Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Trains

It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides....

When we were planning our trip we had to get from Boston to Kansas City. If we could stop in Chicago on the way back, all the better. Car was out unless we rented one since we had to leave the Volvo with my parents in Maine. Plane was an option, but that would be costly with a stop in The Windy City. Beks also isn't so crazy about plane travel these days. If getting her on a plane was anything like getting her an immunization, it would require 5 flight attendants, a pilot and a mom. Or a kiddie xanax. Then someone suggested train travel. Both Bek and Luke thought that sounded like a real adventure. When I looked into fares, there was no other option. Amtrak it is!

There was only one train from Boston to Chicago. It left at 11 AM. Or 11 and some numbers so just round it to 11 AM. I'm not mathy. I'm also pretty good at laughing at myself because those " some numbers" were :55. We didn't realize this until after all of us were loaded into the car at 5:30 AM for the 3-4 hour drive to Boston from Southport ,ME . No one was mad.. ok, the kids were mad, but kids moods can be bought with a hot chocolate and a glazed stick from Dunkin' Donuts.

Because we had extra time, we hit no traffic whatsoever. Even with Dunkin Donuts, Rebox, and Gas stops we got to South Station with almost 2 hours to spare. Boston is a great city. It has lots of charm, history, sights and activities. It does not have a street system that a visitor can easily understand. It had been years since any of us had driven there and we had to rely on Gypsy the GPS and her quick, one- shot directions. You had best be listening! Failure to listen results in a Gypsy tantrum of " Recalculating. Recalculating.."

We drove around the same " block" for a few laps. It wasn't a square block like in most cities, but more obtuse triangle. But this is Boston, one of the oldest cities in our country, who am I to argue math semantics? I'm not mathy, remember?

Finally we accepted two facts:
1-We had found the front door to the station,
2-There was no parking anywhere.
Mom and Dad couldn't see us off from anywhere inside. It was a rolling stop/toss stuff out the back/ hug/hug/ kiss/kiss/thank you/thank you... and they were gone. The kids and I were on our own, weighted down by too much luggage, on a sidewalk in south Boston. We were sad to see my parents roll away, but excited to see what train travel had for us.

A quick and easy check in, a bathroom luggage juggle, and a snack filled our time. Our train was finally being called and we hauled all of our carry -on luggage to the track. We were not traveling light like a lot of others that we saw. We had a bag of snacks, a sleeping bag, a lap top and a portable DVD player, clothes for tomorrow,toiletries, inflatable pillows, books, games... we had tried to think of anything that would make the next 22 hrs fly by in comfort. And all the stuff that made our car trip comfortable as well. We had a lot of stuff to make us comfortable.

Comfortable was quickly out of the question. The train was full, there would be no spreading out on 4 seats like we had hoped. The seats did sort of recline, but they were too close to the neighboring seats for comfort. Even with our train training of compact travel in the backseat of the Volvo we felt claustrophobic. We were fairly close to the two restrooms for our car, and a few cars back from the snack bar. We didn't complain because we didn't know any better. We thought that this was part of the adventure of train travel. As the trained rolled on, we rolled with it.

I won't lie: we had a few moments of groaning. When we sat on the tracks for an hour someplace in the woods outside of Springfield MA, for no announced reason. When we were only in Albany,NY 8 hrs later. When the woman in the window seat, next to my aisle one, insisted on getting up at EVERY STOP to run outside to smoke...all. night. long. When we got no wifi connection anywhere. When cell calls dropped at the most crucial moments. When 2 hamburgers and waters cost 20 bucks. When Luke's acid reflux had him barfing at 11 PM. When the cabin lights were not turned off , ever. When a conductor walked through the aisle yelling " Cleveland! Cleveland! Cleveland!" at 3 AM.

Mostly we just groaned and moved on. We were not going to be complaining travelers, we were on an adventure. When the bathrooms began to smell like port-o-lets at a hot summer outdoor concert, we waited until absolutely necessary to head back there. Then those bathrooms were closed down, broken,we walked back several cars to find ones that worked. We were tired and grungy when we finally pulled into Chicago, 2 hours late, 24 hours later. We felt like train travel survivors and I was secretly dreading the other train leg.

Three days later we boarded the next, and final, train that would take us back to Kansas City. The difference in trains slapped us upside the head. This train was a double decker and we were seated on the top level. The car was smaller, had fewer passengers, although it too was full. More storage, bigger and cleaner windows welcomed us aboard. It was newish, cleaner, better smelling. I couldn't even reach the seat in front of me there was so much room! Toni the Chain Smoking Seatmate would never have disturbed my sleep. As we left Chicago's Union Station behind we still had the greatest treats ahead of us. One car ahead to be exact. The observation car.

As we walked through the door that separated us from this nirvana on rails I thought I heard an angelic choir sing some heavenly notes. Bright lights, all windows, many tables and comfy chairs for the taking awaited us. Spread out, play card games, write, watch America roll by in bright sunny comfort. This was the Amtrak of the commercials. We saw cranes that filled a pond, a crop dusting plane that skimmed our train, and a perfect sunset. We took the stairs to the snack car and so many bathrooms we never saw anyone else use. There was a dining car that took reservations, and characters on the over-com giving us updates. If we had been on this train from Boston we would have arrived refreshed, energized and 5 lbs lighter from all the exercise we had.

But we didn't know better then. It's an analogy for life, isn't it? When we know better, we do better. We expect better. That is a rough paraphrase of Maya Angelou, but fits the situation. If we had taken the trains in a different order we would have known that train travel can be comfortable when we boarded the bus on tracks. We might have actually complained out loud. But life is about living and learning and moving on. If we had not taken this second train we would be sour on this method of travel. Now we are eager to do it again.


  1. I'm so glad you ended your train adventure on a happy note! I've never actually ridden an Amtrak train that wasn't double-decked with an observation car. Must be an "East of Chicago" thing.

  2. All your previous travel blogs were wonderful...they helped me relive my own family vacations. But this one has me wanting to go on a new adventure! Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  3. I've enjoyed reading about your adventure. You and the kiddos will have great memories to share always and forever.


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