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.








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.









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






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

Sri Lanka Scenic Train Ride is a Bargain

Passenger train tunnel in Sri LankaI have been traveling beyond Amtrak routes and outside of the USA this summer. Most recently I traveled to Sri Lanka, an island country south of India. It operates the highest broad guage railway (5 ½ feet wide) in the world. While I spent most of the time traveling in a vehicle, I had the privilege of riding on the Main Line from Nanu-Oya to Haputale in the hill country. The train traverses through tea plantations, forested mountains and valleys and lots of tunnels. The view was spectacular.

I was traveling with the Venerable Bhante Sujatha, a Buddhist monk, and five fellow Americans. We purchased second-class reserved seats a few days in advance at the Peradeniya station and boarded at Nanu-Oya. At the station, there was a “Foreigners’ Rest Room.” Waiting there was the biggest group of Caucasians, Japanese and Chinese people I had seen since being in Sri Lanka. They did not remain confined to this room. Most were on the platform watching for and anticipating the train’s arrival.

The blue painted, made-in-China train was being led by a diesel engine as it pulled up to the station. The first thing I noticed about the train was how clean its body was, not marred by any graffiti. Upon boarding, I noticed the open windows. A breeze of fresh air flowed through the cars allowing passengers a direct link with the landscape. The doorways remained opened as well. The car’s interior was spotless and the blue vinyl covered seats were comfortable. On this train some seats remained empty.

I took the only single seat ticket we had purchased and sat down amongst a group of college kids from Germany. I got a blank look from the girl sitting in seat 34. When I showed her my ticket number she moved out of the seat. The students easily switched from speaking in German to English when I asked where they were headed. They were in Sri Lanka sightseeing, traveling from city to city by train. Gazing out the window I felt relief in not having to dodge my eyes from oncoming traffic or hold my breath every time our driver decided to pass the vehicle ahead of us.

After a few minutes, I realized I was in the wrong car. I was in the unreserved second-class car with a reserved seat ticket. I moved up a car and found my seat number.

Train view of Sri Lanka hill countryI sat next to a semi-retired  Sri Lankan businessman named Kyma. He was wearing a checkered shirt, pants and glasses. I mention pants because traditional garments for Sri Lankan men is sarongs. Kyma was friendly and knowledgeable about the train route. His work at a furniture manufacturer required him to travel twice a month. He spoke English with a heavy accent. Contrary to what is found in many countries, in Sri Lanka it is the older people who are more likely to speak English. Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) was under British rule until 1948 and remained a British dominion until 1972. Only 10 percent of the people speak English fluently. The majority of people (75%) speak Sinhala. In the northern region, Tamil is spoken.

For his travel, Kyma chooses to take the train from Colombo to Peradeniya to Haputale. “It is relaxing,” he said. Glad to hear I was curious about the route, he narrated points of interest along the way. “We are nearing the highest elevation…This is the dairy region…Another tunnel up ahead.” In fact, there are 46 tunnels on the Main Line. When we stopped next to another train, Kyma saw a friend of his and had a quick chat.

Passengers on Sri Lanka train

Kyma had worked previously as a flight staffer but was now glad to travel by land rather than by air. With a smile he said, “The trains often do not run on time.” He chooses second-class reserved seat tickets for his trips. “You made a good ticket choice,” he said. “Second class reserved is the best way to go. First class you can’t open the windows. It’s air conditioned with TVs but who needs that. I like the fresh air and the view of the landscape.” He was right. I liked feeling the air too and taking pictures without the obstruction of a windowpane.

The drama of the countryside could not be replicated on a TV screen. At the high elevation the mountains appeared as layers of distant shadows. Around a bend the tracks pivoted against a hillside and a steep valley drop. The tunnels blacked out the landscape and in me created a sense of wonder about who dug through this rock to lay this track.

Sri Lanka passenger trainA conductor came by and checked my ticket. Other than that, it felt like the people’s train. There was joy and camaraderie.  Two excited young women were lifting their heads and waving their arms from the open doorways as if they were free for the first time. Passengers moved easily from different sides of the aisle to view the wonders of the countryside. A young Sri Lankan man walked through the car balancing a box filled with tea and roti (flatbread). He and his customers exchanged broad smiles. The safety and security of open doors and windows did not seem a consideration at all.

The clickety clack sound of the train rolling towards its destination was that of a mechanical device rather than the quiet engine of a vehicle. We arrived at Pattipola station, which reaches 6,225 feet above sea level. It’s the highest station stop within the 900-mile government owned railway network. This vista on top of the world dwarfed the train and us. What a small space we occupy in everyday life.

Kyma and I bid farewell at the Haputale station in the Badulla District in the Uva Province. The cost of my 25-mile scenic train ride was 600.00 rupees or approximately $4.00 in USA currency. What a bargain!











Relax in the Train Lounge Car

Washington DC to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29

Lounge car on the Capitol LimitedWhen you’ve been on a train for many hours the Lounge car offers a get-away. During the day, people take in the sites through the large glass windows that arch up to the train’s roof. If you don’t like your seatmate or want a window seat, the Lounge car is the place to go. Retired couples play cards. Families with young children spread out game pieces. College kids lean back with their knees tucked to their chests listening to music through their ear buds. Photographers click their cameras. I didn’t sense a natural way to interact with the people in the Lounge car that day. With invoices and a checkbook laid out in front of her, I wouldn’t interrupt a woman who was busy paying her bills.

At night however, the Lounge car takes on a different feel. These travelers are often on a long trip or disembarking in the wee hours of the morning. There was a chance to be social. I sat down next to Josie who traveled by train from Lawrence, Kansas to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She was instantly friendly, telling me about her trip. “The train is the most direct route and easiest way for me to get to the Appalachian Trail.” Her brunette hair hung past her middle-aged shoulders. A slender, hiker body indicated she was a serious outdoorswoman. She was traveling solo.

“My favorite part of train travel is the people I meet,” she said.  (I should have followed up by asking about the people she has met, but missed that opportunity.) Josie added several more reasons for why train travel suits her. “You can get up and walk around. The staff is very friendly and personable. No security checks or hassle with airports. And you can bring your own food on the train.”

What she didn’t like about train travel was sleeping in a single seat. “But I was ready for a day of hiking when I got off,” she said. Heading back to Kansas, she will meet up with her husband. They plan to tour some monasteries before she goes back to work as a home health aide.

Robert was sitting near Josie. He chimed in after hearing my questions. He had boarded a train in Atlanta bound for Washington DC, where he had a six-hour layover, before heading on to Chicago. He shared his memories of riding The City of New Orleans train as a child with his mother and siblings from Jackson Mississippi to Chicago.

For this trip, the question for Robert was should he take the bus or the train? He answered himself.

“Bus is too hectic. The train is laid back. You can meet people. It’s a better ride.” He’s retired now from his job as a welder at Caterpillar. In Chicago he will pick up a car he bought – a 1991 Acura Legend with 95,000 miles on it. “That’s too good to pass up,” he said with a laugh.

I asked him, “What’s next?” With a warm mellow smile he said, “Whatever the world has to offer.”

A young guy with a guitar wearing army fatigues was sitting between Josie and Robert. His hair was cropped in a crew cut. He played several sweet country western and folk songs that matched the mood of a day winding down.



Sleeping on the trainTime doesn’t matter much while on a passenger train, but it was late. I walked slowly back to my seat balancing my stride through two darkened cars. I stared at the bodies at rest. Their slumber postures showed mouths opened yet silent, heads bowed as if in prayer, arms around each other or dangling in the aisle. A woman’s head rested across her seat into the aisle as if ready for a guillotine. There are no seat belts on trains, so whatever position works is the one a tired passenger will take.

I turned the light above my seat on. As if reading by starlight, I finished a few chapters of Paul Theroux’s book The Deep South. Ready for sleep, I unfolded my lavender-colored pashmina and wrapped it around my feet and up to my shoulders. It acts as my bed sheet, bringing comfort and sweet dreams my way.



Three Men and a Lady Have Breakfast on the Train

San Antonio to Chicago, Texas Eagle, Train No. 22

Train dining carThe cars in the parking lot had their headlights on when I boarded the train. With a new day rising, I was hungry for a train breakfast. The Texas Eagle has a Sightseer Lounge where passengers can get snacks, sandwiches and drinks. Nothing there appealed to me. Most of the food was wrapped in plastic. The train also has a full meal service dining car. When I arrived for breakfast every table was empty except for one, where three men sat. They were on the younger side of middle age. A service attendant escorted me to this table. One of the men had already received his meal and was eating when I sat down. They did not know each other. Each was traveling solo.

Some passengers complain about this arrangement of being seated with strangers. Not me. Sharing a meal brings people together – people who may not have the chance or inclination to sit down with each other in any other circumstance. I liken it to making up a foursome in golf. It’s usually a pleasant time on the golf course with whomever you are joined to play with. The same holds true for meals on a train.

Passenger train traveler

Dining car breakfast with Curt, who grew up in Texas.

The man sitting across from me was wearing a cap with the letters USMC on it. He was a former marine traveling to Bloomington, Illinois, where he lives with his grandmother. His name is Curt. He said he traveled around the world while in the marines, but never mentioned any of the places he had been. Of his grandmother he said, “I’m trying to keep her out of a Home.”

He drove his grandmother’s car down to Texas to give it to his niece. “She’s studying archeology. That girl is smart. She’s going to be somebody some day.” His gloating over his niece made me think he had no children of his own. When I asked what he did for a living he mumbled, “Different jobs. Remodeling.” He appeared quiet for someone who had been a marine and grew up in Texas.

Sitting next to Curt was Steve. He works in a photography lab in Kansas City, Missouri. He was returning from a conference at the Gonzales Center in San Antonio. He flew there but chose to take the train back. “I was able to walk from conference to the Amtrak station so it worked out well,” he said.

Our conversation turned to politics and government. Steve said he was leaning towards voting for Ted Cruz. (This was before Cruz dropped out of the 2016 Presidential race.) “There are just too many laws inhibiting our free

Rail passenger Steve

Steve was taking the train back to Missouri after attending a conference.

dom and blocking business growth,” he complained. Curt nodded his head in agreement.

The man sitting beside me spoke up. “Your political system confuses me,” he said with a pronounced British accent. “I mean what do delegates do? Isn’t it supposed to be one person, one vote?” The Americans shook their heads. His name is Peter. He was taking the train to Chicago to catch a flight back to London.

“Why did you choose Texas to travel to?” I asked Peter.

“I’ve been vacationing at the Silverleaf Hill Country Resort for four weeks. It’s 50 miles from the Amtrak station but I’ve got my bike with me and rode the distance.”

“Four weeks vacation!” Steve exclaimed. “I didn’t take any vacation last year.”

“I don’t understand that either,” Peter said. “I was talking with a taxi driver here and he told me he didn’t have the money to travel to Europe. I told him to travel during the off season, as I do.”

Peter was not a jetsetter. He was a warehouse worker who bought a timeshare vacation in Indonesia through RCI, a worldwide exchange network. He trades off his time to visit places such as Texas. He packs his bike in a suitcase and brings it with him. “I’m sure to get where I need to go. I ride my bike 15 miles to work everyday. It keeps me in shape for my trips,” he said.

Train traveler Peter

Peter packed his bike on a train to tour Texas.

Our train breakfast arrived at a staggered pace with no aroma to whet our appetites. The service attendant never spoke. He slid the plates in front us one at a time. As we ate we talked about politics, property taxes, crime and healthcare. Peter seemed satisfied with the system he lived and worked under. Maybe he was being polite. Curt and Steve were disgruntled. “Property taxes are too high. It’s no way to fund schools,” said Curt. “Healthcare is still too expensive,” said Steve. We didn’t bother to discuss the food. My eggs were tasteless. The croissant was good. The crew lingered a few seats away.

The service attendant handed only me a bill. The three men had sleeper car accommodations so their meals were included in the ticket price. After our conversation ended, we headed in different directions. I wouldn’t see them again.

When back in my seat I felt the mood in America was changing. Who knows what the American dream is anymore? I looked outside as we passed a row of small wood houses with a pickup truck parked in every other driveway. A church steeple towered up like an exclamation point to the sky. Shiny red tractors under a tent waited for buyers.




My Return Train Trip With Two Romani Gypsies

San Antonio to Chicago, Texas Eagle, Train No. 22
Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

I like places where my senses feel at ease. The lovely, historic Menger Hotel served as a respite while I visited San Antonio during its annual Fiesta celebration. The parades, street food, people and music were invigorating. I relished the museums and sitting along the San Antonio River outside of the Riverwalk. Near the Blue Star Arts district turtles rested on the river’s banks. Black birds cawed in the trees that offered shade from the hot sun.

Train travel is like that for me. Whatever is going on elsewhere, I feel suspended in time and at peace while inside this tubular vessel. That’s how my return train trip to Chicago began. When I learned that the two men who sat down near me were Romani Gypsies, my pensive mood was jolted by curiosity.

They wandered into the car carrying bags and blankets. They hesitated about which seats to sit in. “This car is cooler. Let’s stay in here,” the man with a mustache said to the other. He took the seat in front of me and the other man in a faded blue jean jacket sat across from him. They looked to be in their early fifties with bronzed skin, dark eyes and silver sideburns.

Their slapstick actions and petty arguments with each other made me think of the jesters in an opera. But my thoughts about them changed. They dropped their belongings, some of which were carried in black garbage bags, onto the vacant seats and floor. Once they were settled in, they spoke to each other in a language I was not familiar with. I tried hard to decipher it.

Rambling on the rails

The man in the blue jean jacket started playing music out loud from his cell phone. The other turned his phone on to a radio talk show. When the Conductor came by, he indicated to the men that they should use earphones. They turned the volume down, but when the Conductor passed they raised it again. They continued broadcasting their selected radio stations as if it were some sort of competition between the two of them.

A phone rang. I heard the mustached man seated in front of me say in English, “Give me a month. You’ll have the money. I’m buying that red truck. This train is much better than the bus. Saved some money. I will be in St. Paul via Chicago on Monday. We may go on to Iowa then back to Florida because of my lungs.” He ended the conversation saying, “I try to be a good Christian, but the obstacles keep coming.”

Texas freight trainWe had a twenty-minute layover at a station stop so I went in to buy some food. I was nearing the front of a long line when I saw the two men. I learned the mustached man’s name is Michael. Upon his request, I bought them a pack of smokes with a $10 bill they gave me. “You can keep the change and buy yourself a cup of coffee,” Michael said. I gave him the change. He was born in Waco, Texas. He and his cousin, Allen, were traveling to Minnesota to find blacktop work. Allen was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and seemed lost without Michael there to make decisions. I wasn’t sure where they were living but they got on the train in Ft. Worth. I asked them what language they were speaking.

“Romani Gypsy,” Michael said.

“We’re the only nation without a flag,” said Allen.

Romani people flag

International flag of the Romani people.

“No,” Michael corrected him. “We got a flag.” He told me the Romani Gypsies’ country of

origin is India. I quickly looked it up on Wikipedia and Michael was right about the flag and the country of origin. An estimated one million Romani people live in the United States.

Leaving, yet holding the past

We talked more when we returned to the train. Allen admitted to being a womanizer in the past. He called his first wife “a good woman.” A silver chain bracelet was wrapped around his wrist. He read off and on from the Bible. When in the morning Allen couldn’t find his Bible, he began to panic. He questioned each passenger on whether they had seen it.

The Conductor entered the car and Allen pleaded with him for help. The conductor asked him, “Did you have anything in it?’

“My whole life,” Allen replied. Minutes later he found it beneath the seat behind him and opened it to read. I think the Bible reading marked the beginning of his day even while on the train.

Texas Eagle train travel passengers

Michael and Allen on the Texas Eagle

Allen slept a lot but it was Michael who seemed tired. Tired of questions, tired of trying, tired of chasing the next buck. “The reason why we’re poor,” he blurted, “is because we’re trying to do what’s right.” As we approached Chicago he allowed me to take their picture but only if he could take my picture as well.

During the 32-hour train trip from San Antonio to Chicago, it was Allen who gave me a language lesson in Romani Gypsy.

Sar son means how are you.” I repeated the words and he smiled.

Kushti means good.”

“Kusthti,” I said.

Pakvora – beautiful.”

Allen’s choice of words told me that for all the hardships he and Michael were facing, they remained optimistic. Another thing we had in common – they both love the British singer, Adele.

Seeing Texas By Train With a Blind Man

Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Amtrak station at Marshall, Texas

Marshall, Texas train station

Morning began with a suggestive gray light. Then the sun streaked the horizon with turquoise, crimson and carrot-colored orange. Having passed through parts of Missouri and Arkansas at night, we were entering the state of Texas. Pastures for grazing, bounded by fences, had replaced open Midwest cropland.

I sipped a two-dollar cup of coffee and listened as the conductor made a good morning announcement: “Welcome to those who boarded overnight. A safety instruction card is available at your seat describing emergency exits. Shoes must be worn. Escort your children at all times. The rest rooms are in the lower level. No smoking. Next stop, Marshall, Texas.”

My hunch that everything would be big in Texas was immediately put to rest as we passed the Piney Woods of East Texas. The young woman seated behind me complained to her boyfriend, “These pine trees are skinny, not like the ones we have in Michigan.”

This is what Texas looked like to me from the train – Head Hunters taxidermy, fireworks stores, green pastures, Route 80, Valero gas station, Coastal hay for sale, BBQ, peach tree orchards, Southwestern Christian College.

In the dining car I was seated with a man named Ed. He couldn’t see any of what Texas looked like because he lost his eyesight at the age of nine. He was with his Golden Retriever service dog and a woman named Bo, who was his wife.  His dog laid down under the table on my feet. “I hope he isn’t bothering you.” A dog owner myself I assured him, “Not at all.”

Texas telephone towersEd’s sunglasses wrapped around his eyes past his temples. They were not dark glasses, but gray colored. “When I called Amtrak the first woman I talked with said I could travel with my dog. The next woman said she wasn’t sure, but when I got here they let me on.”

The couple had traveled by train from Cleveland to San Antonio then back to Austin. From there they were making their way to Tucson. Friends had told them to come visit in the spring before the weather got too hot. They talked of their other trips – to Europe and the Middle East. I was curious and asked Ed, “So much of travel is visual. How do you describe where you’ve been?”

“I think visually,” he said. “I love to design stuff. When traveling I might recollect what it felt like. There’s a spatial quality to places. I remember certain smells and sounds, including music. I know if the people are friendly or not.“

A second marriage for both of them, they exchanged wedding vows in Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I asked.

“Because of its role in establishing a training school for guide dogs,” Ed said. Bo talked about the beauty of the country and the people.

Blind man riding the rails

Ed and Bo on the Texas Eagle

I asked if I could take their picture. The man who had no idea what I looked like, only what I sounded like, removed his sunglasses and posed with the same vanity we all do. Bo smiled broadly; confident she had found a gem of a man.

I went back to my seat and shut my eyes. I wanted to experience the train ride in the way Ed might. The rumble beneath my seat sounded like two people on a treadmill running in unison. Above me a whisper of air circulated. My shoulders rested between the wings of the chair. Its polyester fabric pin-pricked my skin. I heard the crinkling sound of a package being opened and then smelled a whiff of potato chips. A lawyer talked on his phone incessantly.

I put my ear buds on and listened to Van Morrison sing Bright Side of the Road, then Bonnie Raitt, I Will Not Be Broken, and The Lumineers singing Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. My eyes-closed session ended with Sheryl Crow and Sting singing Always on Your Side. At will, my eyes opened to the sights of Texas. And it was amazing.


Passing the St. Louis Gateway Arch in Spring

Texas Eagle Passenger BloomingtonThe train was nearly full on a springtime Tuesday. When my previous seatmate got off in Bloomington, Sarah took his place. She was heading to St Louis to visit her husband who landed an IT contract job there. A middle-aged woman with a friendly smile, Sarah remains in my mind as a mystery. She emigrated to the U.S. from Greece when she was a young woman. “We were not exposed to American influences the way kids are now. They listen to American music. Watch American movies. Eat American food.”

Her two boys are grown but she didn’t have any interest in working outside the home. She took a retail job for a short while but didn’t like standing on her feet all day. “I have been sad for 10 years,” she said. The reasons for her sad life piled up like a stack of blocks. She contradicted herself often. Her husband was everything to her but he was also absent to her. Her mother in law was cruel to her, but also defended her. One son loved her but the other did not. She was jealous of her husband’s friends. “I don’t have any friends,” she said.

Sarah was self-conscious about her accent and her face. I barely noticed her accent and admired her big round eyes and pulled-back hair. She positioned a lime green neck cushion against the seat and closed her eyes. “The sound of trains reminds me of Agatha Christie novels,” she said. “I like trains. Driving makes me nervous.” The mood got lighter when we approached the city of St. Louis and its Gateway Arch.


Gateway Arch in St. Louis

St. Louis Gateway Arch at dusk.

We arrived in St. Louis at dusk. During the 40-minute layover, I disembarked the train and stood on the platform watching the city fade into the night. Sitting on the west bank of the Mississippi River was the Gateway Arch, the tallest stainless steel monument in the world. It celebrates the explorers who opened up the western territory – Thomas Jefferson, Livingston and Monroe, and Lewis and Clark. It was different from other architectural icons in big cities. It did not point to the sky or span a body of water. It arched from and to the ground.

Shortly after pulling out of St. Louis I heard a couple that looked to be in their early fifties, talking. The wife said in a stilted voice, “Who is winning the Cardinals baseball game tonight?” And Siri, Apple iPhone’s personal voice assistant, responded in her robotic monotone, “The Atlanta Braves are winning 4 to 3 in the bottom of the fifth inning.” A minute later, her husband asked, “Who is pitching for the Cardinals?” Siri gave him the answer. Who says three’s a crowd?

Amtrak Texas Eagle view of Gateway Arch on Mississippi River

Gateway Arch on the bank of Mississippi River

Amtrak Texas Eagle in St. Louis

Amtrak Texas Eagle arrives in St. Louis at dusk