Monday, February 7, 2011

Quest for Shangri-La

Enough trains already! Well, maybe not just yet. In an effort to escape grey drizzly skies, snow flurries, biting cold, and the weatherman's twisted concept of 'partly cloudy', I made a January pilgrimage to the Gulf Coast of Florida. It was a quest to find that most elusive dream, a coastal drinking village with a fishing problem. The kind of town where you could swear that you just saw Ernest Hemmingway, and where the bar stools are occupied at 10 AM. A writers' haven filled with colorful characters who spin tales of adventure, and where even the morning coffee has an umbrella in it.

Knowing that I was only hours ahead of a monumental snowstorm that had left Kansas in the stone age, had crippled Chicago, and which had the northeast in it's cross hairs, my butt was smokin' southward. With the skies turning an angry grey, I pulled into the Amtrak station in Lorton, Virginia, the home of the Auto Train. For any who are unfamiliar with this marvel of transportation, it is one of the few remaining passenger trains, but this one has the added bonus of allowing you to take your car along. With an average of 30 multi-level auto carriers and 750 passengers in 25 passenger service rail cars, the Auto Train is the longest train in the world, extending 3/4 of a mile in length. It runs only between Lorton, VA and Sanford FL, near Orlando.
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At the check-in booth near the station entrance, I received my car number and instructions as to what to do next. Guided into a temporary parking space by one of several auto attendants, I gathered up my overnight bag and ticket paperwork while my car was video-documented for pre-existing damage. With number 430 magnetically attached to the driver's door, I stood watching as my car was whisked away, up a ramp and into one of the numerous cavernous auto carriers. I could only hope that it would find a cute little compact or a brightly colored Corvette to get chummy with during the long night's journey.

Inside the station, I was startled by the number of people already there. Almost every one of the hundreds of seats was occupied, some by people with enough luggage for a two week trip rather than an overnight stay. I couldn't help but wonder where they intended to put it all, and why they felt the need for so much 'stuff'. There comes a point where you cease to look like a traveller and start to look like a refugee.

The check-in process was brief and efficient, giving me my room assignment, dining schedule, and the other general information required for the trip. After a wait of half an hour spent watching the media's panic over the approaching weather, passengers were called to board.

I have ridden trains before, starting as far back as the late 1950's. Then, my mother gathered up my brother and my pre-teen self to catch a Chicago bound train at Connellsville, PA. At that time it was a one and a half day trip, and a wondrous adventure for a kid. With a sleeping room, the trip was far less testing than it would have been in a "comfortable reclining chair" in the coach section. Many years later, in the 1990's, I took the Auto Train to Florida and was surprised to find the same room accommodations, rolling stock, and positive attitude toward customer service that I remembered from the 50's. One of my favorite features of both trains was the "observation car", a glass-domed car with elevated seats that allowed passengers to look around freely at the scenery and out over the train while it snaked through the countryside. I was to be disappointed on this trip by the absence of that car.

During that 1990's trip, a walk through the coach section during the night had shocked me. What had been an orderly place with rows of seats like an airliner had been transformed into something from a third world country. Pajama-clad children lay trying unsuccessfully to sleep across seats and in the aisle, food bags, toys, blankets, pillows, and drink bottles lay strewn about, while disheveled, exhausted adults struggled in vain to pacify their young. All that was missing were the goats and chickens. I remember wondering why AMTRAK had not reinstituted the old Pullman cars where coach passengers could sleep in upper and lower burth (bunk) beds behind privacy curtains. That would have to be better than the 'cattle car' atmosphere in the coaches. It appears that someone at AMTRAK had a similar idea, but applied it to the sleeper passenger cars instead of the coaches.

My previous trips had been in a reasonably comfortable bedroom that slept four and had a private bathroom. That was then, this is now. The new 'Superliner Sleeper Cars' have two levels of full-sized bedrooms, handicapped-accessible bedrooms, and communal toilet and shower facilities on the ends with rows of 'roomettes' in between. A 'roomette' is 3'6" by 6'6" with two single seats that convert into the lower bed while an upper bed folds down from the ceiling. It has no toilet or wash facilities. With the sliding door closed, there is room to stand and turn around, but this is no place for a claustrophobic. That being said, I found the arrangement infinitely roomy when compared to the extreme confines of airplane travel. My cubicle was on the upper level of the car, providing me a better view than those on the lower level.
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(Not my videos but really cool)

Following the train's timely departure at 4 PM, I sat happily watching the miles and nameless towns fall behind. I was surprised to find absent the hypnotic 'click-clack' of the wheels on the rail joints. Apparently either the rails now have welded joints or the rail cars have dampening buffers that no longer transfer the noise. Whatever the reason, the train seemed to glide almost soundlessly along the tracks. Approaching an hour into the journey, there was an announcement that the dining car was open for the 5 PM seating. Because the dining car has limited seating, passengers must choose from 5 PM, 7 PM, or 9 PM dinners. The 7 PM session was apparently the most popular and was closed, prompting my choice of the early meal. With little red ticket in hand, I made my way along the narrow hallway and down the stairs to the dining car.
A railroad dining car has a degree of romance associated with it generated by years of books and movies. Many of those 1940's movies, with the likes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, contained scenes of romantic chat across a white table clothed table with a red rose in a silver vase, while the scenery floated by in the background. Dining cars haven't changed much. The white table cloth and red rose are still there. To a degree, the service and elegance are also still there, albeit more efficient and sterile as dictated by current times. The menu was limited by restaurant standard, but completely adequate for a hungry traveller. Entree choices of chicken, beef, pasta, or fish were accompanied by salad and choice of dessert, all served promptly and without drama. At my table were a lady from New Jersey (obvious after her first words) who was travelling to stay with her daughter; and, a man from Cumberland, Maryland who was scouting Florida's east coast for his future winter home. Not present, gratefully, were children of any age, making the twenty-something servers the youngest in the room. Actually, my displeasure with children in restaurants is not so much with misbehaving children as it is with the annoying adults who inexplicably believe that they can negotiate their disruptive darlings back into control. "The definition of insanity is...". Having a meal and peaceful adult conversation without distraction was, by itself, worth the train fare.
What is any good meal without continued conversation over cocktails? By moving to the lounge car, we extended our evening with the help of several greatly-overpriced beverages. The scheduled movie was Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the 1952 classic, "Singing in the Rain". The simple mention of the movie brought groans from those present, most of whom could remember being dragged to the theater as children by their mothers for two hours of crushing boredom while mom revelled in the singing and dancing. The courteous bar steward expressed his gratitude at not having to run the movie. He responded more enthusiastically to calls for several other movies involving "Debbie" and offered to search the crew quarters where he assured us that such fare was readily available.
As the evening wore on, I found myself more and more missing the observation car. Even at night, it was fascinating to sit up high and watch the scenery go by, as if the backdrop of houses, roads, cars, and people was being presented solely for my entertainment. Cars and trucks had to stop at the crossing gates and red flashing lights while we, like some kind of royal procession, glided smoothly by. But, alas, another icon of more luxurious times has fallen to the wayside. With little else to do, it was time to retire.
It took just minutes for the car steward to convert my roomette into sleep mode. In what would prove to be a bad choice, I climbed into the upper berth to discover two disconcerting facts: 1) the upper berth was 6'2" from wall to wall, and 2) the ceiling of the car was just inches from my face. Being 6 feet tall, the additional 2" left precious little wiggle room for someone who was used to sleeping diagonally in a roomy queen size bed. Finding a comfortable position was, to say the least, challenging. Fortunately I'm not a 'back-sleeper'. In that position with eyes open, I had this irrational desire to pound on the ceiling while screaming, "I'm alive! I'm alive!". The unfamiliar on-going movement also made it difficult to sleep, but each time I felt uncomfortable, I pictured myself in the coach car trying to sleep in the midst of the chaos. Compared to that, my cramped quarters were luxurious. Eventually sleep found me. It was not a great 'matress ad morning' kind of sleep, but it was restful and adequate for this traveller.
5:30 AM has mercifully become an unaccustomed hour for me. Being nocturnal by nature, I have never understood those who eagerly shove bacon and eggs into their faces at that obscene hour, then collapse into catatonia by 8 PM. During my years at the slave ship, I learned that those early morning types run the world, and my choices were: 1) get up early,or 2) starve. Now it is usually mother nature who forces me from my comfortable bed, and so it was on the train. It was a surprise to find a line at the bathroom at that hour, but understandable given the ages of my fellow passengers. By 6 AM I found myself in line with those early riser types mentioned above for a seat in the dining car. As I shovelled in my corn flakes and downed my (fresh, cool-but-not-cold) Florida orange juice, I noticed that the scenery had changed considerably. Gone were the thick, swampy vegetation and dense deciduous trees to be replaced by sparse pine and palm trees in sandy soil. Welcome to Florida.
Florida had the look of warmth; no snow, no gloom, no misery's palette. The sky was blue; wonderfully soft blue with a few fluffy-white, harmless clouds. The kind of sky that people in the north dream about. The kind of sky that makes you want to fly a kite or take up gliding. A truly grand welcome. I felt like a prisoner who had escaped his captors and crossed the border to a free country.
By 9:30 AM I was off the train and waiting for number 430. It was just a short time of standing outdoors in the near 60 degree temperatures before my familiar car eased down the ramp to join me. It struck me as odd to see the locals bundled up in coats and jackets. My jacket had long since joined the luggage and the long sleeved shirt would be replaced at earliest convenience by its short sleeve counterpart. As I drove off, intoxicated by the fresh warm air that carried the scent of flowers and vegetation, I turned on the radio. For a moment I felt guilty about laughing at the reports of New York and New England being paralyzed under up to 24" of snow. But only for a moment.