Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Don't be that guy.

As we pull into Chicago Union station 4 hours late, James (the band, not the brother in law) joins us on our homeward bound lament. The kids want to go home, right now, too. Our train (The Cardinal, heading from Chicago to NYC-- and way less classy than the Empire Builder from which we'd just disembarked) had left town 2 hours ago. We'd known this since ND-- so it was not a surprise to anyone. I will say, while a missed connection is a missed connection, Amtrak's approach is significantly more helpful than United's has ever been. Regardless, getting on a bus with a bunch of selfish folks took the wind out of our traveling sails.

What I appreciated about this experience was Amtrak was a part of the solution to our missed connection. They had a charter bus to take us to meet the train at a further stop. I will say that is gave me some pause that a bus leaving 2-3 hours later can catch up with a train, but perhaps that's part of the problem with these delays. We had to bring a group to Indianapolis (which was their final destination) and then the rest of us to meet the train in Cinncinati. Sounds like an excellent plan, and in truth, it was. Finding Passenger Services in Chicago Union Station was a bit difficult, and then they had their own Line From Hell form. One very pushy elderly gentleman jumped the line and just hollered at the woman who had come to get the group heading to Flint "What about those of us meeting train 50?" She told us to wait 'over there'; we did as we were told. She soon led us towards the waiting bus, and those of us sure we were going to Cinci boarded. Another pushy gentleman started asking the driver about food. He was obviously taken aback-- he was used to people wanting to rush out and make their connection, not planning rest stops. As we waited for the Indy folks plans to get sorted out and for checked luggage to find us, he kept asking. "I have one question. What about food? I haven't had anything since noontime." I kept quiet about the fact that I thought he was carrying enough calories that he'd make it through 'til morning. "We're not just freight here. We're people." The poor beleagured Amtrak lady headed back inside to figure that out, and the nice gentleman next to me who was trying to make his own connection to Charlestown, WV watched his journey lengthen as we waited for Mr. Selfish 2013 to hoard more empty calories for himself.  There are times I am very embarrassed by my fellow citizens.

The bus driver convinced Mr. S that he could go to the vending machines in Indy-- and took off before he had a chance to cause more delays. We went by White Sox park on our way out of Chicago, and I woke up as we drove next to Indiapolis Colts stadium. Dave and the kids got hot dogs off the roller at the bus/train station, but I passed, on multiple principals. I don't eat anything off a convenience store roller, and I wouldn't do anything to make that guy in the front think he was right. We rolled towards I70 and Cincinnati and continued our journey east.

As I type this, both Bono and I are stuck in a moment that we can't get out of. The train is pulled over outside of Hinton, WV for no obvious reason. I'm sure we have to wait for some coal cars to cede the tracks to us. Rail travel in America could be so much better than it is, but we value personal cars over mass transport. The American Dream, with it's personal possessions placed prominently on the pedestal for all to see. With any luck, the 4 hour layover scheduled for DC will be sufficient for us to get a real meal before we hop another train and ride the rails north. I've been thinking about the woman from NJ who was on that first flight of our journey. Her sigh was audible from the other side of the terminal. "This is the worst day of my life. The whole day is wasted on this one flight. I'm never flying to Maine again." She sounded like she could have been neighbors with Tony Soprano. Entitled Americans don't only ride trains.

It's much harder to take pictures around here. We've got to be in the heart of the Appalachians, and tall trees and foliage line the tracks. We passed through the Big Bend Tunnel, built from 1930-32 and near the Grand Bend Tunnel (1870-72). This is the site of the famed showdown between John Henry and the steam engine. There's a statue to good ole JH, although I missed that shot, too. The history here is sadder than out West; John Henry and coal mining towns don't have the happy ending that Lewis and Clark bring. The poverty is here, though. That part is truth in advertising.

I keep comparing flying and train travel. When we landed late in Newark 2 weeks ago, I turned my phone on to get a automated text from United saying we might miss our connection, and if we did we were confirmed on the same flight out the next day. As I ran to try to hold the plane at the gate, no one would help me. "There are monitors for you to check arrivals and departures." We ran through the airport, and slid on by the skin of our teeth. That is as close to The Amazing Race as I ever hope to come (although I'm sure there would be a PA to deal with my luggage, and I'd be dressed for running through airports. Poor Cate was in her flippy floppys-- not good race wear.) Last night, although the help was a bit chaotic, it was there. The conductors were sincere in their apologies-- on both trains. The current conductor apologized to each customer as he checked our tickets, and brought us all a free snack pack and water "I know you didn't get a chance for dinner." I don't know if the poor woman in Chicago contacted him or not, but I did eat that food, and was thankful for the kindness. I don't think it was enough consolation for the poor man behind us, though, who was definitely going to miss his connecting bus. I had the Mike's Hard saved from MT and Dave had the River Bend Ale: we toasted across the isle, and I fell asleep to Ben telling me about how early man learned about planting gardens (strawberries grew out of the latrines, and they figured out that the seeds must be getting placed there), about why stone fruit seeds contain cyanide (the bitterness would cause animals to drop the seeds further from the mother tree), and how horses became domesticated (man took the place of the head female horse). He is absorbing the material in that massive tome.

We passed by Camp Cupcake a few towns back, where Martha Stewart spent some time a few years back. The inmates waved as we passed by them at work in their garden. In White Sulphur Springs, there's a underground fortress and escape route for the President in case DC is attacked. On the other side of the tracks from the famous golf course is a dilapidated shack. I have to wonder if White Sulphur Springs was named to highlight its distinction from plain old Sulphur Springs. I've moved onto reading March, also by Geraldine Brooks, and I'm not sure I'll be able to stomach much of it. Chapter 2 ends with a savage beating of a female slave who asks a young Mr. March (Jo and the other Little Women's father) to break the law and teach a young slave child her letters. We're into Virginia now, and this is a part of our history that makes me sick to my stomach. While my self-absorbed fellow travelers have put their own needs above others, at least they haven't beat anyone bloody. It is small consolation-- on both counts.

The kids are both asleep again-- they couldn't sleep much last night. Readjusting to EDT and getting ready for school will be difficult this year. I may need to have them pull an all-nighter with no daytime naps to get them back on schedule. Air travel messes with my system, but it seems riding the rails isn't as good for them as it is for me. It's hard to look out these windows without getting motion sick, so perhaps it's good their circadian rhythms are a mess. They aren't complaining, which is a testament to who they are as people. They have learned how to be unhappy but not miserable, and how to endure something that is unpleasant but won't destroy them. I am always proud to be seen with them, and to be recognized as their mom. They will never be that sighing woman from NJ, or that selfish guy in Chicago. Fred and Cowboy Mouth have reminded them a lot that nothing ever goes as planed so get your head out of you hands. Oh yes, my kids will never be that guy. And with that knowledge, I can let go of Mr. Selfish, and Mrs. New Jersey, and be glad to be alive.

Stepped Onto a Steam Train.

Traveling by train is a different sort of experience. Time stops, in a lot of ways. When a freight train is coming in the other direction, we pull of and cede the tracks. Sometimes you come in through the downtown, although most times you skirt the edge. Some stops are within 30 minutes of each other, and some are hours apart. We're going to be about 4 hours late arriving into Chicago, which means we will miss our connection to DC. The trains are not equipped with WiFi, so I have no way of figuring out an alternate plan. The Conductors are telling us, however, that they know about all of us missing connections and we'll be greeted on the platform with a personalized rescheduled itiniary. So, for another 8 hours, we just sit back and listen to the wheels rolling along the tracks, and trust we'll have a plan when we arrive. I'm supposed to be at a training on Friday, and I'm holding out hope we'll be back by then, but there's nothing I can do about it now, so I'm trying to let it go.

As I mentioned yesterday, part of the reason for this trip is to avoid air travel. I have learned to hate air travel. It really is a hurry up and wait sort of experience.-- you have to get to your airport a good 90 minutes early, to have enough time to take off your shoes and empty your pockets and unpack half your stuff to get through security. We walked onto the train without having to show our tickets-- just gave the conductor our names and he pointed us in the right direction. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk on with our open coffees; there are people with full coolers to avoid concessions altogether. I am also finding the staff has a different demeanor-- they are truly here to serve us, and the apologies about the delays have felt sincere. "Amtrak will do everything they can to get you to your destination." The conductor told us they've sent vans to get passengers to their next connection, paid for bus tickets, or put them up in a hotel. "No one will sleep in Union Station tonight-- unless that is your choice to do so." What a welcome change from United texting to tell me my flight from Portland might not make the connection in Newark, and we were confirmed for a flight leaving 24 hours later. Granted, flying is a lot faster, if you make all of your connections-- and on journeys this long, probably even if you have to wait in an airport for 24 hours. But the airlines know that, and they don't really seem to care if you're comfortable, or scared, or if your plans are all shot to hell because of the delays.

The passengers are different as well. I've seen quite a few elderly folk, as well as families with young kids. I have seen quite a few people who need walkers or canes to get around. Lack of balance is a concern, but I'm sure getting around in airports is an even more daunting thought. There's a guy who just rode his bike from Virginia to Seattle, and a younger couple traveling all around the country by rail. The dining car has family seating, so if you're not in a party of 4, you get seated with someone else to roundout the table. Our sleeper seats have already paid for meals; Cate and I aren't big breakfast eaters, so just Dave and Ben took advantage of that, and Warrior eating Dave wasn't hungry for lunch, so he sat that out. It's an interesting way to meet your fellow passengers-- and way more fun than being crammed into airplane seats together. There's a family of what I'm assuming to be Mennonites, dressed in black from head to toe, except for the white bonnet. I finished reading Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks, and found myself wondering if the religious guilt poured over Bethia and other 17th century Pilgrims living in the Massacheusetts Bay Colony has lessended for these woman any. When they boarded, I knew instantly I'd never have encountered them on a plane, a thought that had never crossed my mind before. Suddenly my Lutheran upbringing doesn't seem so strict. My mom was raised Missouri Synod, which is less strict than Wisconsin Synod. Looking around me, I see that to be true.

Big Sky Country is behind us; rolling hillsides and more prominent tree lines in front. We crossed the Mighty Mississippi and are into LaCrosse, WI. It's an old brick station, and makes me wish for platform 9 3/4. Most of the stations don't have WiFi-- I did sneak on for a quick minute in Red Wing, MN, and almost got a guest connection from Winona State University-- too bad for them, because I would have recommended them as a school for someone to check out-- but I'm really doing ok without it. I only wish I had it to look up info about all the places we pass through. or to find where we are on a map. There are bars near every train station-- casinos, too, back in Montana and North Dakota. Restaurants, too, but the bars face prominently. Wild Light is singing to me about their hometown in New Hampshire. The country side looks like they have 4 generations of families with personal histories. The train runs on a diagonal across the town streets, showing lots of dead ends and hidden spots. I saw the old part of a major route coming out of Winona, MN-- the road ran below the current road and is only visible from the tracks. You see things you wouldn't otherwise see, and have the time to think about them. There are more hidden to the road family dumps, people with junkyards that rival the one back at home. I wonder if those fences are discussed at town meetings, or if being evident only by the tracks shields the owners from the ire of their neighbors? Tomah, WI, and the mennonite family is here to greet their weary travelers. It is like a scene out of Witness, and I am a hapless voeyor.

The kids have spent the day in the roomette, Ben reading his book (he was making progress when I saw him at lunch) and Cate on her iPod, both dozing. We're not supposed to have rooms for the rest of the trip home, so I'm glad they're taking advantage of it. Dave has been next to me, when he hasn't gotten restless and gone exploring. I doubt we'll travel by train again with all 4 of us-- the rooms are so expensive, and it's a long way to go in coach, but I could see Dave and I traveling this way when it's just the two of us. I don't like the "guilty until proved innocent" part of air travel. With that thought, I realize I am becoming my mother. Is train travel less crazy than using a camper as your primary vehicle? I guess only time will tell.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

iTunes is playing me You Better Be Home Soon (Crowded House) as I cross Marias Pass on the Empire Builder. I'm back on the right side of the Continental Divide, in Blackfeet country, thinking about Lewis and Clark in 1806 and how lucky they were to hook up with Sacajawea. From here, they still had-- oh, I don't know-- 2 years to get back home? We're running parallel to US Rt 2, which will take me back to my home and so many of the people I can't live without. I am sitting in a comfortable seat with my husband beside me, my cell phone and laptop plugged in and my camera on my lap. It may be a 4 day journey home, but I have it pretty good, and I know it.

We are road warriors. I  made reference earlier to riding shotgun til I die, but that really describes our marriage. I have the map, he has the wheel. He's a bit more adventurous, and I make sure everything has enough of a schedule that we don't have a mess to clean up when we get back home. Together we make a pretty solid pair. We've done some crazy things-- driving to a wedding in VA and back in a weekend comes to mind-- but as long as we're together I know we'll be ok.

Our first extended trip as a couple was to the 1996 Olympics. At that point, my sister and brother in law lived outside of Atlanta, so we drove down to see them, and the Games. On the way we stopped at my other sister's in Chapel Hill (and had some Hush Puppies that I still think about). We also drove the Delmarva Peninsula. Learn from our experience-- never take the scenic route when you're too tired to see straight. We had to pull into a parking lot and sleep for a few hours to be able to get to Dunwoody in one piece. Sadly, driving without stopping is a recurring theme of ours: our fathers are both responsible for that, but I digress. I made a mix tape for that drive-- remember those? Our trip home took us through the Blue Ridge Parkway, but again, I was too tired to appreciate it. I fell asleep and missed all the views, and Dave couldn't appreciate them and drive so we got back on 95N. The Mountains Won Again.

My sister enrolled in a Ph.D program at University of New Mexico in Alberquerque. That was our first experience flying with preschoolers. And carseats. They were troopers. Truth be told, so were we. The kids were 2 and 4. They each had their adorable backpacks (ladybug and Cookie Monster) filled with coloring books, crayons, lollipops, and M&Ms. It takes 3 planes to get from MHT to ABQ; I guess all I'm sayin' is you haven't lived until you've changed terminals with toddlers, carseats, and carryons. We were the first siblings to visit them, so they treated us to the full tour: Petroglyph Park, Natural History Museum, a ride on the Sante Fe railroad, Sandia Crest-- I feel like we saw just about everything except a Georgia O'Keefe instalation. And a George R. R. Martin fangirl experience, but I hadn't read The Game of Thrones yet-- maybe he hadn't even published it yet?-- so I had no clue what I was missing. That was also the trip I first rode on Route 66-- and when I decided that someday Dave and I would drive the whole thing. I don't know what it is about old roads, but I am fascinated by them. It's probably the same part of me that is thrilled to be on this train; I'm heading down the same path that brought our society to where it is today. We are all connected to the bigger picture.

The kids first rock concert kicked off our next trip. My uncle-- Mr. Fabulous himself-- organized a family reunion in Palm Springs, CA, where he lived. Rufus Wainwright, Guster, and Ben Folds were playing an all ages triple bill outside of Manchester, NH and that seemed as good a way as any to kick off another cross country plane trip with those darned carseats. By the San Fransisco/Humbolt County trip, we didn't need the seats. Meeting my brother when he lived in Chicago was easy; direct route, and the kids were old pros at this game--almost as easy as our annual drives to Cape Cod to see Dave's aunt. Through it all, we adapted to new situations, experiencing different parts of the country while catching up with family.

As of yet, the only times we've crossed international borders are also the only times we've not been going to visit anyone we know. For our tenth anniversary, we took the ferry from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. I was shocked at how motion sick I got. We rented a cabin and drove around the island, doing what we do best. For our fifteenth, we went back to Canada-- Quebec City, this time-- to see Arcade Fire and check out the old city. Live music and travel? An obvious choice.

My sister and family have finally settled in Montana, which means we're no longer cramming in the highlights when we go visit, but we have a laundry list of sites to check out in future years. (I think it also means they're done having children-- they had one in each location since Atlanta-- but that might just be a coincidence.) The first time we went out was after my youngest nephew was born. Dave was starting his Master's program through Montana State University; he'd discovered it and thought it had a pretty good program, and then my sister told us she'd accepted a job there. Fate does often wave her guiding hand our way. Anyhow, we drove out that time (thank you to those of you still reading now-- your encouragement of the first road journal is the reason this one exists), which really was an adventure in and of itself. And yes, we did stop to sleep; 500 miles a day is about all we can handle... and is definitely the outer reaches of what should be legal. We flew for the second trip-- Dave had to present his thesis, and that was enough pressure for one journey. Cate and I had our own MotherGirl last winter when we babysat the boys (As a side note, the difference between a 12 year old daughter and a 13 year old one is sort of like the difference between driving across country and flying. Holy moly, I'm out of my league here.) but that trip was about being together, not seeing the sights. Come to think of it, that's what all these trips have been about. Huh...

A few years ago, we arranged to meet my sister and family in DC. They'd come East to see his family, and wanted to see the Capital as well. Meeting up with them and seeing DC? Easy call right there. We've made it a goal to get the cousins together once a year, and for the most part we've been successful. It was easier flying home from that trip than the last Bozeman trip. We were grounded (in DC) due to late afternoon thunderstorms, and the autogenerated message from United told us we were rebooked for the following night, same time, same place...  and we knew the chances of THAT flight getting canceled were equally as high. We waited in a Line From Hell for 2+hours-- I felt for those ground crew members. There were approximately 4 planes of 100 passengers needing help-- and half the customers had originally booked on Continental before they got bought out. It didn't take a genius to recognize those 2 employees needed some help. We eventually got to a live human at 1-800-United and got that leg of our journey refunded, because we'd long since decided we were driving home. Remember before when I said we were known for crazy road warrior status? I present to you the penultimate example. We'd gotten up at 4 AM, Mountain time, and left DC at 11 PM Eastern. The plan was for me to nap, then I'd take the wheel and let Dave sleep, but I really should have known he agreed only so I'd go to sleep and not spend time trying to convince him to close his eyes. Ten hours later and after a 3 hour nap at my parents house, we returned the rental car to Portland and picked up our one checked bag (which HAD made it to PWM the day before. Go figure.) We were crossing the Canton/Peru line when the United autobot called to say the flight was canceled due to weather. It is nice to know that sometimes the stupid choice is still the right one. And to know we are officially too old to rock 'n roll all night-- but we can still pull it off when absolutely necessary.

Obviously, that experience factored into this Amtrak one. For this leg of the journey, we have 1 roomette, which is about the same size as the coach seats we also have, but contains 2 bunks and a door. The sleeper and family berths were way out of our price range, and when we booked last November all that was left was 1 roomette, which fits 2. As in barely. I was actually kind of happy with that situation-- it meant I didn't have to feel cheap about wanting a coach seat-- I was taking one for the team instead. We split down party lines, as usual-- Dave and Ben are technically in the room while Cate and I are holding down coach. Did I mention how out of touch I am with 13 year old girls? Have that girl be a first class introvert, and it didn't take long to realize she would be spending most of her waking hours in said room. Dave spent most of Montana wandering about, getting a feel for the different cars and what options exist. I haven't seen him for the last few stops, though, so I hope he's drifted off to sleep. He barely sleeps when we travel, so any chance he gets to sleep is a gift. Ben is enjoying the historical side of this trip as much as me ... well, not as much as, but more so than not. He's been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel for his summer homework (ok, needing to read, but he's reading now, Mr. Rowley) and it talks about the author's time in Montana as a young man. Again Fate waves at us as she passes by. (Ok, maybe this time it's Fate's cousin Coincidence waving, but still....)

The view out the windows is not completely what I expected. Yes, there are sweeping plains, hay bales and old homesteads mixed in with new farms. But there is also poverty. When the train tracks run behind knolls, what you see from the train side is very different than what you see from even the dirt road. Old vehicles from I can't tell how many decades ago rot in the fields, alongside trailers that I swear will blow away in the next big wind. I knew this would be part of the reality as we went through the reservations, but I guess I wasn't expecting it to be so stark. As I said in the beginning of this tale of wandering, I am very lucky. Not only do I have family spread all over the country, but I have the resources to go and visit them. Sure, we'll feel some pinch from this trip-- it's really been 2 trips; one to Bozeman to visit family and one to Glacier to visit the national park we love. But we'll still eat for the next few months, and eat pretty well at that. Our bills are all paid, and a broken water pipe or dead fridge won't render us living in the camper in the back yard. It is sobering to realize many people don't have it anywhere near as good as we do. Ben Folds sings to me his agreement.

Which is part of the reason we've taken the kids all over this country. We've wanted them to see different areas, for sure, to both appreciate what we have at home as well as figure out where they want to start their adult lives, but we've really wanted them to see how other people live. To understand what it is to live in a place where rain is a blessing. To see the people who grow most of our nation's food. To see the people who can afford to travel by plane, or train, or bus-- or not at all. There are some people who have never seen snow, and some people who have never seen skyscrapers-- or hayfields. When you have a sense of who else is out there, sharing oxygen and carbon with you, it's easier to know who you are, and what you value.

As we near the MT/ND border, we're crossing into the storm that's been raging off to our left. I watched farmers cut hay in the sun out one window, and lightening strike in the distance out the other. The rain is louder than I anticipated as well-- the windows are more flexible than you'd think.  It seems a fitting way to leave Mountain time and head into Central. For the record, I'll be very happy if I never see a twister in live time-- and from the looks of these clouds, that wish is not a guarantee. If the price of not being in a twister's way is not capturing a lightening strike with pixels, then that's a price I'll happily pay.

This wasn't our first trip up to Glacier National Park. We went 2 years ago, as a celebration for Dave earning his Master's Degree. It's about a 5 hour drive from my sister's house: that time we borrowed their second car and drove up and back in a 3 day time span. We stumbled into Two Medicine valley as our first entrance into Glacier. It's at the outer edge of Blackfoot country, and Sinopah and Rising Wolf mountains called to us before we even knew their names. I'm not sure I'll ever live anywhere but Maine, but we'll spend more time in and around Two Medicine: it is simultaneously calming and energizing. Our full day in the park was for a Red Bus tour, which would take us from East Glacier across the Going to the Sun road and back along US Route 2. We'd booked that months earlier, too, and had no way of knowing they were experiencing record snowfall. The GttS is usually open in late June, but that year record snowfall kept the road closed until July 13... and we were there July 5. We still got a wonderful tour, but it left crossing the GttS on the list.

It is no longer on the list, at least not in the same sort of way. This time we rented a car, and planned 3 full days in the park. West Glacier was our entrance point this trip-- if you're going to call someplace your favorite national park, you probably should check out the whole park. And so we did. We swam in Lake McDonald (warmer than the Atlantic at Nauset Beach, but not much) at the Apgar boat launch, drove out Route 2 (no goats at Goat Lick this time, but our falls were still there), said hello to Sinopah and headed up MT 49 towards Canada and Waterton Lake. Cate's car sickness took over, however; after we stopped for lunch at Two Sisters Diner, outside Babb, we decided to just come back through St. Mary over GttS. We were rewarded for putting her needs above our own (and probably for bringing the much needed rain the day before) by a lengthy big horn sheep sighting near Logan Pass. They grazed for a good 15 minutes, and even sparred for us for a moment. This Red Bus tour was also impacted by said rain-- we still went, but couldn't see anything but the impressive Russian laborers stonework as a barrier between the road and the mountainside. Waterton via the Red Bus next trip? Yea, that's what I was thinking too.

Which, once again, brings us back here, being rocked by this Eastbound No. 8 train. As we sat down together for dinner-- I am so thankful our meager coach seats allow us to dine with our only-slightly-posher-roomette family-- the sun came back out. We're trained rainbow finders, all of us. We saw it begin to take shape; within minutes, we were treated to the full bow, stretching out on the plains beside us. Other diners noticed eventually. The sky was a deep blue-gray, and there were still some distant lightening bolts around. My camera was back at my seat, so I cannot share it's brilliance with you. Rainbows as we're headed home are a recurring theme, and as the train wound it's way across the tracks we crossed underneath. I hope some really talented photographer was out there and captured what I knew was happening. Somewhere under the rainbow is home, and tonight we are homeward bound.