"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Amtrak Diaries

Riding the rails is nothing like flying.  And that’s exactly what I liked about it.

Last weekend, my husband and I drove to Richardson to visit my family.  On Sunday, I decided I wanted to stick around a few more days, so I sent the hubby and the labradeer back to Austin and bought an Amtrak ticket to get me home on Wednesday.

I've been curious about Amtrak for a while.  I was seduced by the romance of the train experience and intrigued by the prospect of reading or writing or sleeping or doing anything during the trip besides driving in traffic on I35.  When I found out how much it cost-- $28 one way-- I was even more interested.  With Southwest flights now at $92 (gone are the days of the $39 get-a-ways) and the cost to fill my gas tank more than $30, it seemed stupid NOT to take the train.  Even when I found out that the trip was over seven hours long, I still wasn't discouraged.  (I was a little CONFUSED... I mean it only takes about four hours by car and trains are supposed to be fast, right?  More on that later.)  But I just considered that time a gift and fantasized about all the writing I would get done, all the books I could read.

So I did it.  All in all, it was a pleasant experience, (and thankfully nothing like my train experience in Peru).  There were set-backs, there were delays, there were unexpected surprises, but DESPITE all that, I still very much enjoyed riding the train.  The best part of the whole thing was the lack of drama.  It was SO AWESOME not to have to deal with the TSA, I don’t even know where to begin.  There were no metal detectors.  There were no plastic bins in which to place your belt and car keys and ziplock baggie of toothpaste and shampoo.  No one badgered me about the sack of food or the bottle of water I carried on board.  I never once had to take off my shoes.  [If you are reading this right now and thinking, "That's not safe!  How do they know people weren't carrying guns?!  You could have had a bomb in your shoe!  I for one APPRECIATE the protection from terrorism that the TSA provides!" then by all means, keep flying.  Keep getting to the airport two hours early in case the security lines are ridiculously long.  Keep stressing out over whether or not Chapstick is considered a liquid.  Keep allowing a rubber-gloved employee to pat down the back of your head because your BOBBY PIN showed up suspiciously in the body scanner.  Have fun with that.] 

I'm not trying to say I will never fly again or that I will cease doing the white-knuckle drive up I35.  I will.  And there are definitely downsides to riding the train, such as the length of the trip and the fact that I can't bring my dog with me.  (It’s a pity, because he would love it.)  All I'm saying is that it was nice to be reminded of what the world was like before we all went crazy and started accusing everyone and their grandmother of being a terrorist. 

Plus, the people I was traveling with were awesome too.  Even when things were not going according to plan, even when situations arose which were less than ideal, I only ever saw ONE person get crosswise about it and complain.  Everyone else was calm, patient, and friendly.  I can't remember the last time I struck up a conversation with a stranger in an airport, and if I'm flying alone and need to use the restroom, I lug my rolling carry-on into the bathroom with me and park it in the tiny stall rather than leave it "unattended", fearful from those constant reminders on the loudspeaker.  But in the Fort Worth train station everyone was sociable.  I had real, personal, friendly conversations with at least seven different people, none of whom had met each other before that day.  I left my bags with someone, twice, while I went to the bathroom.  Instead of hugging our belongings tight and tapping our feet restlessly and avoiding eye contact and stressing over how to board and when to line up, we sprawled out in our seats, eating, journaling, knitting, sharing, trusting that we'd hear the boarding announcement when it was made or help each other out if need be.  It was lovely.

And once we got on the train?  Maybe I shouldn't even mention the comfortable seats and the ample leg room and the handy electrical outlets and the footrest and the fact that I had an empty seat next to me the whole way.  It just seems mean.  But it’s true.  And I was allowed to get up and walk around whenever I chose to do so and no one EVER asked me to put my tray table away.

Oh, and the view was nice too.

And I was able to make phone calls.

And there were five bathrooms just in my car.


It's not all tray tables and footrests. 

Like I said, though, there are downsides.  The schedule was not ideal. My ticket said departure time was 11:50AM from Union Station in Dallas and arrival time was 7:30PM in Austin.  That’s already a LONG trip, but I was up for it.  Still it didn’t go exactly as I thought it would.

My Time Table (A.K.A. The Reason Why the Trip Takes Seven Hours, or in My Case, Ten)
10:38AM - Board DART metro rail to go downtown to Union Station in Dallas.
11:15AM - Arrive at Union Station, find out the tracks between Dallas and Fort Worth are under construction so a bus will take me to Fort Worth to get on the train.
11:50AM - Bus leaves for Fort Worth.
12:30PM - Arrive at Fort Worth station to find that the train does not leave until 3:10.  Sit down and make friends for two and a half hours.
2:50PM – Boarding begins (quick process, no security checks, barely even glanced at my ID).
3:15PM - Train starts moving, making only a couple of brief stops at Temple and… somewhere else.  I can't remember.
6:40PM - While passing through Round Rock, an announcement is made that we will arrive in Austin in 35 minutes, earlier than our scheduled arrival time.  (Yea!)
7:05PM – When we are in north Austin, an announcement is made that Amtrak shares the tracks with Union Pacific and due to a Union Pacific freight train delay we will have to stop and wait about 25-30 minutes for a freight to pass.  (Boo.)
8:15PM - After an hour and ten minutes of sitting on the tracks, we start moving again.
8:30PM - Arrive at the Austin station an hour late.

Boarding in Fort Worth, 3:00PM
(Again, everyone was patient about the delays and I for one did not mind them, seeing as how I had good books and no place to be.  However, it was somewhat frustrating to be SO CLOSE to home when the delay occurred.)

Now comes the part when I assault a stranger.

Don't mess with me, old man.

Probably the best part of the trip for me was meeting the other travelers.  Following are some journal entries from my layover in Fort Worth and my first few minutes on the train.

1:10PM –
I am sitting in the Fort Worth train station waiting for my train to Austin.  My company includes a woman who has six kids.  She has homeschooled five of them; one chose to attend public high school.  She is knitting a purple hat.  She tells me that her seventeen-year-old son writes novels.  He likes to swing on a swingset while listening to music to get his ideas. 
There is also a girl in her twenties sitting across from me who is returning to Austin after being in a hospital for a week.  She was doing a clinical drug trial for the disease P.O.T.S. (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) which is a condition that makes the heart beat like it is running a marathon and causes those afflicted to pass out often.  She said the syndrome is not recognized by the FDA, and their only drug to treat it is in danger of being taken off the market.  The girl has only had the disease for two years.  She was attending Texas State in San Marcos, getting her degree in kinesiology when she got sick.  She had to quit school and now lives with her mom in Austin because her condition is debilitating.  She can be fine one day and then bedridden the next.  She’s very sweet.  I worry for her because she's traveling alone, but everyone is being kind to her and one woman is being very motherly, helping with her bags, etc. 
The old man to the left of me with bad teeth is a delivery man, though I didn't hear what he delivers, and he lives in Indiana.  He has a seat cover that he puts in his chair.  He says it has magnets in it and helps with circulation.  He has special shoes with magnets in them too and he says they have really helped his diabetes.  When I mention that they should have a Starbucks in this place because they would make a lot of money, he says, "Do you know what's worse than coffee?" which I thought was a funny response to my desire for coffee.  Then he proceeds to tell me a couple of stories about traveling in Canada.  In one, his bus broke down on the side of the road and he walked for hours in -20 degrees.  In another one, he was with some Russians in a diner and didn't want coffee.  They offered him “postum” which is, according to him, “the worst drink in the world”.  Apparently it was terrible and made him almost vomit on the spot.  (I looked it up on Wikipedia.  It is a roasted grain beverage that was offered as a healthy alternative to coffee.  A 1910 ad shows it being advertised for children.)

1:30PM –
The seat to the right of me keeps filling and emptying again.  It is the seat closest to the door which keeps opening to let in the cold wind.  We (my new friends and I) are unsure if it is the temperature which keeps driving people away, or us.  A man approaches and asks if the seat is taken.  We say no and laugh, which unsettles him.  I tell him, "People don't stay long," and explain that we don't know if it is the cold or us.  He smiles and sits down.  Two minutes later the door opens.  He turns, gets my attention, and says pointedly, "I can tell you... it's NOT you."  :)

1:50PM –
The delivery man next to me says, "Do you know anyone who can interpret dreams?"  I say no, I used to have a book, but... He says, "I've been having the dumbest recurring dream."  So of course I ask what it is.  He says, "I keep dreaming I'm a muffler."  I say, "A muffler?  Like... on a car?"  He nods and says it's the stupidest thing but he has the dream over and over.  I venture, "Well, you do travel a lot.  Maybe..." But he shakes his head, says he's had the dream for years, before the traveling.  I am trying to think of something else to say when he says, "And I keep waking up EXHAUSTED!"  And that's when I punched him right in the shoulder.  Yep, I punched an old man who I had only known for half an hour.  I probably shouldn't have done that, but he seemed to enjoy it.  When he finished laughing, he went on to tell me that in his job people always want to tell jokes, but everyone tells a dirty joke and that's not his thing.  So he started listening to a radio show that ended every program with a joke, a clean one that they could say on the air.  He would listen to the show, hear the joke, then turn off his radio and say it over and over and over to himself and every time he said it, he would tweak it just a little until it was his own.  Then he'd go to make a delivery and the moment he got there, he wouldn't let the other person get a word in edgewise, he'd just launch right into his jokes.  He'd tell them one after another until the job was done and he was gone.  And that's how he figured out how to keep from having to listen to tasteless jokes all day.  I like this guy.  He reminds me of my grandpa. 

2:25PM –
A small child, maybe 4 or 5, is playing patty-cake with her big sister and singing, "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I LIKE it, uh-huh, uh-huh" a la KC & the Sunshine Band.

2:35PM –
The train is here, but they are not boarding yet.  There is a man next to me from Bastrop who is taking the train because he can't fly because he had cataract surgery last week.  He said it was amazing and now he can't wait to do the other eye.  He said during the surgery he got to see a great laser light show behind his eyelid.  I asked him if it hurt and he said after a couple of Xanax before hand you don't care about anything.  His wife is a teacher and ever since he retired at age 55, he has been substitute teaching.  (It sounds like he is a good sub because he worked over 100 days in the same school last year.)  He said the very first day of subbing he was in a sixth grade math class and at lunch he called his wife and told her, "They do not pay you enough."

All aboard.

3:19PM – Just got on the train.  Nice comfy seat, tray, handy electrical outlets, unbelievable leg room, footrest, and no one in the seat next to me.  Woo hoo!  We are starting to move.

3:37PM - oooOOOooo!  Just found my SECOND footrest!

3:40PM - Announcement about dinner reservations.  Options are... vegetarian noodle bowl for $16.00 (!!!), half a roasted chicken for $16.75, pork ribs for $19.00, or steak for... (missed the price, but I bet it was more than $19.00).  I think I will stick to my peanut butter sandwiches and apples and goldfish crackers.

3:42PM – The gentle rocking of the train is quite soothing.  I will have to fight being lulled to sleep.

3:43PM - Hmm... very hard to write on moving train.  Signing off.

Arriving in Austin, 8:30PM

[Note:  I never learned the names of any of my travel-buddies and I never gave them mine.  But if one of my train friends is reading this blog, I’m the girl in the red scarf who wasn’t wearing an eye patch.  You know what I mean…  Email me!]

1 comment: