Finding Inspiration on a Commuter Train

Commuter trainHeading toward Chicago on a Metra commuter train I didn’t notice the woman who sat down beside me until she said, “I hope you don’t feel crowded.” She had pushed a large piece of luggage toward her legs to clear the aisle. There was a Cub’s game that day and the train was packed with fans. The woman also held a small backpack. She was going somewhere beyond a day trip to Chicago.

I looked at her luggage and said, “No, don’t worry about it.” And asked: “Are you going on a trip?”

“Yes, through the Canadian Rockies on the train.” I got excited and immediately wished I was going with her. She was on her own, an adventurer, and up in years. I had to know more.

“Are you leaving from Union Station? Traveling alone?”

“I leave from Chicago Union Station on Amtrak to Montana then up to Canada. I didn’t know it’s a different train company in Canada. I’m alone but will be traveling with a tour group.”

“It’s a good year to go because they are celebrating their 150th year as an independent country,” I said. “Do you travel by train often? Have you traveled in other countries?”

“Yes. I’ve been through Europe and in India,” she said. India, I was excited again because I had just traveled through northern India. We agreed that the people there were very kind and hospitable. “I visited families and they would bring out so much food. All the relatives would gather together, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents to say hello and wish me well,” she said. She planned her trip through a private tour company.

She wore a lightweight long sleeve plaid shirt and cream-colored slacks. Her gray shoulder-length hair was pushed behind her ears. Her green eyes were not afraid to meet mine and linger. By the way she spoke I assumed her to be an academic and asked: “What do you do for work?” She has a PhD in clinical psychology and is on staff at a nearby hospital.

I asked what her specialty was and she said she worked with adults, most suffering from depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. I’m glad she was taking a train trip. It would give her a chance to relax and surround herself in the beauty of the landscape. She inspired me. Seeing a mature woman with a world view, committed to her career, and confidently traveling alone got me enthused about the years that await me.

When we arrived at the Ogilvie Center train station she pulled her luggage out to the aisle. It was too big to navigate easily, but I’ve learned not to advise people about luggage size. I wished her well on the journey through Canada.

 

Glimpse of Men, Morning & Ganges River on Overnight Train to Allahabad

Train arrives in Allahabad, India

The Bundelkhand Express #11107 arrives in Allahabad from Jhansi, India.

The train is late. We wait. It will transport us overnight to Allahabad (ALD) and into Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one with the largest number of people living below the poverty line. My son and I have been in India for six days. We have yet to see anyone on top of a rail car. We don’t see unaccompanied children. The station in Jhansi is filled with young men, just as we have seen in the streets and shops. When I asked an English speaker about the lack of women out and about I was told, “Many women remain in the home with their families.”

It’s nearing midnight. The station has a waiting room for women only. A few elderly ladies dressed in colorful saris and some mothers with young children sit on the benches wearing forlorn faces. I don’t know if men and women travel in different compartments on this train. In Delhi, the metro trains had a women’s car. I chose to ride in one and found it comfortable – less crowded, less noisy and less smelly than the other cars. Will it matter to the men if I am sleeping in the same space as them? Will it matter to me?

Train to Allahabad sleeper car.

The sleeper car aisle on the train to Allahabad. No doors separate one unit from the others.

When the train arrives we board and look for our beds. I don’t know what to call the sleeper spaces on this train. In size, each unit is comparable to a bedroom closet in the U.S. It contains six pulled down beds in two rows of three with a window between the rows. On the other side of the aisle are two more beds that also hang from the wall by cables. One unit in from the train car door, my son Henry spots his place on a top bunk. He climbs a small ladder at the bed’s head and settles in. My bunk is in the middle, beneath his.

Men occupy all the beds in our unit. I try to reach the middle bunk by climbing the ladder Henry uses. But, I cannot swing my body around to reach the middle mattress. He’s tired and I am stranded on this tiny island between the rows of beds. I whisper to Henry, “I can’t get into the bunk.” He sounds irritated and murmurs, “There.”

A young man in the middle bunk across from mine props himself up. He points to the bottom mattress. I hear Henry say, “Step on it.” I do so, straddling my legs on the two bottom bunks. One of the men is awake. He’s wearing a turban and a long white nightshirt. I reach up and heave my body atop the middle bed. “Shukriya” I say (thank you in Hindi). The young man smiles and gives a little laugh. His brown eyes settle elsewhere.

The gender issue I’ve conjured up in my head vanishes. I want to talk with him. “Where are you going?” “What will you do there?” “Where are you coming from?” “What’s it like…” My questions linger unasked and unanswered. My phrases in Hindi are limited.

Passenger in sleeper car on train to Allahabad, India

Time to contemplate from the bottom bunk on the train to Allahabad.

I don’t check to see if the sheets are clean or go to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I drop my glasses into the black net that hangs from the wall. My space for the night is comfortable. I rest my head on the small pillow and listen to the train make its way through a black landscape. I let the this lullaby surround and settle me.

The overnight train brings us to morning. At the train car’s open door I get my first glimpse of the Ganges River (referred to locally as Ganga). Its dimpled surface reflects the sun’s light. People on the train raised their forearms to their chests and clasped their hands at the sight of the river, my son told me later.

We look shabby. I push the bed up and collect my things. In a matter of minutes the men in my unit become presentable. Shoes on, hair combed, shirts tucked, enough to go to work or meet their families. The train stops. They pour into the crowd of men at the station, streets and shops.

Train Ride to Orchha and Local Life in India

India passenger train vendorsMy 21-year old son Henry and I are ready to board the 10:10 a.m. daily Thirukkural Express at the Agra Cantt rail station heading for Jhansi. The train ride is nearly the same distance as Amtrak’s Downeaster that runs from Boston to Brunswick, Maine in the U.S.A. The timetables are comparable at about 3.5 hours.

A strong stench of urine wafts near the Express train car door. This is a mystery to me until later I observe a cow urinating on a station platform. Animals co-exist with the human population in India. At a snack stand in the station a monkey plays on the overhead pipes. Outside, a goat leans against the wall. Cows meander and dogs trot along what seems to be a familiar path. I like the daily reminder that we share this earth with many creatures.

The attendants on Indian Railways are courteous and welcoming in their dark suits and ties. The car doorways are left open and the trains are long with engines pulling 20 passenger cars and two luggage cars. The passenger cars include general seating, sleepers, and two tiers of air-conditioned seats. Rather than include a café car, vendors walk through the train cars selling snacks and chai directly to seated passengers. The landscape through India’s north central state of Uttar Pradesh into Mahyda Pradesh keeps our attention throughout the train ride.

Passenger train view of Chambal River in India

View from the train of the Chambal River in India.

 

View from the train as it nears Jhansi, India

Jhansi, India landscape

From the Jhansi station we hop into a jeep to Orchha, an Indian resort town on the Betwa River. Historic sites such as the Fort complex which contains the Raj Mahal, Hehangir Mahal and Raj Parveen Mahal; the Chaturbhuj and Laxmi temples and Cenotaphs with gardens along the Betwa River are enough for busloads of Chinese tourists to disembark and wander long enough to take selfie photographs. The streets are lively, lined with shops and the smell of incense.

Orchha cenotaphs

Cenotaphs along the Betwa River in Orchha, India

We linger on the patio of the RajaRam restaurant outside of the Fort complex and drink real coffee, a luxury from the usual Nescafe. In some ways this town feels like a rustic Key West in the U.S. or Playa Del Carmen in Mexico but the flavor here is all India. Statues of Hindu deities, Indo-Islamic architecture, chai shops and sweets including burfi, batti, and Gulab jamun tempt any traveler.

Adventurous travelers always explore outside of the tourist centers. Walk or drive just 10 minutes away and they get a glimpse of the real world of local people – their work and family lives. We did just that. Here is the India we witness as lived by local people just outside of Orchha.

A thousand bricks a day are built here with clay, sand, cow paddies and coal ash. They buy coal ash from the railroad.

 

Farm in Madhya Pradesh, India

Family farmers in Madhya Pradesh grow radish, potatoes, chilies, cabbage and eggplant.

Villagers in Nivari, India

A villager examines seeds as a young girl weaves baskets from bamboo leaves.

India village woman working at home

Village woman in front of her house shows an organic way of life in India.

The next person we meet is a young ceramicist who is a master at creating clay pots with primitive tools and a strong arm. My son had taken four years of ceramics classes while in high school. When he sees this he says, “If you would have told me you can throw pots without electricity I would have said ‘That’s impossible.'” This young man shows us the limits of our viewpoint.

Indian ceramicist

Young ceramicist shapes clay pottery by propelling a circular wheel using a stick.

Henry rethinks what he’s just seen. “There’s a lot of physics involved in how he is throwing the pot. Math equations can explain how his wheel is turning – the same ones that explain how stars spin.” In Orchha, there are many activities including river rafting, the sound and light show at the Fort complex, street market shopping, and an evening prayer service at the temple. These are delightful, but I think what we will remember most is who we met in the villages outside of the town.

 

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Train Travel to Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal visitorsThe Taj Mahal in Agra is one of India’s biggest tourist attractions. It is a beautiful building recognized as one of the wonders of the world. It is also a great place to people watch. People from all over the world visit the site. I happily agree to pose in pictures for those not accustomed to seeing ivory skinned westerners from America. Traveling to the Taj Mahal by train is easy, especially from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

At the airport near Terminal 3 you can purchase a train token and board the Metro to the New Delhi Station (NDLS). The airport Metro train arrives every 10 minutes and takes approximately 22 minutes to reach NDLS. Security precautions require scanning your bags. At the New Delhi station, board the Bhopal Shatabdi Express. If all goes well you will reach Agra in approximately two hours.

Purchase your train ticket to Agra in advance. The Bhopal Shatabdi Express train #1202 is scheduled to leave daily at 6:00 a.m. from New Delhi station and arrive in Agra Cantt (AGC) at 7:57 a.m. Choosing AC1 class gets me a reserved seat in an air-conditioned car for a cost of Rs 1000 (Indian Rupees) or U.S. $15. The train is comfortable and quick. Included in the fare is breakfast chosen from a menu and served at your seat. Passengers receive an Indian Times newspaper and outlets to charge phones are available. Well-dressed attendants answer questions and check seat reservations.

During the train ride I watch the sunrise light up the countryside. The high-speed train makes its way through layers of morning mist. It passes fields, farms, and villages to reach Agra (AGC station) on time. If an early morning train doesn’t work for you there are other trains later in the day. However, they make more stops and take longer.

Tomb of Akbar in Sikandra, india Before going to the Taj Mahal, which is closed on Fridays so plan accordingly, I head to Sikandra. It’s a suburb of Agra where the tomb of Mughal emperor Akbar stands on acres of green grass.

Palm trees line a wide red sandstone walkway that leads to the grand south entrance. In the trees bright green parakeets hop on branches. Songs of Islam can be heard from a building nearby. Four white marble minarets point to the sky. Inside, an old man demonstrates the acoustics quality with a chant that echoes through the building.

 

River view at Taj Mahal

Yamuna river view at Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Nearby is the UNESCO World Heritage site that Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore describes this way: “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” The river he refers to is the Yamuna.

Bring as few belongings as possible when visiting the Taj Mahal. Security is tight due to terrorist threats. You can purchase a foreign tourist ticket at one of the three gate entrances for Rs 1000. It is estimated that 40,000 people visit the Taj Mahal daily between the viewing hours of sunrise and sunset. The entry lines are not long in late afternoon when I visit.

The massive scale of the white marble building surprises me. It dwarfs the human body. Inside the mausoleum is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the third and favorite wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. You can learn more about the Taj Mahal story at the India government official website.

Visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

 

 

 

I linger on a bench until sunset when the light on the building is soft and beautiful. The reflection pond mirrors the building’s image. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place. There are no commercial ventures selling souvenirs or plastic replicas of the building.

In the evening, I witness a pre-wedding street parade with the groom atop a horse surrounded by family, friends and merriment. He is making his way to meet the bride. The next day I visit Agra Fort where I get a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal at a distance from Shah Jahan’s palace bedroom. It is then that I feel the grief of a 17th century Mughal emperor.

Agra Fort view of Taj Mahal

 

 

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Train Trip on Sunset Limited to Houston & NRG Park

Sunset Limited Amtrak train

The National Football League is pitting the AFC champion New England Patriots against the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51) at NRG Park in Houston this weekend. Country music star Luke Bryan will sing the national anthem and Lady Gaga will perform during the Super Bowl half time show. But there are many more events planned throughout 2017 at NGR Park and in Houston. Here’s how you can get to and from Houston by train.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans with intermittent stops three days a week.

From Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited (train no. 2) departs on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:00pm and continues from Palm Springs, California at 12:36am traveling east on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It arrives in Houston on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 11:10am. Departure from Houston is on the Sunset Limited (train no. 1) on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 6:55pm. At Los Angeles, passengers can transfer to the Pacific Surfliner train going south to San Diego or going north to Santa Barbara.

Highlights from Los Angeles to Houston include traveling through the Mojave and Sonoran Desserts where low lying prickly pear cacti, sand dunes and saguaro cactus can be viewed from the train. Just west of Yuma, Arizona, the train crosses the Colorado River and then the Continental Divide between Deming and Lordsburg in New Mexico. Rivers east of the Divide flow into the Atlantic Ocean and those to the west of it flow into the Pacific Ocean. Watch the Rio Grande River hugging the U.S/Mexico border between Deming and El Paso, Texas. Famed architect Daniel Burnham designed the train station at El Paso, Texas.

From New Orleans the Sunset Limited (train no. 1) departs at 9:00am on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and is scheduled to arrive in Houston at 6:18pm the same day. From Houston to New Orleans (train no. 2) departs on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday at 12:10pm. Watch for the Huey B. Long Bridge and the mighty Mississippi River. Observe the beautiful bayous, cypress swamps and Intercoastal Waterway through the floor to ceiling windows in the Sightseer car.

Houston can also be reached via train by connecting from the Texas Eagle at San Antonio. This train runs daily between Chicago and San Antonio.

Full meal service is available in the dining car. Snacks and sandwiches are offered in the Sightseer Lounge. Accommodations include Coach seating and three different types of sleeper car arrangements.

Here’s a map showing the location of the Houston Amtrak station and NRG Park.

Being There

Amtrak station in HoustonLocated at 902 Washington Avenue, the Houston Amtrak train station has a waiting area, restroom and ticket office. When you arrive at the station you can catch bus number 85 to downtown and then get on the southbound Metro Rail Red Line to the Stadium Park station. From there NRG Park is about one mile. You can take a taxi or Uber from the Amtrak station to the Park for a fare of approximately $33.

The Weather Channel is predicting a cloudy day on Super Bowl Sunday with a temperature high of 77 degrees and a low of 64 degrees. You don’t have to worry about rain as the stadium has a retractable roof.

Houston NRG Park

NBC affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston offered some suggestions for having a good time while in Houston. Try out some of Houston’s restaurants, bars, museums, and parks. Eventbrite has a list of Super Bowl parties and events.

Now that you know how to get to Houston by train check out other events during 2017 at NRG Park. Enjoy your train trip and all that Houston has to offer.

 

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Travel to Washington DC Inauguration by Train

train station at Washington DC

Washington Union Station

Yes, you can still get a train ticket on some Amtrak routes to Washington DC to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump on Friday, January 20th. You will pay more this week than another time, but timing is important when traveling. Inauguration day in Washington DC is an event every American should try to attend some time in their life. If you wait for someone you really like to take the oath, you may end up never attending the event. One person witnessing history in the making can have a ripple effect. Stories get told and shared.

With an estimated 900,000 people attending this year’s presidential inauguration, train travel may be the easiest way to get there. Amtrak has released travel tips for the event encouraging passengers to allow additional time arriving at stations and citing limited access to entry and exit points at Washington’s Union Station. Minor stuff.

Washington Union StationWashington’s Union Station is across the street from the Capitol Building and the National Mall. You won’t need any transportation to get where you want to be. Signs will direct you to the event. There are still some hotels with rooms available that are less than a mile from Union Station. Washington has a great public transit system. However, closed streets will affect bus and car traffic, so take the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains if your feet get tired. The Smithsonian station stop will get you to the Mall from wherever you may have wandered. Remember to pack light and plan extra time for almost everything as the city swells with crowds.

Washington DC monumentIf you want to avoid or join the planned demonstrations, marches and protests here is the Washington Post guide with locations, time and dates. Here is the National Mall map to help orient you to the area.

Enjoy the train ride with your fellow citizens. You can tweet about your ride using @Inaug2017 and #Amtrak hashtag. I am @maryklest on twitter.

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Get Inspired at Chicago Travel & Adventure Show

Chicago Travel & Adventure showBefore planning my next trip I’m going to attend the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show being held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois on January 21 and 22. It’s open to all travel enthusiasts. Travel writers Rick Steves, Peter Greenberg Pauline Frommer and Travel Channel TV Host Samantha Brown will share trends and insights as keynote speakers.

Loads of informational seminars are available for anyone seeking travel advice from destination experts. Speaker and travel writer Roger Naylor will talk about the hiking options in Arizona. He’s already shared with me some of his favorite trails that are close to train stations. Travel photographer Ralph Velasco will show his photos from recent trips and talk about how images can tell a story. I downloaded his My Shot List app and find I’m more intentional with my camera while traveling.

Exhibitors from around the world will be there. Travel show exhibitors generously share insider knowledge on how to customize a trip for whatever you’re looking for. I hope to learn more about the best train travel deals, trends in rail travel, and interesting events near train stations in the U.S. that I can feature.

Taste of Travel Stage I’m looking forward to the Taste of Travel stage where creative chefs will be sharing food recipes inspired by culture and geography. At 3:15pm on Saturday, Belinda Chang, partner and director of wine and services at Maple & Ash in Chicago, will lead a wine tasting seminar. Chang won a James Beard award for Outstanding Wine Program. From 1:30 to 2:30pm on Sunday the Culinary Fight Club will pose home cooks, culinary students, executive chefs and caterers against one another.

Cultural dance performances from around the world will be featured at the Global Beats Stage. Apache Danforth will present Native American dances at 3:35pm on Saturday. Polynesian, Nordic, Bollywood and other dances will be performed throughout the two-day event.

If you like hands-on activities try scuba diving in a heated pool, ride on a Segway or atop a camel while at the show. Reasons to roam the showroom abound. Beyond inspiration you can put details behind your travel wish list and map out a plan.

Want to go to the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show? Here are the details.

Dates & hours: January 21 (10:00am – 5:00pm), January 22 (11:00am – 4:00pm)

Address: 5555 N. River Road, Rosemont, Illinois

Admission fee: $18 Buy Tickets

Get there by train

The Donald E. Stephens Convention Center can be reached via the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue line train, Rosemont stop.

Out of town train travelers can arrive at Chicago’s Union Station and get on the CTA Blue Line at the Clinton stop heading towards O’Hare.

Visitors flying into O’Hare International airport can board the CTA Blue Line train at the airport and get off at the first stop, Rosemont.

CTA trains arrive and depart every six to 10 minutes on weekends. Temperatures in Chicago can dip into the single digits in January so dress appropriately.

Lodging options within walking distance:

Hilton Rosemont: 5550 N. River Road

Embassy Suites: 5500 N. River Road

Hyatt Regency: 9300 Bryn Mawr Ave.

Crowne Plaza, 5440 N River Road

 

Restaurant options within walking distance:

Liberty Tavern, 5550 N. River Road

Basil’s Kitchen, 5550 N. River Road

Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse 5464 N River Road

 

During 2017, the following cities will host their own Travel & Adventure Show. Each of these cities are served by Amtrak trains:

  • San Francisco Bay Area, February 11-12, Santa Clara Convention Center
  • Los Angeles, February 18-19, Los Angeles Convention Center
  • San Diego, March 4-5, San Diego Convention Center
  • Denver, March 18-19, Colorado Convention Center
  • Philadelphia, March 25-26, Pennsylvania Convention Center
  • Dallas, April 1-2, Dallas Market Hall

Let me know where you plan to travel this year.

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Train Trips Don’t Stop at the Station

Amtrak station in Orlando, FloridaLooking for things to do outside of your routine? Get on the train and head for the experience of your choice. Through my train trips I’ve discovered some of the best, most favorably reviewed places, activities and events located near train stations. I’ve done the research, talked with local experts and traveled to many places by train. In 2017 this blog will be devoted to train-centric details that let you leave your car behind and avoid airport lines but still visit some of the best food and wine festivals, wellness retreats, workshops, outdoor activities and conferences – fun experiences you can reach by train.

Train information is often not included in event travel directions. More than once I drove or flew to a place that was located close to an Amtrak station. I had to pay parking fees and cab fares, struggled through storms while driving and waited in lines at airports just because I didn’t know how to travel by train. Train trips don’t stop at the station. Want to go hiking in the middle of a winter? There are trails in Arizona, Florida and California that you can reach by train. Need a wellness break? Whether a spa, meditation center or yoga retreat trains can take you there.

Why train?

Sightseer lounge car on Amtrak trainWhen you get on a train all you have to do is breathe. Your routine is gone. It’s time to improvise and see the world. Train travel is a practical, efficient and environmentally friendly way to travel. Solo travelers, families, people of all ages and abilities can feel comfortable and safe when traveling by train.

It’s fun. You will hear stories from all kinds of people and share a few of your own. You always have the option to move around between cars and stretch your legs in the ample space provided at each seat. It may take you longer to get where you’re going. That’s part of the pleasure. You slow down. I love watching the landscape, sky and light change from the train. Read for hours uninterrupted. Meet people who are different from you. Discover ways of life in America’s countryside, small towns and cities.

Train trips are easy. Amtrak train schedules and ticket and reservation information can be found online.  Other rail excursions can be found online as well. When traveling on Amtrak a simple way to save money and support a strong national rail network is to join the non-profit National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP) organization. The $35 annual membership gives you a 10 percent discount on most fares.

Feel free to share your favorite train travel experiences near rail stations in the comments box below. Come back to this site often or subscribe to read about a new place, activity or event that is close to a train station. Traveling by train can be adventurous in itself. Your trip won’t stop at the station if you know where to go and how.

 

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What I Learned Riding Amtrak Trains During 2016

Amtrak trainI traveled many miles on Amtrak trains this year and talked with passengers to see what I could learn from them. Some were serious minded, others were funny. They were of all ages – seniors, parents, college kids and children. They were of all religious, geographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Here is a summary of some things I learned while traveling by train during 2016.

People like to be listened to

To start a conversation I usually asked some standard train traveling questions. Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why did you decide to take the train? I was ready for quick responses, lengthy explanations and everything in between. Nothing about their physical appearance gave me a clue as to who would engage and who would not. Some were ready to talk from the get go, others needed time to assess why I was curious about them. Those who did open up to a stranger had something in common – they liked being listened to. Listening is a skill. It’s something that brings us closer to one another.

They love their families

Amtrak at Chicago Union StationMany of the people I met on the train were going to visit a family member or attend a family event. Chris from Yazoo City, Mississippi was returning from his daughter’s wedding. Grandma Laurie was on the last leg of a trip from Israel to Cincinnati to see her family. Tiquan was returning home for college break. An Amish family was heading to Iowa for a funeral. The effort it takes to participate in family life is worth it. That kind of love can’t be found anywhere else.

Train travel offers adventure

Trains travel through parts of America that cannot be accessed by cars or buses. Airplanes disregard landscapes all together. Train travelers expressed a desire to reduce chaos in their lives and slow down. They didn’t like flying. Josie was traveling alone to Harper’s Ferry to hike the Appalachian Trail. For Robert, even the bus was too hectic. He described the train as laidback. Jimmy was traveling to Wyoming to start a new job. It was his first trip on his own and out of the state of Florida. For a mom and her toddler son who wore a shirt with a train that included a cookie car, his first train ride was a thrill they wouldn’t forget. Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.

Disabled people have a choice

Blind man riding the railsThere were people I met who were unable to manage other transportation options due to a handicap. A military veteran of the war in Afghanistan with PTSD held his service dog in his arms. A blind man and his wife were going to Tucson from Cleveland to meet friends. The train allowed them to travel in a way that they were comfortable. Remember those who are capable when they have options.

Frustration outweighs optimism

When I board a train I bring my optimism with me. I wake up every morning and say to myself: “Let me love this day and everyone in it.” More than once while on the train people challenged my outlook. They did not love everyone. Their future was bleak. America had let them down. People talked about loveless marriages, business failures, crime, unemployment, and government dysfunction. This brought me to a prediction that many of my friends and news media believed unfathomable. 

Donald Trump would be elected president

It became obvious to me while riding on long-distance Amtrak trains that Donald Trump would be elected president. Had any of the campaign operatives, pundits and analysts taken such a ride they probably would have come to the same conclusion. I met a maintenance man who told me he was voting for Mr. Trump because: “He’s rich and a good businessman who will create jobs.” There was a single mom elementary school teacher from Arkansas who was fed up with the way things were going. “Trump will bring the change we need,” she said. An elderly lady from Jackson, Mississippi heading to New Orleans said she would not vote for Hillary Clinton. “It’s not a lady job,” she replied when I asked her why. Data is important, but it won’t tell the whole story when it comes to the human heart.

America is still the beautiful

People gasped at the beauty of America’s landscapes as the train traversed mountainsides, riverbanks, forests, open plains and bayous. Within these diverse terrains I believe we all found some solace. We had something in common. We chose to see it and we chose to listen to each other. We are free to choose.

Train tracks on Amtrak line

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Riding on the City of New Orleans Train

Chicago to New Orleans, City of New Orleans, Amtrak Train No. 59

City of New Orleans Amtrak train Every evening the City of New Orleans train is scheduled to depart Chicago’s Union Station at 8:05pm. Boarding this night train was like joining a large slumber party. People unpacked their blankets early, lodged cushions near their heads and tucked themselves in to seats in coach. Quiet came quickly. Every seat was filled. The Conductor announced: “Let’s all get along as if we were at grandma’s house for dinner.”

It was dark outside as we passed Chicago’s commercial loft spaces and warehouses. A full harvest moon was beaming light from the sky. We paused on a bridge. What I was actually gazing at in the sky was the Earth-facing side of the moon being lit by the sun’s light. During a full moon the Earth, moon and sun are all aligned. While on the train there was time to marvel at this beautiful alliance.

As my seatmate settled in, I recalled seeing him in the station ticket line with a young woman. Her arm was wrapped around his torso. He is not an old man, yet he looked frail, tall and thin with a tight face. After having his ticket inspected, the woman released her arm. He told me his name is Chris. He was getting off the train at Yazoo City, Mississippi. Of his decision to take the train, he said: “There’s too much going on at airports. I like staying on the ground.” He then asked my name.

Station stop in Memphis on the City of New Orleans Amtrak train.

Seatmate Chris stretches his legs during a station stop in Memphis on the City of New Orleans Amtrak train.

His phone rang and I heard him say “Thank the Lord, Amen” several times. He took to calling me “Miss Mary.” A baby fussed several seats back. Chris tucked a white nylon skullcap around his head. He unfolded a blanket and closed his eyes. Clouds covered the moon.

Most of the people seated in this car were going to Mississippi. I knew this because as the conductor punched tickets he asked each passenger to confirm their destination. I read for a while then flipped up the leg rest beneath my seat. I placed my blow-up neck cushion against the window as a pillow and fell asleep. What I was anticipating I wouldn’t see until mid-day the next day. Continue reading