A Musician and Self-Published Author Prefers Rail

The Cardinal, Train No. 50

The giggling girls in the Café car are hairdressers from Charleston, West Virginia heading to the International Beauty Show in New York City. “What do you want to learn while there?” I ask.

“Just everything,” they squeal. “We want to see everything.”

Cafe car view from Amtrak Cardinal train

Orland in the Cafe car on the Cardinal heading to Charlottesville, Virginia.

A man to the left of me is gazing out the window but turns to see what the commotion is about. I throw a “Hello” his way and he catches it. He smiles, but waits a few minutes before talking with me. He is probably registering in his mind whether or not it is safe to talk with me. I am safe. I’m not going to judge him, or hush him, or tell him he’s ugly (he is not). On the train there isn’t much to lose during these chance encounters unless you are a very sensitive person. The upside is train travel camaraderie.

He’s a retired civil engineer who is spending his post work life developing his creative side. “I like playing music, writing songs and painting,” he says. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.” Most people follow up with a ‘What do you write?’ question but he says: “Oh, wait here. I have something.” He gets up and leaves. I sip my coffee and wonder what he is up to. In a few minutes he returns and slides a black soft cover book across the café car table. Ugh, a self-published author. I try not to judge.

“I’ve written three books. My brother has written six,” he says. That slide across the table has become familiar to me. The authors don’t ask a dime for their books. They just shove it towards you as if it were something as measly as a business card. Continue reading

A Military Vet and His Dog Ride the Rails

The Cardinal, Train No. 50

A few seats up from me sits Don and his border terrier service dog. He dips his nose down repeatedly to kiss the dog’s forehead. Don has maybe reached the age of 30. He tells me he is an army veteran who got his body blown up by an IED in Afghanistan in 2004. “It broke 18 of my bones. I have PTSD. When I get overexcited my dog calms me down,” he says while stroking the dog’s back. Don is traveling from Denver through Virginia to New York. “I can’t drive anymore. But I like trains. I love trains. I love riding trains,” he says in a rhythm that mimics the train’s rolling wheels.

Outside, the rushing white water of the New River in West Virginia meets a dam and flattens out to a still pool.

The Healer Finds Joy

The Cardinal, Train No. 50
Amtrak Cardinal train enters the New River Gorge

View of the New River Gorge from Amtrak Cardinal train

While on the train I witness the seniority of the natural world. We pass through portions of the millions-of-years-old Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the New River Gorge and the Shenandoah Valley.

The New River is the second oldest river on the planet according to volunteer train narrator Al LaDriere. He asks: “Who knows what other characteristic makes this river different?”

“It flows north,” says my seatmate, Oksana. She’s right. She lived in this area since arriving from the Ukraine as a child. Now she lives in Durango, Colorado with her second husband. She is returning to Charlottesville to visit with her two boys, ages 18 and 20.

“I never would have guessed that about the river,” I tell her.

We get up out of our seats and cross the aisle for a better view of the ancient river’s rushing water. Oksana’s physical features remind me of a pencil. A pixie haircut surrounds her bony face and angular nose. Her eyes are expressive and penetrating. She tells me her first husband died. Her parents died. Her younger brother died. All of these encounters with death for a woman still in her thirties seemed as unlikely as a river flowing north.

Oksana’s life moved in another direction. She remarried and changed careers from being an antiques dealer to becoming a shamanic healer. She dedicates her time to helping people recover from trauma or the loss of a loved one. She has a studio in Durango and offers one-on-one long distance help via Skype.

Most of the sites on the Cardinal train route are familiar ground for Oksana but they are new to me. We enjoy being in this moment together, on the crest of mountains, watching the river snake through the passes, the train trusting its path.

Prison Guard Returns Home on Narrated Cardinal Train Route

Cincinnati to Charlottesville, VA, The Cardinal, Train No. 50
Coach seats on Cardinal train

Coach seats on the Cardinal train

The man sitting across the aisle from me unloads a large orange duffle bag from his back onto the train’s overhead baggage rack. I know I’ve met someone from a different region when I hear him ask in a soft, southern accent: ”Do you need any help with your bag, ma’am?” I acknowledge his kind gesture with a warm smile and a shake of the head, no. I travel light.

He looks as though he could toss my bag overhead with one arm. His strong build and gentle manner reminds me of how nice men can be. His beard is shabby in an outdoorsman kind of way. His brown hair holds a slight wave. He’s dressed casually in faded jeans and a blue sweatshirt.

“That’s quite a load to be carrying on your back,” I say.

“I’ve been working and camping at Yellowstone National Park for 78 days. I’m returning home to Alderson, West Virginia.” That’s all he says before he begins viewing several music websites on a laptop.

“Are you a musician?”

“No. I’m retired from federal law enforcement.”

“What does federal law enforcement mean?”

“I worked at the federal prison in Alderson for six years and before that twenty some years at the federal penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida.”

“You were a prison guard?”

“Yes.”

“I bet you have some stories to tell.” Continue reading

Gifts From a Train Traveling Grandma

Chicago to Cincinnati, The Cardinal, Train No. 50

At Chicago’s Union Station an elderly lady wearing a short fleece coat, long purple dress and hat catches my eye. A chain from her neck holds a circular pendant that bobs at her stomach. Her blue canvas backpack shifts her shoulders forward. Other ladies sit with their right hands clenched around the extended handles of their luggage. They lift themselves from the blue vinyl chairs without releasing their hooked fists. Forming a trail of clicking bags they move toward the boarding train.

Amtrak passengers boarding in Chicago

Passengers board the Cardinal train at Chicago’s Union Station

I follow the woman wearing the purple dress. She becomes my seatmate. Her name is Laurie. Traveling to Cincinnati, she’s finishing the last leg of an international trip that began in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she now lives. Cincinnati is home to some of her family and a house she wants to sell.

In age and manner, she is grandmotherly. Yet her spirit is free. “YOLO,” she says of her adventurous move to Tel Aviv. “You only live once.”

She rummages through the bags at her feet. “Security kept stopping me at the airports. Pulling my things out. They even kept some of them. Two of my bags were lost in Madrid. I don’t know when I will get them back.” Her bags meet the Amtrak carry-on rules. Passengers are allowed two personal items weighing less than 25 pounds and two carry-on bags weighing less than 50 pounds. Anything else has to be checked for a fee.

From one of her bags she lifts two over-the-door metal hooks. “I can’t use these in Israel because the doors are thicker.” She pulls out a large roll of toilet paper. “Never want to be without this,” she explains. Next, is a plastic grocery bag holder that allows the carrier to hook several bags on to it. Her documents are covered in dark plastic sleeves. I understand why security officials might be suspicious. There are more items mashed up in her bags. She thinks them clever and useful for her family here. Some of the smaller pieces are gift wrapped as presents for her nine grandchildren.

I believe I’ve met my first train traveling hoarder grandma.

Grandma's on the train with gifts

Grandma’s gifts

She opens the lid of a white Styrofoam food container and begins eating Chinese food with a silver fork. A half hour later she pulls out another Styrofoam container with brisket and cabbage. She cuts it with a plastic knife.

Before retiring, Laurie worked as a registered nurse in public health.

“I grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois,” she says after learning I am from the Chicago area. Park Ridge is the suburb where Hillary Clinton was raised. Laurie looks to be around Hillary’s age.

“Did you know Hillary Clinton?”

“Yes, I did. We went to Maine South High School together. She was very smart. Hung around with all the smart kids.”

Laurie has four grown children who she says “are in a competition to see who disagrees with me more. One tried to get me committed.” The two things she and her ex-husband of 30 years agree on: “We don’t like the person our son married and we don’t like the person our daughter married.”

The train is scheduled to arrive in Cincinnati at 3:17a.m. but it is running late. She’s glad. “I told whoever picks me up that I would take them out to breakfast.”

A weary traveler, she leans her head against the train window and falls asleep. I ponder why Laurie seems obsessed with the belongings in her carry-on bags yet is willing to break ties with her house in Cincinnati and the USA.

When I reach to turn the light on above my seat to read I find it doesn’t work. I ask the conductor if there is another seat I can occupy and he accommodates me. I move several rows up in the same car. The landscape outside the train window is completely dark for a long while. Where are the towns and city lights? My eyelids get droopy. It’s 9:55pm. Goodnight world, wherever I am.

Over Night Train Travel With the Amish

Chicago to Pittsburgh, Capitol Limited, Train No. 30

An Amish girl on board an Amtrak train

An Amish girl on board an Amtrak train

Traveling from Chicago’s Union Station to Pittsburgh I board the Capitol Limited, scheduled to leave at 6:40pm. And it does. I find my assigned seat, number 45, near a window and settle in. My seatmate is eating a raspberry colored applesauce with a plastic spoon. A white cap covers her head and ties beneath her chin. A long apron dress reaches her black shoes. She appears to be in her early 30s. Wire rim glasses balance on her slightly pointed nose. Faint pink cheeks complement her pale complexion. She reminds me of a young Meryl Streep. She is not wearing a wedding ring, an observation I am keen on since having removed mine just days ago. I stick to traveler questions as we begin talking.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask her.

“California. We’ve been on the train since Monday,” she says politely. It is Thursday.

“What were you doing in California?”

“Well,” she hesitates and turns her head to the elderly couple sitting across the aisle from us. “My father needed a surgery. We don’t have health insurance. This was the best way.”Continue reading

Fate Takes a Turn on the Train

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

Interior of Washington DC Union Station

Interior of Washington DC Union Station

On the train platform in Washington DC, after disembarking the Silver Meteor from Orlando, I meet Jimmy. He’s nodding his head in different directions looking uncertain about which way to go.

“Are you riding on to Chicago?” I ask as we head toward the beautifully renovated Washington Union Station.

“Yes. I’m not sure what to do during this 9-hour layover,” he says. Jimmy is tall with a lean build, dark hair and eyes, bushy brows and a square chin. He’s 26 years old with a ready smile. I’m drawn to his exuberance.
“Do you want to see the sights with me?” He quickly accepts my invitation. This layover is a vacation day for me. I love Washington. The National Mall with all of its free museums is steps away from the train station. Jimmy begins to assess the bags he is carrying. A tilt in his posture, gesticulating hands, and a red fleece blanket with white hearts hanging from his backpack all tell me he is gay, in the broadest definition of that word. While rolling a carry-on bag, he balances the backpack over his shoulders with great dexterity.Continue reading

A Dose of Train Drama

Orlando to Washington DC, Silver Meteor, Train No. 98

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

Amtrak Silver Meteor train arriving at the Orlando, Florida station.

On a hot sunny afternoon, two short whistles sound and the train lurches forward from the Orlando, Florida train station. A bulky woman with chin length blonde hair reaches over my lap while apologizing for leaving her things scattered between the seats. Cigarette smoke perfumes her canary yellow peasant blouse. She tells me her name is Sherry.

Sherry’s neck is branded with a tattoo bearing a man’s name. Three stars circle it. Other tattoos streak down her arms like rivers with boat docks. I’m wearing my conference clothes – a pencil skirt and boat-neck shirt. Small gold hoop earrings dangle from my ears.

Sometimes when on a train asking a question may lead to a complicated and prolonged account of life events. You have to be ready to listen.

“Are you going to Washington?” I ask.

“New York,” she says. “I got on at Sebring, Florida. I was visiting my 22-year old daughter. She’s having trouble with her second pregnancy. I’ve been there since early July. I have a son who is also 22, but they’re not twins. He was born nine months after his sister. My two youngest are girls, 15 and 6. They live with their father and me. I have one grandchild who is two years old. I live in a small town where the biggest attraction is the live lobster tank at the grocery store.”Continue reading

Volleying for a Train Seat

Pittsburgh to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29

Pittsburgh Amtrak station entrance

Pittsburgh Amtrak station entrance

When visiting a city, I look for hotels near Amtrak stations that offer transportation perks such as free shuttle service to and from the rail station. My stay at The Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center on Lytton Avenue included such an amenity. While I was impressed with the city of Pittsburgh, the Amtrak station is rather grungy. It feels dirty. There are no windows in its subterranean location beneath the historic Penn Central station. It’s now known as The Pennsylvanian which houses condos and ground floor commercial space.

Before I board the midnight train to Chicago people here move slowly, unsteadily in the dank surroundings. The Amtrak locomotive sounds a long blast, which means get on board now. I walk up the stairwell in the last car of the train. Most of the passengers are sleeping. I discover a large middle-aged woman sitting in my seat, awake.

Bridge view from train

Bridge view from train

“I have seat number 50,” I say in a hushed tone. From my pocket, I show her the blue piece of paper where the conductor wrote my seat number.

“I have number 52 and someone is sitting in my seat so I’m staying in this seat,” she says with confidence. I remain unrattled and volley for the seat. Turning to the elderly woman sitting in seat 52 I ask, “Do you have the blue piece of paper the conductor gave you?”

“Yes, I do. Seat 52.” But she doesn’t show me the piece of paper. I move down the car to see if there are any vacant seats. A conductor approaches.

“Someone is in my seat,” I tell him, feeling like a six-year old on a school bus. He asks the woman sitting in my seat for her ticket. He begins trying to reshuffle passengers but they are staying put.

“People have tickets but they sit wherever they want,” he says. I am confused. Do I have a reserved seat in Coach or not? My ticket says so. Lowering his chin into his collar the conductor appears powerless. Apparently, on this train there is nothing that disallows passengers from sitting anywhere they want.Continue reading

Mixing Business With Pleasure During Train Travel

East Lansing Intermodal Center

The new Amtrak station in East Lansing, Michigan

Sunday morning passengers are lining up in East Lansing, Michigan to board the Blue Water train heading to Chicago. It arrives 10 minutes early but waits until its 8:45am departure time. Like many train routes this one has a segment alongside a river. I see a ferryboat frozen in the water. It reminds me of while working at the Illinois Central Gulf railroad. We hired photographers to take aerial shots from a helicopter whenever barges were frozen in the Mississippi River. Not far from the river’s banks would be an ICG freight train rolling on its tracks. The newswire services would distribute the dramatic photos of the stuck barges to newspapers and television stations in big and small cities. The idea of course was to show the resilience of rail transportation.

The view on the Blue Water train is of ice fishing tents scattered across frozen lakes. I see a herd of deer trotting in the snow along a creek bed. Cemeteries on rolling hills give way to grain silos. The W post tells the engineer to blow the train’s whistle as it approaches a grade crossing. Seconds later I hear the whistle sounding like a whale wailing. Perhaps the cold is morphing its sound. Outside the rows of dormant crops are sheep, cows and horses grazing in snow-covered pastures. At times like this I love being a solo traveler.

Then I see him. One of the speakers at a conference I just attended is seated a few rows up from me. I casually walk down the aisle, stop, and ask him if he is who I think he is.

“Yes, that’s me.” He’s kind of excited that someone on the train recognizes him. I explain who I am – a writer curious about why people take the train.

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” He puts down his phone and moves two books from his lap. I have his attention.Continue reading