Monday, June 8, 2009

riding the auto train

June 5

12:50 p.m.
Phase one of my sentimental journey is complete. I sit in the Amtrax station in Stanford, north of Orlando. I am up at 5:30 to pack the car in between sheets of rain, clean out the fridge and drop Abbie off at the vet to board for a week. She is not a happy camper. By 10, I am on my way, stopping to down a bacon, egg & cheese McGriddle. There is something about being on the road that awakens the sleeping fast foodie in me.

I make great time, even though traveling I 4, especially during the week, is a nightmare. It’s one of those congested, shopworn roads constantly under construction--not to mention passing all the theme park exits and golng through downtown Orlando. On a good day, it's a 2.5 hour trip.

It’s one of those hurry up and wait scenarios, since the train doesn’t leave unit 4, but they want you there by 2. If you don’t get there even earlier you get a bad dinner seating and end up sharing your space with anxious parents and screaming infants…so I wait.

The Sanford station is old and shows its age. The small concession stand is shuttered. I’m glad I brought a salad to munch on as I chose the most popular 7 pm dinner. The food has always been quite tasty. And as a lone traveler, I’ve been lucky with dinner partners. On my first foray, I sat with a couple who spends summers in the Catskills with my favorite aunt. Once, I dined with three recent college graduates on their way to starting independent lives. It's among my favorite part of the trip.

I pause here to talk a bit about the storied train which has always intrigued me. It is the only one in the U.S, and at 3/4 of a mile in length, the longest passenger train in the world. There are no stops, just a straight run from Stanford to Lorton. (OK, so there is one stop to take on water, in the middle of the night in Florence, SC, ironically where I stop to spend the night when I drive.)

The trip takes about 17 hours and pulls into Lorton about 9 a.m. Then another round of waiting. This time for your car to be offloaded. My luck has been running out here. For the second year, I wait 1.5 hours to get back behind the wheel of my little red Honda Fit. The train carries 222 of a maximum 300 cars this trip. (Most of them in VERY boring shades.)

I settle into my seat and luck out. The nervous Nellie in the window seat en route to her home in Boston freaks because a kid is sitting behind her and dashes off to a pair of empty seats. So I'll have two seats to myself.

The sky opens up again and the day turns gray, sleepy grey. I am winding down but trying not to nap, cause I wanna sleep the night. It makes the trip go faster. My eyes are getting heavy, though, having been up since before dawn. I so wish the train would get underway already. Oh god, am I doomed to listen to cell phone conversations for 1,000 miles?

OK, so I’m beginning to feel like one of those airline passengers stuck on a runway. We are still sitting. This is a first for me. Dunno what the problem but antsy am I. Wanna get a going!

I am reminded of the worst part--the airline-like bathrooms. Oh, for a posh sleeping car with private bath and turn down service.

I have a soft spot for trains. They are another one of my many time machines, carrying me back to my Long Island childhood and the "change at Jamaica" cry of the conductor as my mom and I head into the city for a Broadway matinee. (Even in
London, I prefer them to the Underground which is way too deep underground for my taste-- unless bombs are falling.)

There is just something earthy and connected about a train, Without the need to drive, I am free to contemplate the passing sights, right now lush green farms with real trees and three horses grazing under shade trees by an inland water of some kind. Not a palm tree in sight. It could pass for the New Jersey or Pennsylvania countryside.Then there is the rhythm, the vibration accompanied by the clickity clack, very retro. Full disclosure: If you are sensitive to motion, be sure to bring meds, as the lateral motion can turn the tummy.

Being an old form of transport, trains pass through the old sections of towns, sometimes quaint, but more often simply shabby. As we slip by farms and homes, I find myself wondering about the lives contained within, something I used to do as a child, passing time in the back seat as my dad drove home from my grandparent's house in Brooklyn.

7 p.m.
A pleasant dinner of flat iron steak, fresh veggies and a raspbery/chocolate desert, with the affluent, as usual, on their way to Cape Cod and the like. I am the only one, however, who leaves a tip. UG!

9 p.m.
Lights are dimmed but I continue reading until 10 under the shallow overhead lamp.

5:30 a.m.
I give up trying to sleep. Although I've brought my own blanket and pillow (and a pair of comfy socks), my body refuses to find comfort. All the maneuvering, reclining, foot rests do no good. I long for a pair of Bose earphones and my sleep number bed.

6 a.m.
I head to the dining car for a early breakfast and meet a nice couple celebrating their 58th anniversary. My spirits lift.

9 a.m.
We pull into the station on time and hear the announcement to "detrain". My mind skips to Geroge Carlin's "deplane" riff and I chuckle.

10:30 a.m.
..and my sentimental journey continues on to Point Plesant to suprise a friend.

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