyway. Why?”
I endure his lecture and hope he will find it in his heart to forgive me. He says “nobody has patience these days” and I hang my head in shame.
I leave the train and encounter delays retrieving my bag in the cavernous halls of Union Station. It takes a half hour before my bag magically appears from the depths of the carousel.
Why does it take so long?
Another ten minutes and I have all the pieces of my luggage strapped onto my robotically welded carrier. Two pieces of luggage are precariously perched on the wheeled device, topped with a cracked Styrofoam cooler.
I am wearing a super warm blue synthetic sweater topped with a down jacket and my wool cap. Soon I am drenched with sweat and felt like I might pass out.
I glance at my watch and figure that if I really push it, I can make it to the Chicago and Northwestern Station and the commuter trains, four backbreaking blocks away.
I walk around the building along the sidewalk with my wheeled cart and 10 tons of stuff. The subzero temperatures help revive my spirits. I am wearing my pathetic purple tennis elbow splints that, due to some sympathy factor, help me get me proper directions to the Old Chicago Northwestern Station.
My cart makes transit easy and I manage to cover the four blocks quickly. I enter the station, roll up to the ticket counter and purchase my ticket to Highwood, Illinois for $3.50. I am delighted to learn the train is leaving in a half hour. I buy the ticket and walk to the pay phones and call my childhood friend.
Antonio says he thought I was arriving tomorrow but said he would meet me at the Highwood Station in about an hour.
I wheel up to the #10 track and unsuccessfully try to hoist my bags on board the commuter train, the “Metra.” Lots of burly sailor types, en route to the Great Lakes Naval Base walk around me as I struggle to get my bags on board. Nobody will help me. Even my splints didn’t arouse sympathy.
An old man passes by the train, sees my plight and asks if I need help. I smile painfully. He easily hoists my bags up the steps to the main floor of the commuter train. From there I spread out in three seats opposite the lavatory.
Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001 12:01 a.m.
Antonio wasn’t joking; he most definitely was not expecting me to arrive until tomorrow. So when I called from the station, he was surprised.
In the end we laugh it off and have an enjoyable evening drinking beer, munching pistachios and watching Shrek, until we all called it a night.
I slip into the basement and get ready for bed. But first I take a long, hot shower.
Now I’m lying snug in bed, freshly showered and feeling very safe and secure in my hometown of Highland Park, Illinois.
10:30 p.m. I awake to the sounds of five-year-old Harry playing with blocks directly above my bedroom. I join him and help build majestic towers, railroad tracks, stations and abstract sculptures.
Antonio makes the blocks in his well-equipped garage workshop and they rival anything you can find in the store. Perfectly shaped blocks, arches and planks, with edges sanded smooth and lightly varnished. He makes picture frames too, and he is working on a bureau with “relief” panels. “Measure twice and cut once” is his motto.
I am part of a large family now and when everyone is awake, we eat breakfast consisting of bacon, toast and eggs, complimented with East Indian spicy hot pickled sauce. Then we’re off to visit a friend off Sheridan Road who is throwing a party.
Our hosts are selling imported pottery from China and they plant a painted-over real estate sign in the front yard to announce the event. We build a huge bonfire in the backyard, roast hot dogs, drink beer and stand in the pouring rain, occasionally seeking refuge in the garage.
$200 worth of pottery is sold and I find myself socializing with an out-of-work stockbroker, a pharmacist who used to mix his own elixirs, and his interior decorator son.
I am thinking, I am 44 years old and after all this time all I can say is that I run a copy center for $10 an hour at the university. But after reflection, I realize that I have nothing to be ashamed about: Times are hard and anybody with a steady job is doing well.
And Antonio is the perfect host, carrying around a huge beach ball asking, “Is everybody having a ball?”
But he isn’t very well dressed for the weather and that only contributes to worsening an already bad cold. By the time we return home he is really, really sick.
The house is now very quiet and I’m lying in my warm bed, the heating pad resting on my aching arm.
I’ve been thinking about the way Antonio relates to his wife, Beatrice. No matter how mean he gets, when he goes too far he does not let things fester as I do with Jennifer. After they have exchanged words, he walks up to her, brushes back her hair, kisses her and apologizes for being such an ass.
Then it’s all over. No long letters. No bad feelings. No talks of divorce or leaving the house. And if he gets really upset, or the kids start driving him nuts, he will head into the workshop and “cuts some wood.”
Monday, Dec. 17
Early morning. I awake sore from sleeping in unnatural positions on Antonio’s rock hard guest bed. I am accustomed to sleeping on a much softer foam mattress. I am also used to sleeping next to a warm, skinny companion with whom I cuddle.
My health remains good, as does the weather, and I notice that I have not forgotten much, except my dental floss and prescription fungal killer, which really didn’t work that great anyway. A mysterious itch has developed on my ankle. It is driving me crazy.
All in all things are going well. I am not hung over with a splitting headache, generally the case when Antonio and I get together. We are most definitely pursuing a saner lifestyle these days.
It is early morning and I see a ray of sunlight working its way down the basement steps. I am the first one up and take a long hot shower. I don’t feel guilty about using all that water, as I would back in New Mexico, with Lake Michigan just down the street.
No matter how hard I push myself, I am a very slow mover and a snail compared to Antonio who pulls together breakfast for his entire family in five minutes flat. He goes to it with much banging of pots and pans, and gets the job done fast.
Last night I labored for five minutes mashing potatoes and rutabagas, as if I were mixing cement. Antonio takes one look at the potatoes, another sad look at me, grabs the bowl and has it done in five seconds.
I spend the morning visiting Antonio’s vast rental units, located in a western suburb called Gurnee. A quiet residential community, Antonio rents his apartments for over $1,000 a piece and enjoys the rewards, as well as the frustrations of being a landlord. And I know them well: I am the son of a landlord.
Stained carpets must be replaced, closet doors need to be repaired, and leaking toilets require adjustment. Things I would replace without a moment’s hesitation, he repairs so that they will pass the test of time.
The whole family is sniffling, coughing, sneezing and the last word I heard out of little Harry was “Mommy I don’t feel so good.” Beatrice looks at me with knowing eyes. “You know Chuck,” she said, “the incubation period of a cold is three days.”
I devour seven oranges in quick succession over the kitchen sink, orange drool running down my chin. “I hope I am not offending you, Beatrice,” I say.
She does not seem to mind.
This morning, I go with Beatrice to drop 3-year-old Laura at preschool. We stop by the grocery story to pick up groceries. I buy dental floss, an Italian sub, fruit and a four-pack of little wine bottles for the trip.
Later, Antonio drives me to the Highwood train station after watching a bit of “State and Main,” with Alec Baldwin. I have to catch the Metra to Chicago. It is time to continue my trip.
Upon arriving at the Amtrak ticket counter in Chicago I am a sweating mess. I check my big bag and asked them to just ship it all the way to Hollywood Florida, via Washington D.C.
I eat my sub in the great hall of Chicago’s Union station, dwarfed by its majestic ceiling and Roman columns.
7:30 p.m. The lights of Chicago, the iron bridges and the skyscrapers recede as I leave The City of Broad Shoulders, The Windy City, the place of my birth. Smokestacks belch fire at the end of long chimneys; rivers entwine themselves through endless refineries.
This train, the Capitol Limited is, like the Southwest Chief, booked solid. In fact, it is 15 percent overbooked and oncoming passengers are seated in the lounge car. I consider myself lucky to get a window seat.
A senior citizen named Barbara is seated next to me and she is infinitely patient with my scattered tendencies. She is from a small town in Illinois and proud of it. She carries just a few small bags.
She turns down my offers of juice, newspapers, and conversation. She closes her eyes and falls asleep.
I go to the dining car for dinner and have salad, prime rib and baked potato for $20 including tip. Dinner conversation is dominated with the subject of Amtrak and trains.
My tablemates and I discuss politics. The food is excellent. Cooked to perfection, delivered almost instantaneously, with outstanding service and delicious coffee kept filled to the brim.
Back in coach we pass endless residential neighborhoods. I see occasional Christmas lights pierce the darkness. Not a bit of snow to be seen anywhere and that’s very strange for this time of year, but a godsend for my travels.
The lights get few and far between as the train picks up speed. Barbara has collapsed into the most unbelievable posture imaginable. I would require massive sedation to fall into such a deep sleep.
I need to read the New York Times, Chicago Sun Times and Tribune before I sleep. And there is also a small bottle of cabernet sauvignon that has to be consumed.
The noisy children behind me have settled down and people are starting to talk in low whispers. The train slowly buffets side to side and rocks and rolls over the switches and rails. The seat cushions have no cush left. My butt is starting to hurt. It is time for me to explore the train.
10:15 p.m. Just gained an hour.
Some silly movie is playing in the observation car and the coach car is getting quieter and quieter with every passing moment. Time to crack open another small bottle of wine.
The Capitol Limited is similar to the Southwest Chief. The coaches are more modern and the bathrooms are about the same size. There are a lot of them scattered about, there is not much waiting and you can occupy them as long as you please.
I’m used to small bathrooms: The bathroom in my little adobe house is tiny, so I don’t mind negotiating a small space. The hard-working attendant keeps them clean and tidy.
The rails are bumpy, but tolerable.
7:30 a.m. Somewhere in Pennsylvania.
I am not following the maps I had so intricately prepared for this journey. I haven’t seen much of the countryside because we are traveling at night and are now starting to see heavily forested trees, big hills and vast rivers.
I took a sleeping pill last night and slept a little bit but am not feeling all that refreshed now. It was difficult to assume a comfortable position and the cushions are hard.
I’m waiting for the dining car to open and looking around my seat, appalled by the way I have scattered things about.
9:30 a.m. Children are starting to wake up and make noise. The sun has come up to reveal cloudy skies and the rapid river beside us makes for a lovely view.
I must look like a wreck, with bloodshot eyes and wild hair but not as sore as I could be. If nothing else those sleeping pills do a good job of relaxing my muscles and keeping me from falling into positions I will later regret.
I am sitting patiently, listening to Erik Satie on the CD, and starting to feel better. I think we will arrive in Washington DC on time. Barbara is off in the observation car munching on nuts. She hasn’t been in the dining car yet and must be saving a ton of money.
I get up and walk to the dining car.
I order an omelet for breakfast with croissant, coffee and hash browns for $10 including tip. I share the table with a huge black guy who drove somebody’s car to Chicago and is now heading back to his home in New Jersey. The conversation is pleasant and the food is good but bland, as one would expect from Midwestern fare: neither offensive nor challenging to the palate . . . safe.
The weather is unseasonably warm. I remove my long underwear and relish the freedom of not having my legs constricted. I have mislaid the Amtrak pillow, but my inflatable travel pillow is doing the trick. In the distance a large windmill slices the air.
Windmills fill the distant skies. It’s good to see alternative technology take hold around the country.
This music is making me sleepy.
12:50 p.m. Somewhere in West Virginia. I’ve passed through more long tunnels and viewed more rivers than I can count. The trees are barren but the sun is breaking through heavy clouds, offering hope of clearer skies somewhere down the line.
The river we are following is full of rocks and small islands from which grow large trees. The conductor tells us to start cleaning up and prepare for arrival in Washington DC.
As if on cue, my stomach is starting to rumble, which I take as a healthy sign after taking a prescribed pill for diarrhea.
The sun is breaking through the sky as we reach the Rockville station, last stop before Washington DC. The trees are, for the most part, lacking in leaves, but there is definitely green on the ground, shrubs and vines. There is no snow to be seen anywhere.
The architecture is distinctly Victorian, narrow houses with steep roofs; even the newer developments emulate the older architecture.
I don’t see a lot of industry at this point, just lovely, picture postcard communities complete with white steeple churches.
Time to prepare for departure to the next leg of my voyage, the long trek to Hollywood, Florida. I’m fairly calm now. Must be the Gregorian Chants I’ve been listening to all morning.
Washington D.C. Union Station.
We arrive right next to the celebrated, legendary Acella train: Very sleek, very modern, can reach speeds of up to 150 mph, traveling on dedicated lines with concrete ties. I notice my bag being unloaded from the Capitol Limited. Its handlers assure me that it is bound for Florida.
From Union Station I see the Nation’s Capitol, which is so beautiful. Next-door is the Smithsonian Postal Museum.
The entrance to the museum is Washington D.C.’s old post office, with polished marble floors, gilded cages and thousands of little post boxes.
The guard goes through every single piece of my luggage poking around with an acrylic wand and I submit graciously. The museum is fascinating, recording the history of the mail service. At its entrance stands a marble sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, the father of the post office, who shares my birth date.
From the moment I enter I am bombarded with hundreds of factoids: Did you know that New York City once had a pneumatic postal system that propelled letters through tubes at 35 mph? I learn about sled dogs, train service and air mail.
The highlight of my visit is Owney the mutt, a stray adopted by the Albany post office that guarded the contents of the train car. If a bag fell off the car, Owney would leap off the train and stand by the mail until it was collected. If Owney was guarding the mail, you could be assured that it was safe and secure.
Owney, an overnight celebrity, was on tour in Europe for a while. Wherever he went, he would be given a little metal mail tag. When he had accumulated more than he could carry on his collar, they made him a vest that distributed the weight on his body.
Being a sucker for a good dog story, I read all bout him and then raced to a phone to tell Jennifer all about Owney.
Jennifer was away so I had to tell the answering machine instead, interspersed with joyful sobs. I got a picture postcard of Owney and photographed the poor stuffed mutt.
At the postal museum store I see a stamp that celebrates the life of Thomas Wolfe, the author of “Look Homeward Angel.” I used to consume his books voraciously. Wolfe wrote in a highly elegant, detailed manner, similar to Tolstoy and Dickens, but was distinctly American in subject matter and expression.
After exploring every nook and cranny of the museum I head back to the station and catch dinner at McDonald’s thinking I might save a little money. I remember my Uncle Jack once said he had traveled the world over and never got sick eating at McDonalds.
Since I don’t generally eat there, I ask the lady what super-sizing means and why super-sizing an order would only super-size the fries and not the drink. It turns out, the drink looks to be a half gallon. The Big Mac, on the other hand, is not especially Big. And when everything is said and done, I am hungry.
I notice a “meal deal” advertised on a poster: Two fish sandwiches for $2.22 and order them, figuring I could not possibly be hungry after all that. Also did so in honor of my Dad who would never touch a burger but gravitated to the fish sandwiches.
I wolf down all the food in five minutes and grab a Washington Post at a nearby newsstand for 26 cents. I lose valuable time searching for that extra penny and was amazed that there are newspapers and vendors that will demand it. I mean, what is a penny actually worth these days? Nothing.
I make it to the train just in time.
4:50 p.m. Train #91 to Miami, Florida. “The Silver Star.” Absolutely packed, arriving late in Washington from New York. I am unable to get a window seat. The gentleman next to me seems friendly enough and keeps to himself, which is just fine.
As the train leaves Washington I see the George Washington Monument and a church with the symbol of the freemasons on its front lawn.
6:10 p.m. Settling in for the long haul. There’s a lot I don’t like about The Silver Star.
The cars are moving fast enough but I can feel every little bump and roll, unlike the Southwest Chief, which is heavier and more stable.
The stinky bathroom is huge but poorly laid out. Scalding water comes out of the faucet and it’s difficult to get paper towels out of the dispenser. The toilet practically sits beneath the sink and yet there is lots of totally unused space in front of the john.
But the thing that disturbs me most is the old lady seated directly to my left side, across the aisle. She just won’t stop talking except when she’s shoveling food into her mouth. Being disabled, she gets the attendant to deliver her meal to her so she rarely ever leaves her seat.
She has a voice that projects and what she is projecting are stories about her kids and dearly departed husband, making sure the guy behind me knows every fact about her family. I put BB King on the CD, a recording of old gospel tunes. This train is starting to get to me and I look forward to arriving at my destination.
Can’t see a thing out the windows and I have an entire Washington Post to read, so I stay entertained. I wish I could say that Sept. 11 had tightened security on Amtrak, but with the exception of boarding in Albuquerque, there appears to be no attempt at security of any sort except to check tickets at the tracks.
As a matter of fact, there was more security at the Smithsonian Postal Museum than there is on Amtrak.
Wed., Dec. 19, 7:20 a.m. I just woke up and am now eating breakfast in the lovely dining car, painted in gentle pastel colors with comfortable seats and pinpoint lighting on the ceiling that looks just like stars.
I order French toast, fairly meager pickings, nothing compared to the fare on either the Southwest Chief or the Capitol Limited. Service is good, but somewhat gruff. My company is pleasant, a cadet on vacation from Military School who educates me on what it takes to become a marine. Did you know that cadets can eat just about anything they want during the weekday but that they only have 15 minutes in which to consume their food? Also, when it comes to drills, did you know that the entire company would be punished if just one person screws up? And that once you sign up for the military, there is no way out? I tell him to think carefully before he commits himself to such insanity.
The train, although running an hour late, is speeding through a new sort of country now. The skies are blue, tinged with a bit of pink from the rising sun. I see swampy lands on both sides of the train, with trees growing out of the water. Could these be the legendary Floridian swamps we all read about? I have no idea, but it is very lovely.
Got plenty of sleep last night, only interrupted at around 4 a.m. by the fellow next to me who had to use the rest room.
I was tempted to take another pill before I fell asleep, but did not. The talkative lady has finally turned her attention to me, as I knew she would from the very start, and engaged me in conversation about her dead husband.
Turns out he had Parkinson’s disease, like my Dad and my uncle, so we had plenty to talk about. She has an unmarried son and I suggested that they take a cruise together, but it looks like many sons simply don’t share the same enthusiasm for such things as I do. He’d rather go out drinking with his pals. Maybe I am a good boy after all.
She is a lonely woman and I suppose I can understand her need to talk to a perfect stranger. But my gosh, the things she talks about: Her diet, the pills she takes, and now an endless discourse on toothpaste, the funny taste in her mouth, whether or not you had breakfast, and if you did, what you had, did you enjoy it, on and on and so forth.
Thank God she has latched onto somebody else now for conversation. She’s no dummy. She knows when people are tuning her out and then she will go into an endless diatribe on that subject as well. She’s a very talkative woman: Not a bad person, just lonely.
Now I’m seated in the lounge car, warming my ravaged arm with the heating pad. This lounge car is radically different from those I have experienced on other trains. It has much greater aisle space. There are lots of two-seater tables in addition to the four-seaters. Everything on this train is lower level seating, which I suppose is the major difference between this train set and those out west.
This strikes me as being more of a fancy commuter train really, but it does have all the amenities. It certainly has more electrical outlets in the lounge car, which are scattered just about everywhere. The coach cars have very few outlets however, but they are comfortable. I still don’t like the bathrooms however.
Just finished talking to the conductor. These trains are known as single level coaches, as opposed to the double level coaches I have come accustomed to on the Southwest Chief. They have to be lower to fit through the tunnels. He says they are older than the Superliners, but I have my doubts.
Each coach has a restroom at the end of the car. There is most definitely not enough for everybody to use during waking hours and it is not uncommon to see a line forming. The line behind me is now five deep.
If people make their judgments about the quality of intercity travel from this particular train, I can see how they may have their doubts about Amtrak. About the only good thing I can see about this Florida line is the service, and the service people are mightily stressed out by its idiotic design. Even as I speak an elderly woman has locked herself in the bathroom and cannot get out.
The coach car is overheated while the lounge and dining cars are under heated. There is no proper vestibule for the storage of baggage: Everything is in a huge heap at the end of the car. In a way this is convenient, because my seat is located next to the heap, but I’d rather there was a vestibule to help sort things out and keep them organized. The overhead storage is pretty generous but they contain a non-functional TV set every few feet that just takes up space.
I really don’t like traveling so close to the tracks, as these single level coaches demand. You can feel the wheels as they mesh with rail. And being so low down, one loses the perspective gained by being further up in the air. It seems like we are going fast, very fast, but that is all an illusion. We are still tooling along at 80 mph.
I’m starting to feel the effects of breakfast on me. Sour stomach: The food sucks, perhaps because the cooks have much less space to work, compared with the spacious Southwest Chief.
Outside the region gets greener the further south we go. Scrawny trees are full of leaves and the ground is starting to look less brown.
The sun makes its way up into the sky as we leave the cold climates far behind. I see endless miles of beautiful untouched wilderness and the morning mist rising from the ground. The train passes mysterious patches of cleared land, spruce trees, an eclectic combination of vegetation and occasional trailer parks but no roads.
9 a.m. I am trying so hard to keep myself together in the final leg of this journey but already I have lost my dental floss (again!) as well as the little plastic bag that holds my “sleep masque.”
Finally could stand it no longer and decided to take a crap in the putrid oversized stainless steel bathroom. It absolutely mystifies me that in such a huge rest room there isn’t a coat hook to keep our clothes and bags off the stinky floor.
Say what you want about the two cubic feet or so of space they allow you on the Southwest Chief, it is a well thought-out space. There is a coat hook and there is a place to change the baby’s diaper, also perfect for placing one’s things. The Silver Star’s bathroom, on the other hand, has at least nine square feet of empty space, space that could be utilized for something, anything for heaven sakes!
So, I wedge myself on the stinky stainless steel toilet that has been positioned practically underneath the sink. And then I have a revelation: I can take a crap and brush my teeth at the same time!
One dubious plus about the bathroom is that it has hot water. No, not hot water: Scalding water. To make matters worse, the nightmarish water saving fixtures make it virtually impossible to moderate the temperature, unless you happen to have three hands. And if you’re clever and nimble enough to actually get water out of these fixtures, it will splash all over the place, somewhat defeating the purpose and further trashing an already trashed bathroom.
We approach Jacksonville, Florida, in the Northeast corner of the state for a service stop. I see palm trees and feel humidity seeping through the train. I am so glad I removed my long underwear and will be able to endure the remainder of the trip.
I consume my daily vitamin supplements and am contemplating taking a pill to treat diarrhea, as well. I’m not sure if I have Montezuma’s revenge, but would not doubt it after that awful breakfast.
It is a pleasant 60 degrees outside under what appears to be sunny skies. The train is running 45 minutes late. The engineer blames the delay on screwed up signals as well as the weather. But there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
Time to work on my packing.
9:45 a.m. The Silver Star finally leaves Jacksonville, a place of refueling, baggage transfer and connections. Such service stops, with their inordinate delays, are a nice time to change clothes and practice personal hygiene. They have finally turned off the heat and switched on the ventilation system. The cabin is filled with cool, clean air.
The bathroom lacks a clothes hook so I use the handicap rail to keep my clothes off the floor. I am learning to use one hand to regulate the water when I wash up, so I will not scald myself. I also use, to great advantage, pre-moistened antibacterial wipes to clean my body before applying deodorant.
The NASA space program has opened the floodgates of innovative things for the down-to-earth traveler. Between my juice containers, towelettes, butt wipes and other comforts, I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered.
My system of wearing old clothes and disposing them after a day’s use is working wonderfully and I’m watching my carry-on luggage reduce itself to a reasonable level. Before I throw out my underwear, I ceremoniously tear them up. That doesn’t take much effort since they are already threadbare and couldn’t stand another wash.
Unfortunately, I just mixed up a clean pair of underwear with a dirty pair and ripped the clean one to shreds. This made me laugh hysterically, and now I’m beginning to question whether all the sleeping pills I have been taking are starting to affect my mind. Fortunately I have another old pair of underwear in my carry-on.
I have plenty of brand new, silk underwear packed away in my main bag so I’m not worried and I issue a silent prayer, “Dear God, please look after that checked bag.”
The sun is shining brightly now and I’m glad to have an aisle seat, allowing me to get up and roam the train without disturbing my companion. He is such a gentleman and so apologetic when he needs to get up. He strategically plans his exits when I go to the bathroom or to the dining car.
The sky is bright blue, sprinkled with wisps of clouds and jet trails. We’re passing by a concrete factory, slowly switching from track to track. Running about an hour late, an hour I doubt we will make up. My health continues to be good and despite a little sniffle, I feel great. A little tired after being on the train for such a long time, but rested after a good night’s sleep.
I’ve noticed that the sleeping pills don’t knock me out like they did at first. But they do consistently relax me and get rid of anxiety. I move about in slow motion, my balance slightly affected, but that may have something to do with the train moving around.
My stomach is feeling better now since I took one of Jennifer’s magic enzymatic digestive pills. We are riding past deserted houses and factories. Entering some dreary, rundown city.
If it were not for the sunny skies, this could be Chicago. But everything is tropical green, especially the lawns and backyards. Some trees lack leaves but I guess they’re dead or maybe they are trees that consider this time of year to be winter. From my perspective however, this looks like the middle of summer.
11:50 a.m. I just discovered a tiny bathroom across from the huge one that I dislike so much. No coat rack there or changing table, and the genius who designed this one made it so that the door opens inward, making it virtually impossible to get out.
Bathrooms are perhaps the most important part of train travel. And the amount of their square footage does not necessarily equate to a better bathroom experience, as the clever bathrooms in the Southwest Chief will attest. It is really about using what little space there is to best advantage.
And that stinky toilet! It’s no better than a smelly outhouse. I did not notice the toilet to be that bad on the Southwest Chief. Perhaps the fact that this is a single level car has something to do with it. I don’t know. An idiot designed this train.
The only thing that impresses me thus far on this train is the décor of the dining room but I am somewhat concerned with the tight kitchen and the working conditions therein.
The lounge car is good for a promo shot in a glossy pamphlet but not appropriate for a train full of people. There are very limited places to lounge. And people stake out their seats and protect them with a vengeance. One plus, there are outlets at every seat, if you can find a seat.
I ended up eating the remainder of my food --- an apple, a pear, and five Baby Bel cheeses --- in the vestibule between cars, much like I did when I traveled through Yugoslavia when I was 18 years old. I hope those cheeses don’t make me sick. They were kind of warm, but since they were well wrapped in cellophane and wax, I might survive. Anyway, the conductor just busted me big time when he discovered me eating between trains and I had to leave and go back to my seat.
So, I will arrive in Hollywood at 6 p.m. instead of 4:30. Could be much worse I’m sure. Despite the fact I just devoured a healthy snack, my stomach is grumbling for yet more food. Time to hit the dining car!
12:40 p.m. We’re in Winter Park now. No sign of winter here. Wish I could find my damn dental floss. It’s probably long gone by now or buried under something.
I’m stuffed. Open face turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and a dab of cranberry sauce, coffee: $11 with tip. I exchanged just a few words with a woman in the dining car and when she left she thanked me for the pleasant conversation. Go figure.
People are kind of quiet and I really don’t go out of my way to engage people in conversation lest I insult them with my talkative ways. Some people just want to be quiet. Some people, like my black seatmate, began a conversation right before he was to get off the train. Maybe he’s shy. He told me all about his distant relative, Alexander Hamilton, who died in a duel and was born of a black woman and an Englishman.
This man, with family in Florida and property in New York, says he never flies, having done that during the service and seen way too many accidents.
Looks like most of the passengers are getting off in Orlando, leaving this train virtually empty. Maybe people will get on the train, down the line. We shall see.
Stomach is rumbling. I have eaten something that does not agree with me. Lady on my left is trying to engage me in conversation now that there is nobody else to talk to: I’m trying desperately to look busy.
Time to visit the crapper and take a prescription stomach pill. Aside from stomach, health remains good. My arm, the one ravished by tennis elbow, was hurting this morning so I took an Aleve, to alleve-iate the pain, which seems to have gone away. Back is starting to hurt though: That I can handle.
1:25 p.m. I’m becoming very fond of the small bathroom, even in the absence of a coat hook. Especially since the palatial “handicapped” bathroom has run out of toilet paper and paper towels. Dining room is running out of food, as well, but I managed to get a good dinner.
I still haven’t found the damn dental floss and I’m beginning to think it is a lost cause.
Only about five hours to go and the conductor is headed this way. I might request the window seat. One thing I’ve learned about Amtrak is to never change your seat without asking the conductor or you will certainly suffer the wrath of God. Time to kick back and enjoy the ride.
2:30 p.m. My stomach is feeling better. Just arrived in Winter Haven, Florida. New people are arriving all the time, but the train is only half full. Topic of discussion in the coach car is why are there TVs placed 10 feet apart near the ceiling? The answer, “To take up space and possibly fall on your head in case of an accident.”
(to be continued, someday)
Thank you for visiting Chucksville.