Author Archives: Greg Wilson

About Greg Wilson

A software engineer/Mobile app development evangelist/Technical writer who enjoys books, Disneyland, and the slow pace and backyard vistas you only get when traveling by train.

Part IX: Heading Home

Note: I took a lot of notes for this post, but never actually wrote it up. Here, for posterity’s sake, is my final installment.

December 20, 2014

Saturday, December 18, I awoke early in my sumptous suite at the Doubletree in Chicago, excited to get going. I was heading home! Although the train wasn’t leaving until 2:20 that afternoon, I dressed, had breakfast, and then promptly checked out. A short taxi ride later, I was standing in front Chicago’s Union Station, bags in hand. I was quite early—it was only about 10:00 or so in the morning—but I was eager to get home, and didn’t mind the wait. Plus, I figured I could explore the station, which would kill some time.

If you’ve never seen Chicago’s train station, you’ll be surprised at its outward appearance. For what has to be the busiest station in the Amtrak system, the entrances (there are several) are rather unassuming doors that appear to take you into an office building of some sort. There are a few small signs that say “Amtrak”, but no visible trains:

IMG_0017_6

But my taxi had dropped me off here, and the few signs I saw indicated that I might be in the right place. Upon entering the doors I was immediately faced with escalators and stairs that took me down to the station.

IMG_0016_9

“Down” explains why the entrance is so nondescript, and why it looks like you are simply entering an office building. What you see from the outside is an office building. The entire station—trains and all—is below ground level. But it turns out that the station sits right against the Chicago River, so if you walk across one of the many bridges to the other side and then look back, you’ll see some of the tracks and the trains since (presumably to help keep the air down there free of diesel fumes) the side of the train station between ground level and the river’s water level is open to the outside world. As in New York, putting the trains below ground level not only allows the trains to come and go without interfering with the cars and pedestrians above, but also allows passengers to board the trains in relative comfort, regardless of the weather outside. The extent to which the trains are underground in Chicago is quite impressive: when departing, the train travels for quite some time before actually emerging out into the open air.

IMG_0022_7

By now I was well up on looking for the “first class” lounge for sleeper passengers. The Metropolitan Lounge in the Chicago station is a particularly nice one, with free coffee and sodas, comfortable chairs, free Wi-Fi, TVs, and an attended baggage room where you can dump your bags if you are there for a while and want to explore the station—or beyond—unencumbered, as I did. After passing through lounge’s the rather understated automatic doors I found myself facing a check-in counter. I presented my ticket, and the attendant registered my presence and informed me that when it was time to go they would announce the train and then walk us out to it. I was then directed to the baggage room, where I was able to hand off my suitcase and overcoat until it was time for the train to leave.

With nearly four hours until my train was to depart, I proceeded to explore the station. I first went to learn what the Amtrak experience is like for coach passengers. I was pleased to see that the waiting areas are very nice: very much on par with what you find in a modern airport, with reasonably comfortable seating and a nearby counter where you can check in and get information. As at an airport, the station is organized into a series of “gates”, one per track, with excellent signage indicating where and when each train is going. Through the glass walls and doors you can easily see your train. When boarding begins, the glass doors to the track open, and you simply walk alongside the train to your assigned car.

One of the Amtrak gates in Chicago.

After prowling around the regular boarding gates, I went up a level and found the ticket counters, a shop or two, and a couple of fast-food restaurants. I then spied an escalator that I assumed took me to the street level, and rode it up. At the top, I walked forward through a short hallway and suddenly found myself here:

IMG_0020

I was awestruck. This is what I had expected the train station to look like. Polished marble floors, high ceilings, beautiful plasterwork, and long pew-like wooden seats. Wondering where I was (and when! Had I traveled in time?), I explored the room, thinking that perhaps some trains went out of the other, more modern station, and some from here. But I was quickly disabused of that notion; my explorations ultimately revealed that this—what was once the old Union Station—is now no more than a glorified waiting room.

As I made my exploration of the old station, I found a set of well-worn marble steps that led up to a set of exterior doors. Because I wanted to figure out just where I was, I exited through the doors and looked around. Peering up at the building from which I had just emerged, I saw letters that spelled out “Union Station”. Directly across the street was the backside of the newer station; a backside that looked even less like a train station than the front entrance had.

IMG_0018_7

Having confirmed my suspicion that I was in the old station, I re-entered it and made my way back through the tunnel—which takes you beneath the street in the above picture—to the new one. I then returned to the Metropolitan Lounge, retrieved my bag and coat (the baggage room is only for storage; you still have to retrieve your bags and carry them out to the train yourself), and settled in to surf the Internet and just generally while away the remaining hours until my train was ready to depart.

Forty minutes or so before the train was due to depart we were instructed to gather at a closed door that I had not previously noticed. An Amtrak employee then opened the door and escorted us out along a walkway that circumnavigated the lounge and ultimately led to our train’s platform. I kept near the front of the pack, as is my nature, and was the first to board my particular sleeping car. Tony, our car steward, greeted me at the entrance to the car and directed me to my compartment. Still carrying my bag and coat—traveling alone, I had plenty of room in my roomette for my bag, so I didn’t need to deposit it on the downstairs luggage rack as I often do—I headed upstairs and settled in to my assigned compartment.

Because the California Zephyr—the train I was on—originates in Chicago, it had been sitting there for some time and had been serviced much earlier. Consequently Amtrak allows the sleeping car passengers to board quite early (forty minutes or so, in our case) allowing them to then focus on getting the coach passengers to their assigned seats. I therefore had quite some time to settle in to my roomette before we got underway, which we did right at the appointed time.

That trip, which was my first on the California Zephyr, made it one of my favorite trains. In a nutshell, you get on in Chicago at around 2:00 in the afternoon. You have dinner while cruising through Iowa, and are in bed by Nebraska. The next morning you wake up in Denver. You then climb over the Rockies and follow the Colorado River from its origin to the base of the mountains on the west side. Dinner finds you in Utah, and you are in bed before pulling in to Salt Lake City. The next morning you awaken just before arriving in Reno, and you get to enjoy breakfast while ascending the Sierras on the eastern side. Then you make your way down the western Sierras and by around 2:00 you are in Sacramento. By 4:00 pm you are at the end of the line in Emeryville  (where you can connect via bus to San Francisco). In short, you see all the interesting stuff throughout your day (the Rockies, the Sierras) and sleep through all the flat, boring bits (such as eastern Nevada). And the reverse journey works just as well, in case you are considering riding it east to Chicago.

End-to-end, the Zephyr normally takes about 50 hours. In my case the train lost time due first to a medical emergency—we had to stop and meet an ambulance, who evacuated a passenger from one of the coach cars—and then, because we were off schedule, we lost additional time from having to hold at various points for freight trains, who had the right-of-way. All told, we lost an hour and a half on that trip, which wasn’t terribly bad considering the overall length of the journey.

On this trip most of our delays occurred prior to Denver, so that rather than arriving at around 7:30 am we instead got there closer to 8:30. By then I had already had breakfast, so I elected to spend our time in Denver (it is a “service stop” where they service the train; the train stops there for more than 45 minutes) off the train. I ran into the station and out the front door, giving me a good look at the front of the station and the surrounding environs. I was a bit surprised to realize that Coors Field—where the Colorado Rockies play baseball—is right next to the station. The station itself is a beautiful old imposing building, with high arched windows, a large clock over the front, and a large sign framing the clock that proclaimed “Union Station” and “Travel by Train”. Mindful of my limited time I returned to the station and checked out the gift shop. I was delighted to find a set of three spiral-bound books titled “A Guidebook to Amtrak’s California Zephyr”; they are a milepost-by-milepost description of the entire route from Chicago to San Francisco. I bought them, naturally, and throughout the rest of the journey I would consult them whenever I wanted to know more about what I was seeing outside my compartment window.

The front entrance to Denver's Union Station.

The trip over the Rockies from Denver was spectacular. The train does a long, slow climb up the eastern side, navigating a series of switchbacks that present you with tremendous views of the city below. When we approached the very top, I got to see one of the wonders of the Amtrak system: the Moffat Tunnel. This is a 6.2 mile-long tunnel that pierces the very tip of the Rockies. It actually has a giant curtain on the eastern side; once the train has passed into the tunnel the curtain closes and huge blowers turn on to push the train’s exhaust out the western end of the tunnel. The conductor came on the intercom system and warned everyone to stay put for the entire 15-minute traversal of the tunnel; they don’t want you opening the doors between the train cars, which would let in some of the exhaust still lingering within the tunnel.

About an hour after going through the Moffat Tunnel we pulled in to the little town of Glenwood Springs. This being a “smoke stop” (one long enough for smokers to descend from the train and have a desperately needed cigarette), I was able to get off the train and study the rather incongruous sight that lay across the river from me: a huge, classic old hotel from which a pair of blue and green tubes seemed to emerge and make their way in zig-zag fashion to a steaming swimming pool. It turns out that there is a natural hot spring here, and back in 1888 it was developed into a modern bathing pool—the largest in the world, apparently. In 1893 the Hotel Colorado, which is the building I could see behind the pool, was built. And sometime not too long ago, I’m guessing, the blue and green tubes—which in fact are fully-enclosed water slides—were built.

IMG_0044_4

The train didn’t linger too long in Glenwood Springs, so after getting a couple of quick pictures I climbed back into my car and we resumed our journey. From Glenwood we followed the Colorado River, and after an hour or two one of the unique aspects of this journey was pointed out to me for the first time: it seems to be tradition that the rafters on the river (and many of the campers along the riverbank) “moon” the trains as they go by. A rather strange sight amongst all the natural beauty that are the Rockies…

The next morning, as we pulled into Reno, I was interested to see that Amtrak was digging a huge ditch immediately adjacent to, and parallel to, the tracks. I then noted that the track we were on ran right down the middle of a busy street, and that whenever the train came through all traffic simply had to stop. In this day and age this isn’t acceptable, however, so soon the tracks will be rerouted; no longer will the Zephyr run down the middle of the street in Reno.

IMG_0001_11

After Reno, we headed up into the Sierras. Here we followed the Truckee river for a good part of the journey, and in a couple of spots I could see some of the old flumes once used by the gold miners. Shortly after Truckee we hit the “Stanford Curve”: an extremely tight horseshoe curve at the back of Coldstream Canyon. Once past the curve we continued up and then, as in the Rockies, passed through a tunnel to get from the east side of the Sierras to the west. This tunnel is less impressive (no curtain, no blowers, and a bit less than two miles long) but it emerges on the west side right underneath one of Sugar Bowl Resort’s ski lifts. I did enjoy knowing that I was finally getting to ride on the rails that I’ve seen countless times from the car as we drove I-80 to and from Lake Tahoe. Upon approaching one of the famous “snow sheds” that are visible from the highway, I ran to the observation car to catch this photo of the train just entering one of these wooden tunnels:

IMG_0009_10

From Truckee to Emeryville (my final stop!) takes about six and a half hours; there are several stops in between (in particular, Sacramento, which is a somewhat longer stop). By this point, however, with three weeks of traveling behind me, with six-plus hours of traveling through very familiar territory still to go, and knowing that my wife was eagerly waiting for me in Emeryville, I almost couldn’t stand it. I just wanted to be home! The fact that we were an hour and a half behind schedule didn’t help, either. But of course we got there in the end. I had never been so eager to get off a train before! My wife was right alongside the train to greet me, and after a long, loving embrace she made it clear that I’d never be doing something like this by myself again (but she was more than willing to go along on any future trips!). I didn’t really have any objections to that, since I felt the same way. Doing this alone was an interesting experiment, but I’m a happily married man for a reason: I actually like spending time with my wife and family and really miss them when I am not with them.

I set out on my sabbatical with two main goals: to recharge my mental and emotional batteries, and to reflect on the direction in which my professional life was heading. The recharging certainly worked: I arrived home refreshed and eager to reengage with both my personal and professional lives. As for the reflection? I had a lot of time to sit and think about things on the train, and I certainly spent a lot of that time thinking about my job. Mentally retracing my career path so far made it clear that the path I had taken was for the most part motivated more for financial reasons than for ones related to job satisfaction. Not that I was terribly unhappy with my current job, or anything. I certainly liked the company I was working for, and really liked the people with whom I was working. And I had wound up in a niche profession—writing technical documentation for software developers creating mobile apps—that made me very much in demand. But I had started my career as a software developer, and I missed doing that. As well, I had long been dreaming about writing fiction and screenplays. And I really wanted to see if I could make it on my own, working independently rather than for “the man.”

Since I couldn’t afford to quit my job, the natural course would have been for me to start down one of these new paths on the side—in my spare time. But what little spare time I had, I wanted to spend with my family. My kids were growing, and soon they’d be off to college. I didn’t want to spend the precious few years I had with them instead sitting alone, trying to write the Great American Novel. Thus, I decided to stay the course for the time being, continuing down the career track that I was currently on until such time as my kids were through with college. I also resolved to focus on my personal finances, saving money and reducing expenses wherever I reasonably could. Hopefully by the time my kids were out of college and on their own I’d then be able to quit my job and freely explore new directions. I was deferring my dreams, but it was only for a relatively short while. My trip may not have provided any earth-shattering insights, but it did what a sabbatical is supposed to do: it affirmed my current direction and gave me a plan for my future. In my case, a plan that would, at some point in the not-too-distant future, allow me to follow my heart, rather than just my head.

Planning takes time, and it takes thought. Life moves at such a rapid pace these days that we rarely get those quiet intervals we need to really think about what’s going on around us. My trip on Amtrak gave me a number of such intervals. Although some people reject the train out of hand due to the amount of time it takes to get somewhere, my experience makes me feel the opposite: Amtrak is not only a great way to see the country and meet other people, it also gives you that rare gift: time to relax and think. Give Amtrak a try, and keep an open mind. You’ll be glad you did.

Advertisements

Part VIII: Chicago

Note: I took a lot of notes for this post, but never actually wrote it up. Here, for posterity’s sake, is my writeup on my stay in Chicago.

December 18, 2014

The Lake Shore Limited heads north from New York City, initially following the Hudson River. It heads towards Albany at which point the train picks up a few cars that originated in Boston. Together the combined train then heads on towards Rochester and Erie, PA before heading west towards Cleveland, Toledo, South Bend, and, finally, Chicago. In the early evening our train stopped briefly in Schenectady NY, which is where my wife was born (and which she doesn’t remember; the family moved west when she was two years old and she hasn’t been back). Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough on the draw to get a good photo of the place. Oops…

We were scheduled to arrive in Chicago around 8:55 the next morning, but according to our porter, Herman, thanks to snow and a broken rail we were running about three hours late. Of course, by now that didn’t bother me. Compared to being fourteen hours late to Orlando, three hours was nothing. And in reality it was a good thing: by the time I got to my hotel my room was ready (presumably it wouldn’t have been ready three hours earlier).

Upon disembarking I immediately headed to the taxi stand and took a cab to my hotel. I wasn’t all that familiar with Chicago, but knew that my hotel, which was close to Northwestern University, was too far from the train station to walk to. When arranging the trip I had booked in at another Doubletree: the Doubletree Guest Suites Chicago-Downtown. For $129 per night I got a “King Deluxe Suite” which was indeed deluxe: it had a huge living room with a TV, and an even larger bedroom with a king sized bed and a second TV. I almost cried when I saw the bathroom: it was probably as large as my entire room in New York City (for which I had paid $120 per night). By this point in my trip I was exhausted, and I had no more clean clothes. Here was a chance to luxuriate in relative comfort and to wash up some socks, underwear, and shirts (in the tub; I had a nice sized bathtub!) and prepare for the final journey home.

Of course, I had planned for Chicago to be more than just a waypoint between New York City and home: it is a destination in its own right. I arrived on Wednesday morning and wasn’t scheduled to leave until midday on Saturday. Thus, I had about 72 hours to explore the city and perhaps do some last-minute shopping for those back home.

That first day, after checking in and spending some time resting in my room, I took a brief, exploratory walk around the immediate area with the primary goal of finding an ATM where I could replenish my dwindling cash supply. I stepped outside the hotel that afternoon, and brrrr—was it ever cold! Fortunately, my London Fog coat, with the lining zipped in, and gloves were exactly what I needed. I actually wore my overcoat over my sport coat; it was cold enough that I needed the extra layer. They don’t call Chicago “the Windy City” for nothing, and on a cold day like I was experiencing the wind chill makes things significantly worse (okay, while the term “Windy City” may not have originated from the winds coming off the lake, these days that is how most people interpret it). Fortunately, I only had to deal with cold and wind: it was neither snowing nor raining, so I didn’t have to play Mary Poppins in those windy conditions.

It wasn’t too long before I found an ATM, so I decided to keep going and get the lay of the land. I wandered a lot farther than I had originally planned, going a dozen or so blocks to the Chicago River which I then followed for a ways before turning back towards “home.” As I walked I was pleased to see sights such as the Tribune building and the Sears Tower: sights that said “Chicago” to me.

That night I ate in the hotel restaurant (“Mrs Parks Tavern“). I was a bit surprised to see that the restaurant had a smoking section! After New York I thought maybe smoking had been banned in all major US cities, but I guess that the midwest still has some catching up to do in this area. In any case, the food was fine, and although I had my usual book with me to help pass the time, I didn’t end up reading. You see, there were six or so people dining at the table behind me who were apparently part of a film crew. I could hear them blocking shots for a scene that was to take place in the interior of a submarine, perhaps as part of a documentary. In any case, I couldn’t help but overhear, and that kept me interested enough that I didn’t need my book that night. After dinner I had a rather ordinary evening washing clothing and hanging it to dry over the tub, and watching a movie on the bedroom TV.

The next day I was full of plans. First up, the Field Museum. In case you aren’t aware, it is one of the truly great natural history museums, and one of the largest in the world. It is located on Lake Michigan, west of downtown Chicago, alongside the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium (which was my next goal). The museum complex was far enough from my hotel that I needed to take a taxi from my hotel. The taxi dropped me off right in front of the Field Museum; later I walked to the planetarium and then from there took a taxi back to the hotel.

At the Field Museum, I was suitably impressed by “Sue”, the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton anywhere:

IMG_0001_10

She’s standing right out in the main lobby area; you can’t miss her. The skeleton is very impressive, and nearly complete. Missing bones have been recreated using a dark material, so you can easily see which parts are real and which aren’t. On the skeleton the skull is a replica, but they do have the actual skull: it is in a nearby case where you can examine it more closely.

The Field Museum has a lot more to offer, of course. I really admired their tremendous Egyptian exhibit: they have parts of an actual tomb that you can walk through, along with an amazing number of mummies, statues, and carvings. The display was great and very informative: I spent a lot of time studying the artifacts and reading associated text.

IMG_0003_3

Sue and the Egyptian material are part of the Field’s permanent collection, and thus are always on exhibit. One of the limited-time exhibitions that day concerned Africa and slavery. It was extremely thought provoking, and tried to questions such as “Did prejudice towards blacks arise from slavery? Or did it exist and possibly cause us to enslave blacks? And why Africans, and not, say, South Americans?”

After several hours at the Field—I could have easily spent an entire day there, but had other things on my “to do” list—I then walked over to the Adler Planetarium. I love space stuff (can you tell?), and was excited to see what they claim is America’s first planetarium. In addition to a working observatory, the Adler has numerous exhibits related to space science and has a great collection of antique equipment and materials. It also has a couple of theaters in which they do sky shows. From the shows on offer, I chose two. One was rather ordinary, but the other was fantastic: it put forth an intriguing astronomical theory that explains some elements of the story around Jesus’ birth. The theory goes something like this (from my notes):

The planet Venus (which represents motherhood and birth) and Jupiter (which represents kingship) rose in Leo (a constellation associated with Judiasm), in the east, between 3 BC and 2 BC. Venus then faded while Jupiter rose and moved to the west. As they journeyed, Jupiter and Venus approached and retreated from each other three times. Jupiter and Venus combined in the west, over Jerusalem, appearing as a single bright object in the sky. As the wise men approached Jerusalem, Jupiter disappeared from view due to the position of the sun. Then, as they started towards Bethlehem (Herod sent them, based upon information given him by the prophet Micah), Jupiter became visible again, off to their left, and seemed to travel with them. If they approached the stable from the east, Jupiter would have been over the building. And if they then returned to Mesopotamia, Jupiter and Venus together would have been in front of them.

It’s a little hard to explain in words, but the show did a great job of illustrating how the planets were moving at the time and what the sky would have looked like to the wise men. All of this movement of the two planets may sound a bit odd, but it is only because of how we view them from Earth: they were of course just making their usual orbits around the Sun. It just appeared as if they were moving back and forth and guiding the wise men to Bethlehem.

This last show really got me pumped up, so I then went off to see their exhibits of old astronomical equipment. Being a lover of planetarium shows and the spider-like projectors that create them, I was especially taken by the Atwood Sphere, a true forerunner of our modern dome-and-projector setups. Built in 1913, it is a 500 pound, fifteen-foot diameter sheet metal sphere that has varying-sized holes punched in it to represent stars. Six or so people plus a docent ride in a little carriage that is chain-driven by a small electric motor up into the sphere. From the inside, it really does sort of look like the night sky. Light outside of the sphere penetrates the holes, allowing those of us inside to see the night sky on the inside of the sphere. The sphere even rotates to show the progression of the stars across the night sky. It feels (and sounds) a bit like you are inside a cement mixer, but it works! This thing is a true must-see.

IMG_0006_8 IMG_0008_7

Enraptured by all the equipment and displays, I pretty much stayed until the museum closed, and then, after taking a moment to admire the skyline and get a couple of pictures, I grabbed a taxi and returned to my hotel.

IMG_0009_9

The next day was much less structured: my whole goal was to do some last-minute shopping (I was getting home on December 20th, so Christmas gifts were at the top of my mind) and really explore the area on foot. Because this was also my last night not on the train, I wanted to find a particularly nice place to have dinner that evening.

All throughout the trip I had been keeping an eye out for gifts for my wife and kids, and had been particularly successful in Florida: I found some great space stuff for the boys out at the space center, and I found a terrific sweater for my wife in the gift shop at the Norway pavilion in Disney’s Epcot. Although the sweater was terrific, the price wasn’t, so I hadn’t bought it there. Instead, when I hit New York I had found a retailer online who carried the same line of sweaters (at a much more reasonable price) and ordered one to be sent directly home. So by Chicago I had gotten at least something for everyone, but just to be sure I wanted to keep looking for additional gifts. In particular, my wife loves scarves, and given the weather in Chicago—and the caliber of stores that can be found along the “Magnificent Mile”—a scarf from Chicago seemed particularly appropriate. I did eventually find one, which allowed me to relax a bit and simply enjoy my exploration of the city.

Initially I had wandered west, towards Lake Michigan from which I saw the Navy Pier in the distance. Although it looked interesting, I never actually went all the way to it. Instead, I headed back west, walking all the way to the Chicago River. Strolling along the river I admired buildings such as the Sears Tower (I looked at it but didn’t go up) and thought about the scene in “While You Were Sleeping” (another movie favorite) when Bill Pullman and Sandra Bullock stroll along the river, making small talk and and deepening their relationship. What can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic, and I missed my wife and kids…

Dinner that night turned out to be just around the corner from my hotel: at The Grill on the Alley. This is a nice steak-and-seafood restaurant that feels like a classic old steakhouse (although it has only been around since the year 2000). Wood floors, leather seating, and white tablecloths set the mood, yet jackets and ties aren’t required (fortunately; I had the jacket, but not the tie). I had found the place almost immediately upon setting out that morning from my hotel and throughout the day kept comparing other restaurants to it. One thing that kept it high on my list as I wandered the city was its location: after dinner there I wouldn’t have far to walk to get back to my hotel. Thus, when dinner time rolled around it still seemed to be my best option, all things considered, so I returned to my hotel, changed into my best clothes, and headed over there for a lovely steak dinner. Then it was back to my room. Because I’d be back on the train the next day, finally heading for home, I used my last evening in Chicago (while watching another movie, naturally!) to lay out my clothes for the next day and get everything else packed up. At long last, my trip was nearly over I was about to go home!

Part VII: New York City

December 17, 2004

Actually, Manhattan; except for the cruise I took around the island, I never did get off the island. But even given the amount of time I had—three and a half days—there was more than I could possibly see right there in Manhattan.

I was surprised to learn how physically small Manhattan is. At thirteen miles long and two miles wide, you could easily walk the length of it in a day. And at times, it felt like I did; people in Manhattan do a great deal of walking, it seems.

New York City has two major train stations. Amtrak trains run in and out of Penn Station, so that was where I first set foot in New York. Penn Station is a bright, modern, bustling place. A great many trains run through this station, transporting large numbers of people to Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, in addition to those of us arriving from more distant places. In addition to the many people scurrying in all different directions, I was surprised to see that Penn Station has a great many shops, some quite upscale. Deep below the station runs the subway, making it simple to transfer from one type of train to the other.

IMG_0002_9

Not yet confident in my ability to navigate New York’s subway system, I opted to take a cab to my hotel. This involved standing in a fairly long line, which of course moved rather quickly, given the number of taxis in New York City. Once I reached the head of the line, I was whisked into a taxi by the steward, and we were off.

Both my neighbor, Bill, and my guide book (Frommer’s; it turned out to be extremely useful, and I highly recommend it) noted that in Manhattan you often specify an address not by its number but by giving the street and the two surrounding cross streets. My hotel, for instance, was on E 14th, between 2nd and 3rd avenues. Given the rather logical way that most of Manhattan is laid out, this turns out to be an extremely practical way to locate your destination. Except for the lower portion of the island (around and including the financial district), streets are numbered and run east-west, while avenues are numbered and run north-south. Once you get the hang of it, finding any location and determining how to get there becomes a very simple process. The buildings do have addresses, of course, but often the tough part is getting to the right block, and this system does that quite well.

The hotel I stayed in—the Union Square Inn—is located very near Union Square Park. While not terribly near most of the major tourist destinations, it is a quiet, relatively nice area in which to stay. The park itself is ringed by numerous restaurants and shops, making it a great “home base.” And beneath the park is a major intersection of subway lines, so that getting to anywhere on in Manhattan (or in any of the outer boroughs, for that matter) is a simple enough thing to do. My hotel was only three short blocks from the park itself, and although I chose to walk it most days even that short walk wasn’t strictly necessary since a subway line runs beneath 14th street and there is a stop right outside the door to the hotel.

As you’ll quickly discover when arranging a trip to Manhattan, staying on the island itself can be an extremely expensive proposition. This time of year, anyway, hotels that you might otherwise think would be reasonable—a Quality Inn, for instance, or a Day’s Inn—can run many hundreds of dollars per night. Given that I was in Manhattan for four nights, I searched high and low for a reasonably-priced hotel that was in a good neighborhood on the island and that had a private bathroom (many of the cheaper hotels don’t have private baths). You’ll find that there are very few choices: the Union Square Inn is one of them.

If you elect to stay there, rest assured that it is in a good area, it is clean, and, as I’ve already noted, it is cheap. What it is not, is large. This is a very small hotel, in every respect. Not a lot of rooms, not a large building, and most importantly, the rooms themselves can be quite small. I suspect that the fact that I was traveling as a single had a lot to do with the fact that the room I received was possibly the smallest hotel room anywhere. The room itself contained a double bed, a small chair beside the bed that served as an end table (the phone was on the chair and occupied most of the seat; there was no clock), and a tall, narrow cabinet that contained the TV above and served as closet below (the closet portion was about three feet high and maybe two feet wide). There was no closet other than the cabinet below the TV. No dresser, table, or any other furniture. And the floor space around the bed was just enough to walk around two sides (the bed was pushed into a corner); the room was perhaps two feet wider and three feet longer than the bed itself. The one saving grace was the bathroom; it was a normal-sized bathroom, nicely tiled throughout, with a good-sized shower stall.

From what I could tell, the hotel did have other rooms that were larger, so perhaps my room was an anomaly. But I should also note that the phone didn’t work very well (I was never able to get an outside line, so I was never able to access the Internet from my room), the hallways in the hotel were extremely narrow, and there was no elevator: only a steep, narrow staircase. Fortunately, my room was on the second floor, so I only had to navigate one set of those stairs. The one small window my room had was partially broken and wouldn’t open. And there was no temperature control of any kind. Fortunately, the temperature in the room always remained within a comfortable zone; important when the outside temperatures were dropping into the 20’s!

After the large, comfortable room I had at the Doubletree Club in Orlando, this one was a letdown, to say the least. It set the initial tone for my visit to New York, making me somewhat nervous. I seriously considered switching to a different hotel, but the cheapskate in me won out: just about any other hotel in the city for those four nights would have cost me a small fortune, and as I had already checked in I was probably stuck paying for the first night. I decided to give it the night and see how things went, and I’m glad I did. While things at the hotel didn’t get markedly better, they didn’t get any worse. The room was properly cleaned every day, the bed was fine, and I ended up spending little time there anyway. The one downside: normally I don’t worry too much about hotel security, but this one gave me pause. Because of that, I decided that I should take everything of value with me, every day in New York. This meant that I hauled my backpack, containing my laptop, my camera, my train tickets, etc. with me everywhere I went. I thought about this a lot: I had a hard time deciding if my stuff would be safer in that room, or with me as I rode the subways of New York. But since I already had to take my laptop with me to the local Starbucks in order to check email and post my article, I went ahead and kept it all with me. I did, however, unload everything that wasn’t of value to save weight. My backpack was still heavy, but not nearly as heavy as it could have been.

Once settled into my hotel, I decided to check out the immediate area. Ever since I had arrived it had been drizzling, so I donned my overcoat and headed outside. My first stop was the subway station in front of the hotel. I wasn’t ready to go anywhere on it yet, but I wanted to purchase a subway pass so I’d be ready. Even though I was only to be in New York for about four days, it made the most sense for me to purchase a 7-day Metro Card. This is a pass that allows you unlimited access to the subway and to the public bus system for seven days. At $21, this turned out to be a great deal. I ended up making heavy use of it.

The “MTA New York City Subway” (the official name for it) is an engineering marvel. Looking at the subway map I received along with my Metro Card, I was amazed and pleased to see how comprehensive the system is. Almost everywhere in Manhattan is within a few blocks of the subway, and those few places that aren’t are served by the bus system, which accepts the Metro Card. Once you get the hang of the system—learning to read the map, learning the difference between a local and an express, figuring out how to transfer between trains at a given station—you gain confidence and find yourself using it to go everywhere. And the trains run frequently enough that there is no need for a schedule. This system is efficient, cheap, and cleaner than I expected. As long as you use some common sense—wait for your train where you can be seen by the ticket seller, avoid the system late at night—it seems quite safe. I never saw any evidence of any problems. I did see transit police from time-to-time, but they seemed pretty bored.

IMG_0040_4

Getting back to Union Square Park: Manhattan has a number of these parks, which occupy one or more city blocks. Union Square Park squeezes between Park Avenue and Broadway (one of the exceptions to the street numbering system, Broadway travels the length of the island, running diagonally in some spots). The park is three blocks long, extending from E. 14th up to E. 17th. When the weather is better, it is the site of a farmer’s market. This time of year, it plays host to a number of stalls selling holiday goods. Otherwise, it is mostly grass, criss-crossed with cement walkways.

Tall buildings surround the park and loom over it. A giant Virgin Megastore occupies the entire length of the block on the park’s south side. On the east side are a number of smaller shops: a Starbucks, a UPS store, a drugstore, and the like. The west side contains another Starbucks, a McDonald’s, a Heartland Brewery pub, a couple of upscale restaurants, and one of NYU’s dormitories. Feeling a bit out of place, I almost cried when I saw a Barnes and Noble on the north side; it was like an old, familiar friend. Needless to say, that was the first place I went into. Unlike any Barnes and Noble I had ever been into before, this one is tall and narrow. Four stories tall, in fact. It was the perfect blend of New York and the familiar, and it instantly made me feel much better. As I was running low on reading material, I took the opportunity to explore the store and pick up a paperback.

Once outside again, I resumed my tour of the businesses surrounding the park. The Starbucks, I was pleased to note, was a T-Mobile hot spot, meaning that I could wirelessly connect to the Internet from within. Because I could not get to the Internet from my room (my hotel did provide Internet access, I should point out, but you have to use on of the two computers they provided in the lobby; this didn’t work for my purposes), my daily routine involved a morning trip to Starbucks where I could both get something to eat and check my email. Not being a coffee drinker, it seemed a little weird at first, but they do offer hot chocolate and juice, as well as muffins and banana bread and such, so I learned to blend in just fine.

That was it for the first afternoon and evening. The next morning, after a good night’s sleep and a nice hot shower, I set out to see the town. I hadn’t really gotten organized, however, so I didn’t have nearly as productive a day as I should have. Once I realized how much I needed to get organized, however, I sat down and made a list of destinations and then organized them by location. No longer did I find myself criss-crossing all over Manhattan.

One of the first places I went to was Times Square. What a zoo! It must be one of the top one or two tourist destinations in New York: it seemed like the entire city was out on the sidewalks when I came up from the subway station. Trying to navigate the blocks immediately around the intersection of 42nd street and Broadway (the epicenter of Times Square; this is where the biggest of the big neon signs are to be found) was pretty difficult. I found myself constantly having to fight my way through the crowds. As you probably know—and as you can see from my pictures this place has taken advertising to a new level. Each company is trying to one-up the others, with the result being a total assault on your senses. Its worth seeing, once, but then unless you have a reason to be there (for a show, perhaps), avoid it like the plague.

IMG_0002_6 IMG_0003

Times Square was the worst, but everywhere I went there were people. Lots and lots of people. New Yorkers walk a lot, for good reason. Either your destination is only a few blocks away, in which case you walk, or it is farther, in which case you take the subway—which means you walk to the subway, and walk from the subway to your final destination. Some destinations—particularly at night—require the use of a taxi or a bus, but the traffic is so bad here that it is usually easier—and always cheaper—to get where you are going by some other means. There were actually more private cars that I had expected, but driving and parking are so difficult that I’m sure that most people in Manhattan don’t bother. The taxi ride I had taken from Penn Station to my hotel was an interesting introduction to driving in New York: people here seem to use traffic laws as basic guidelines, not strict rules. Pedestrians are just as bad, if not worse: walk/don’t walk signals are almost universally ignored. People cross the street pretty much whenever they can, irregardless of any traffic lights. The one trip on the bus I took was also an eye opener: I really thought the bus driver was going to hit this one car, who was driving in a manner that seemed designed to aggravate our bus driver. And the traffic was so heavy that I could have walked the distance in less time. Me, I would never drive in Manhattan.

So where do you get away from all of the people? Where can you find a bit of peace in this urban zoo? Why, Central Park, of course. Central Park is a truly amazing place. It is huge, and absolutely beautiful. I can see where at times of the year it might be a dark and forbidding place; there are whole forests here. But this time of year, during the day with the sun shining through the bare branches of all those trees, it is truly breathtaking. Trees, lakes, meadows, pools, ice rinks, even a museum or two. It is so large that although there are plenty of people strolling through the park at any given time, you still have plenty of space for yourself. And the few streets that go through the park are constructed so that they are isolated from it, helping to keep the park quiet and peaceful. I walked the width of Central Park and through a good part of its length, and felt very safe and comfortable. Central Park truly is an oasis in a sea of humanity. If you find that you need a break from the city, do yourself a favor and spend a little time in Central Park.

IMG_0015_4

Once I had gotten myself organized, Central Park was one of my destinations along with the nearby American Museum of Natural History, the Rose Planetarium, the Dakota, and the Wollman Rink.

The American Museum of Natural History is one of New York’s most acclaimed museums, as it should be. If you like dinosaurs, anthropology, and the like, do yourself a favor and take a look at this, one of America’s great natural history museums. I gave it a quick once-over, particularly admiring some of the dinosaur skeletons they have on display. I must admit, however, that I was more interested in seeing the Rose Planetarium, which is connected to the natural history museum. This planetarium’s Hall of Planet Earth is tremendous: it covers the geologic history of our planet and goes in-depth on the forces that shape it. The planetarium also has some magnificent photographs of our astronauts on the moon, and they show a series of films and sky shows in the planetarium dome. You could spend a lot of time here, as I did, and still not see everything that they have to offer. Obviously, I highly recommend this combined museum. Even if you aren’t all that interested in space or in natural history, the building is worth checking out for its architecture alone. Built like a castle, with turrets and towers, this four-square-block building is made of red brick and pink sandstone. Quite an impressive sight in a city that is known for some pretty impressive buildings.

On the subject of impressive—or, at least, famous—buildings, my next stop was just a couple of blocks down along Central Park West (the street that borders the park on the west side). The Dakota is the apartment building where John Lennon lived, and at the entrance of which he was shot and killed. But I’ve been interested in this building for far longer; ever since I first read Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” back in Junior High. This is the building from which the protagonist, Si Morley, was able to travel in time. He could do this because the building and selected views of the city from it were—and are—virtually unchanged from when it was built in 1884. This building once sat all by itself, but as you can see from my pictures it is now surrounded on three sides by other, larger apartment buildings. Nevertheless, it is still a magnificent structure.

IMG_0004_8

Directly in front of the Dakota, at the 72nd street entrance to the park, is Strawberry Fields. This is a small garden that serves as a memorial to John Lennon. At its center is a circular mosaic that includes the single word “Imagine.” As you can see from the photo, people lay roses in the shape of a peace sign in his memory:

IMG_0007_7

Next stop was the Wollman Rink. This is a year-round ice rink (during the winter, one of the swimming pools elsewhere in the park is also turned into an ice rink) near the southeast corner of the park. I had two reasons for wanting to go there: one, it gave me an excuse to walk the width of the park, and two, it has been used in a number of films that feature New York, and I wanted to see it for real. In particular, it played a prominent part in one of my recent favorites: “Serendipity.” This film, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale, features a number of locations in this area, and I thought it would be fun to see a couple of them. Accordingly, I saw (and took pictures of) the rink and then walked over to Serendipity, the restaurant for which the film was named. I didn’t go in, though: at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon there was a two hour wait. But I enjoyed seeing it, and it gave me an excuse to see a part of the city I might not have gotten to otherwise.

IMG_0012_6

At this point it was a simple matter to hop on the subway and travel just a couple of stops to Grand Central Terminal. Although Amtrak doesn’t use this particular station, it serves both the subway system and the Metro-North commuter trains. Even if you don’t need the transportation services it provides, it is worth checking out the terminal itself. This is truly a magnificent building. The main concourse is huge, with polished marble floors, a grand marble staircase, massive chandeliers, and a ceiling that is painted and lit to resemble the winter sky above New York. I tried to photograph it but had only limited success; the camera I had just couldn’t do it justice. You need to see this one for yourself.

IMG_0020_7

No visit to New York would be complete without a trip to the Empire State Building, and I did that early on. Taking my guidebook’s suggestion to heart, I had purchased a “CityPass” in advance of my trip. The CityPass is a booklet containing tickets to a number of the most popular attractions in the city. The New York CityPass includes tickets to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Natural History Museum, the Circle Line boat tour, and the Empire State Building, among other things. Because I already had my ticket, I didn’t have to wait in line to purchase a ticket to the Empire State Building. However, I did have to wait for nearly an hour just to go up there. Contrary to the impression you might get from a movie such as “Sleepless in Seattle“, you cannot just waltz right in and ride to the top. The 86th floor observatory (where you can go outside and walk the perimeter of the building) can only accommodate a limited number of people, so it takes a while before you can take your turn. Once you are up there, though, you can stay as long as you like, so take your time and enjoy the view.

IMG_0006_4 IMG_0008

And that view was magnificent, even though as you can see from my pictures I went on a day that was pretty foggy. Fortunately, most of the haze was above me, so I was able to see everything that the audio tour pointed out. The audio tour was great, by the way. They take advantage of modern technology, giving you what is basically an iPod with a keypad so that you can easily select the different tracks that correspond to the different views from the 86th floor. No cassettes or CDs, and you can pause or repeat the audio presentation as much as you want. The narrator does a good job of pointing out the sights, even if he sounds very much like a stereotypical New Yorker.

Interestingly, the guy on the audio tour of the Empire State Building had by far the thickest New York accent I heard the entire time I was in New York. And his accent wasn’t all that thick; it was akin to something you might hear on TV. I was listening for accents and was very surprised to discover that most of the people I interacted with had little or no accent at all.

It wasn’t only the lack of a “New Yawk” accent that surprised me. I had a couple of preconceptions of New York that I was pleased to discover just weren’t true. For instance, the city was cleaner than I expected. Sure, you do see some papers blowing about, but nothing like I expected (I did see a rat down among the rails in the subway, though). I didn’t see nearly as much graffiti as I expected. And although there were a lot of advertisements plastered up everywhere, they were put up in a relatively neat and organized fashion. Crime? I’m sure that there is some, but I saw no actual evidence of any, even in the subways. Attitude? People weren’t gruff and surly, as I might have expected, but instead were open and friendly. And it appears that New York has banned smoking in restaurants! This was a most pleasant discovery; I had expected that smoking was big here, but it seems no worse than in California.

Seeing New York from the top of the Empire State Building is a great way to get oriented. Another is to take one of the Circle Line cruises around the island. Because this was included in my CityPass—and thus already paid for—I went down to the 42nd street pier and boarded the boat for the Full Island tour. This cruise takes three hours and goes all the way around Manhattan in a counterclockwise direction. It makes a pass by—but doesn’t stop at—Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The running commentary is pretty good, pointing out sights on both shores. You go under a number of famous bridges (the Brooklyn Bridge among them) and get to see many parts of Manhattan that you otherwise probably wouldn’t. The three hour tour is the most complete, but if you don’t have quite that much time they also have shorter tours that only go part of the way around.

IMG_0007_6 IMG_0009_7 IMG_0011_5

Before the cruise gets to Liberty Island and the financial district, you pass the Chelsea piers. One of these has been turned into a driving range; completely fenced in, you can drive golf balls towards the water and New Jersey. (This driving range was also featured in Serendipity). These piers deserve a historical footnote as being the place where the Titanic was supposed to tie up once it had reached New York.

It’s hard to see from the water, but as you pass by the financial district your attention is directed towards the former site of the World Trade Center. The audio tour on the top of the Empire State Building also attempts to point out this location, although from that far away it is really hard to see where the buildings once stood. Fortunately, the site itself is easy to reach via subway. Any trip to New York should include a visit to Ground Zero.

I actually went there twice. The first time was in the early evening. The site is well lit, so no matter when you go you’ll have no trouble seeing what is left. Which isn’t much, of course; by now everything has been cleared away. It is truly an eerie sight to look down upon the transit center that is there and realize that it was once in the basement of the World Trade Center buildings. Now it is open to the sky. It is amazing how quickly they got it running again. From the street, you can see trains and people coming and going; life goes on, I guess.

IMG_0022_5 IMG_0024_4

Directly across the street from the WTC site—literally—is St. Paul’s Chapel. This chapel is part of Trinity Church, a couple of blocks down the street, and served as a relief center after 9/11. Situated between the chapel itself and the WTC site is the chapel graveyard; this struck me as an interesting bit of coincidental symbolism, so I took some pictures from the chapel, looking over the gravestones at where the World Trade Center buildings once stood.

IMG_0035_4 IMG_0034_4

St. Paul’s Chapel is part of Trinity Church; Trinity is an historic Episcopal church. Consecrated in 1846, it sits right at the head of Wall Street. Because I believe that buildings such as this should, if possible, be seen in action, rather than take a guided tour I elected to attend a service there on Sunday morning. Not a huge church—it can seat two or three hundred people, at most—the soaring arches, intricate stone and woodwork, beautiful stained glass windows, and surprisingly good acoustics made for a very spiritual worship space. The service itself was a pretty conventional Episcopal service. If anything, it was shorter than usual and had fewer hymns—which was perfectly OK by me!

IMG_0025_4 IMG_0029

Standing at the doors of Trinity Church, you are literally looking right down Wall Street to the mouth of the East River. Not having seen it before, Wall Street surprised me by how small it was. It feels like an alley. For security reasons you cannot drive down it (if you ever could). Walking down it, you quickly come to the New York Stock Exchange building, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets. Directly across the street is Federal Hall. This imposing example of Greek Revival architecture is where George Washington took his oath of office in 1789. Modern high-rises surround these historic old buildings, but, still functioning, they manage to stand proud.

IMG_0026_2 IMG_0027_3 IMG_0028_5

Manhattan is full of beautiful buildings, both old and new. Because every square inch of the island has been built upon (except for the parks, of course) in order to build a new building these days you have to tear down an old one (or two, or more). Everywhere you look there are signs of construction. And the fact that Manhattan is so tight on space means that what space there is is very expensive. This likely accounts for the high hotel prices. I was told that if it wasn’t for rent control, half the people that currently live in Manhattan wouldn’t be living there. This is some of the most expensive real estate on earth, and wealthy developers such as Donald Trump are making the most of the situation, building new, pricey living space wherever they can. Fortunately, some developers see the value in preserving old buildings; the four-story Barnes and Noble on Union Square occupies one such building. This gives the city much of its character; where out west chain stores such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks are typically found in nondescript boxes, here they are more often than not in classic buildings that are full of character.

There are older residential parts of town that won’t change simply because there is no need; the buildings are full and are serving their intended purpose to the satisfaction of the residents. Gramercy Park, which is only a few blocks from Union Square, is one such part of Manhattan. The park itself is private, owned by and accessible only to the residents of the surrounding buildings. The buildings themselves are stately old apartment buildings, attractive and well maintained. Small neighborhood business occupy the ground floor of some of these buildings. Private clubs, restaurants, and intimate little shops were directly accessible to those out for a casual stroll, as I was. One, the Gramercy Tavern, had been recommended as a great place for dinner, and I enjoyed a wonderful, reasonably-priced meal there. I was tickled to note that their phone number, printed on the menu, was “GR7-0777”; still listed using the name of the telephone exchange (“Gramercy”, presumably). By the way, with my meal I had a marvelous Australian wine: a Kangarilla Road Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t note the year, but it was very smooth. I’ll have to try to track it down when I get home…

New York is a great place to eat: there is no end of wonderful restaurants to choose from. Being by myself and having a limited wardrobe restricted my choices somewhat, but I nevertheless ate well. Some of the places I was hoping to go to—Pete’s Tavern, for instance, where O. Henry wrote “Gift of the Magi”—was packed the two times I went by, so I didn’t end up there. However, I had a really nice meal at the Blue Water Grill, one of the nicer restaurants on Union Square. And of course I had to try some New York pizza, so went to John’s Pizzeria, apparently a New York institution. It was great, and was one of the places where being a single diner worked to my advantage; while others had to wait 30-60 minutes for their tables, I was in and seated in about five minutes. Seated between two large groups, I was amused to notice that the group I was facing included John Pankow, who played Paul Reiser’s brother on the TV series “Mad About You.” As best as I could tell, he was dining with friends and members of his extended family; one of the guys had to have been his brother, by the looks of him.

As I said before, there are a great many things to see and do here in New York. Just north of the Circle Line’s pier you’ll find the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space museum. The Intrepid is a retired aircraft carrier that saw active duty in three wars and was hit four times by Japanese kamikaze planes. It is a reasonably good tour, made all the more interesting by a companion tour: parked right next to the carrier and free to tour with your paid admission is the Concorde “Alpha-Delta,” the last Concorde to ever touch down in New York. Inside the aircraft carrier is a really nice large-screen theater that shows, among other things, a film about how they preserved the Concorde and barged it to its current location. You can walk through the plane, as I was happy to be able to do; this may be the closest I ever get to flying in a supersonic aircraft.

Rockefeller Center was the second-most crowded location I encountered in New York (after Times Square). It probably would have been the most crowded had I managed to get there when they were filming the Today show. As it was, I contented myself with a look at the ice rink, the Christmas tree, and the Today show set, being prepped for the next day’s show. Given the crowds, I didn’t linger.

IMG_0020_5 IMG_0021_5

Another of my CityPass tickets got me into MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. This six-story building had just reopened after extensive renovations, apparently, so I figured it should be something to see. But I have to say that I was pretty unimpressed. Of course, I don’t know what it looked like before, so perhaps in comparison the new MOMA is a vast improvement. It certainly seemed like a good enough place to showcase modern art; its just that I quickly came to realize that I don’t care all that much for most modern art. The one exhibit I actually liked was showcasing well-designed everyday objects. Chairs, lamps, toasters, even a car and a motorcycle were on display. I was very pleased to note that Apple was well represented: among the examples of good design were an iPod, an iBook (the laptop computer I’m using to write this), the spherical speakers first introduced with the Cube computer, and an iSub speaker. This exhibit was one I could relate to; the others were beyond me, I’m afraid. And perhaps the building itself falls into this same category; if you are more appreciative of modern art—or architecture—than I, this museum may well be worth seeing. Myself, I’ll skip it next time.

You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything about attending a Broadway show. That is because I never did see one. I had planned to, but never got around to ordering tickets ahead of time (a fatal mistake). Once I got to New York, I figured I’d check out TKTS. This is a place where you can obtain day-of-the-show theater tickets for half price. There are two locations: one in Times Square, and one at the South Street Seaport. Times Square was my first sightseeing stop, where I had hoped to drop by TKTS. One look at the line, though, and I immediately dismissed that thought. It was at least four blocks long. I saw little point in spending half my day waiting in line for a theater ticket. As I toured around I dropped by one or two theater box offices on the off chance that there were any unclaimed house seats, but I had no luck. I had arrived on Friday and not really started looking until Saturday. Given that the theaters go “dark” on Monday, Saturday and Sunday were my only possibilities. Looking back, I can see that I didn’t really try that hard; there wasn’t anything that I was dying to see, and I wasn’t all that enthused about seeing a show by myself anyway. Next time, perhaps…

IMG_0005_4

I had expected to see snow this time of year, but I was pleased that the only “weather” I had was on the day I arrived, when it drizzled a bit. Not so much that I needed an umbrella, really; an overcoat was enough to keep me comfortable and probably helped me to blend in a bit: I saw lots of people wearing overcoats (and scarves; I didn’t bring one of those). The next day, Saturday, was cloudy, but by that afternoon it had cleared and for the rest of my time in New York the skies were clear and sunny. Clear but cold, of course; the thermometer never made it above the mid 40’s while I was there, and at night it dropped to well below freezing. But cold I was prepared for. And, of course, I was inside a lot. The subway system stays nice and warm, too.

When it was time to leave New York, I checked out of my room but left my suitcase in the care of the hotel; my train wasn’t due to leave until almost 3:00. I spent my morning—and a bit of my afternoon—at Starbucks, sending my previous article and surfing the Internet. By about 1:00 I figured I should get going, so I returned to the hotel, retrieved my suitcase, and descended into the depths of the New York subway system one last time. Two short subway rides later, I was climbing the stairs into the heart of Penn Station. My train was on time, and I was early. I took the opportunity to consume one last slice of New York pizza, and then I headed off to “Club Acela,” the special lounge for first-class Amtrak passengers. Like a first-class airline lounge, this is a secluded area where waiting passengers can enjoy free coffee and soft drinks, read the day’s newspapers, and watch CNN in comfort and quiet (well, relatively quiet; people on cell phones are getting more obnoxious all the time). Upon entering the club, you present your train ticket; they then call you when it is time to board your train. 

As I waited for my boarding announcement, I felt very sophisticated as I sipped my iced tea and read through the Financial Times. I felt very much at home; so comfortable, in fact, that I wasn’t all surprised to look up and see none other than Bill Cosby enter the room. He looked as if he knew the place well. He smiled, waved to one or two folks, and headed off towards the bathroom. Unfortunately, they called my train at that point so I had to leave before he came out. But it did make me start to wonder if some celebrities, rather than avoiding the train as a form of lower-class travel, use it because they can travel in relative anonymity.

The train left right on time, and that was it for New York. I had entered the city with some trepidation, but was leaving feeling very good about the place. It isn’t the kind of place I’d ever live—the whole way of life there is just too foreign to the way I am used to living—but for the visitor it is a beautiful city with a lot to recommend it. It is full of life, full of energy, and, for such a large city, clean and safe. I am looking forward to being able to take Nancy there; it is the kind of city that is best enjoyed with others.

Part VI: Life on the Train

December 14, 2004

One thing you can say about the railroad industry: they sure come up with some interesting names for their trains! “Coast Starlight” conjures up accurate images of that train: it traverses the length of California’s west coast, partly at night. “Sunset Limited”? Well, it runs from Los Angeles to Orlando, and it does take three days, so I guess you see a bunch of sunsets. “Silver Meteor” (Tampa to New York) I presume is simply meant to conjure up images of a silver train streaking by like a meteor. Although these trains also have numbers (the Silver Meteor is #98 northbound, #97 southbound), giving them names conjures up romantic images that you certainly don’t get from a mere number.

IMG_0006_3

Having now spent a bunch of time on three separate trains (so far; two to go), I wanted to take an opportunity to try and paint a picture of what life is like on an Amtrak train. Long-distance train travel is an experience like no other.

Booking your tickets is comparable to booking an airline flight. You can arrange your trip through a travel agent, through an Amtrak ticket agent, or on the Web. Their website is pretty good, although they aren’t quite up to the “print your own ticket” level. Once you have purchased your tickets online, you can choose to have them mailed to you or you can pick them up at an Amtrak station.

When booking space on a sleeper car, you are immediately assigned to a specific room in a specific car on the train. Amtrak can do this because the train “set” (the number and arrangement of the train cars) for each line is fixed; when the train fills, they don’t add more cars, they simply stop selling tickets. Coach passengers aren’t assigned a specific seat, yet; as they board the train the conductor assigns them to an available seat, and that seat is then theirs for the duration of their journey.

Everyone riding the train buys a coach-class ticket. Sleeper passengers then pay an additional fee to upgrade to sleeper class. You can upgrade your ticket when you originally purchase it (as I did), at any time before you board the train (as I did on the Coast Starlight), or even on the train itself. These latter two options are only possible, of course, if there are rooms on the train that are available for the entire duration of your particular journey. Buying the upgrade on the train can be a lot cheaper, but you run the real risk of not being able to get accommodations; you are then stuck in your coach seat for the length of the trip.

Although everyone purchases a coach-class ticket, don’t assume that that means that the coach-class ticket price is fixed. Like the airlines, what you pay—for both the coach-class ticket and the room upgrade—depends upon a great many factors. For instance, when you purchased the ticket, how you purchased the ticket (online, on the phone, through a travel agent, etc.), and what discounts you may qualify for (AAA members get a discount, for instance, as do seniors) all affect the final ticket price. However they figure it, though, the coach-class ticket can be a real deal. For instance, the coach-class portion of my Chicago-to-Emeryville (SF bay area) ticket cost me $109. That seems pretty reasonable, given the distance. The upgrade takes it up to about $500 (but a second person sharing the room would only pay the cost of the coach-class ticket, so two people sharing a roomette on this train would pay about $350 apiece). That can be more than the cost of a plane ticket, of course, but do remember that this covers the cost of your meals and gives you a level of accommodation well beyond what you get in an airplane. Even the coach-class seats are much more spacious and comfortable than your typical airplane seat.

Amtrak is careful to assign you to a car depending upon your destination. This is because not all cars on a given train are necessarily going to the same place. The train I rode out of LA, for instance, had two names: The “Sunset Limited,” and the “Texas Eagle.” In San Antonio, those cars designated as Texas Eagle were split off from the Sunset Limited cars. We continued on to Orlando, while the Texas Eagle cars, attached to a new engine and with additional cars added in San Antonio, proceeded through Dallas and on to Chicago. This is nothing you need to concern yourself with, of course. This particular transfer was even scheduled to occur during the early morning hours, so you may find that it occurs as you sleep.

Prior to boarding, you will have been given an opportunity to check baggage. While first-class passengers can check some portion of their baggage, they probably won’t want to: each sleeper car has an area where you can stow baggage, and baggage that rides with you in this manner is easily accessible during your journey, unlike bags that have been checked into the baggage car. Coach class passengers don’t have this same option, so if you are traveling coach you should either pack lightly—and keep all of your luggage with you—or pack carefully so that anything you’ll need during your journey is with you, and not stowed away in the baggage car, inaccessible until you reach your destination.

When you board the train, you typically board the car in which you’ll be riding. Your car number is printed on your ticket, and each car is numbered, but you don’t have to worry too much about this: you’ll be directed to the right boarding area.

Once you have found your accommodations, spend a little time and settle in. Locate the bathrooms and the shower (on a Viewliner, your toilet and sink are in your roomette, and the shower is down the hall; on a Superliner, there is one bathroom on the upper level, and three bathrooms and a shower on the lower level). The trains appear to be configured with the sleeper cars closest to the engine, followed by the dining car and the parlor car, followed by the coach cars. Thus, when it is time to eat, sleeping-car passengers should head towards the “back” of the train (in the direction opposite of travel). But while you are settling in, your porter will come by and tell you stuff like this, as well as give you the lowdown on the upcoming meal. 

IMG_0011_3 IMG_0012_2

Dinners are by reservation, so if you board between lunch and dinner, or during the dinner service, you’ll be given an opportunity to make a reservation. Breakfast and lunch are first-come, first-served. Your porter will let you know when the next meal is to be served. Since your first-class ticket includes your meals, you’ll want to take advantage of the dining car service; food served in the parlor-car snack bar isn’t included. Oh—and note that alcohol isn’t included in your “free” meal, so if you want wine with dinner expect to pay for it.

Amtrak has a captive audience, and I’m pleased to see that they aren’t gouging their passengers when it comes to charging for food and drink. The meals in the dining car and the food in the snack bar is pretty reasonably priced. As well, you are welcome to bring food and drink on board, so if you are operating on a budget or just don’t care for the food (the quality isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible, either), plan ahead and bring your meals with you. 

The roomettes are quite efficient: small, but everything you need is there somewhere. Roomettes accommodate two people in a club configuration: seated, you face each other, separated by a small table that can be folded away. Each seat has a reading light and a controllable air jet (like on an airplane). The seats recline, and each of you gets a pillow, so you should be able to make yourself comfortable. Note that one of the chairs faces the direction of travel, while the other faces backwards. Finally, each room has a thermostat that lets you control the overall temperature inside the room. 

IMG_0014 IMG_0013

That’s all the space you get. There is room for one other person to stand in the compartment, but there are no folding chairs stashed away anywhere, so if three or more people want to gather, they are well advised to seek out the parlor car. At night, an upper bunk folds down from up above, and the two facing chairs are flattened into a single bed. These beds are comfortable enough, but cannot accommodate more than one person each. If you are taller than about 6’2″ you will likely find that you cannot stretch out completely. I, just shy of 6’1″, had plenty of room. You can request that the beds be put up and down at any time. Don’t have the porter switch the room to “sleeping mode” unless you are really ready to crawl into bed, since the roomette is good for little else once the beds have been deployed.

Your porter will wake you up at a specific time, if desired. Breakfast service seems to end early—9:00 or so—so if you like to lounge around in bed, be aware that you may miss your free breakfast. Lunch starts early, however, so that may not be a problem for you.

You can shower if and when you like. I never had any competition for it, although other people were clearly making use of it. The shower is tiny, of course; if you have ever used or even seen a shower in a motorhome you have the basic idea. The shower head is on a flexible hose, and that’s a good thing, given that there isn’t a great deal of water pressure; it helps to be able to physically direct the water to various parts of your body. Fortunately, the water is plenty hot. Towels are provided, as are small wrapped soaps. No shampoo, though; bring your own. The shower itself is connected to a small changing room, so you have a dry spot to put your clean clothes on after your shower. You could also shave and put on makeup in here, but out of courtesy to your fellow sleeping car residents you may want to instead perform these activities in one of the regular bathrooms or in your roomette. The roomettes have mirrors and electrical outlets (and the outlets can be used for charging up a laptop, digital camera, or cell phone–I can tell you this from experience!). If you are on a Superliner and need a sink, there are three bathrooms right next to the shower, so you can quickly transfer to one of those.

One of the nice things about train travel is the fact that whenever you feel somewhat restless, you can get up and walk around. You can walk the length of the train, and, when the train pulls into a station, even get off the train and stand on the platform. On some runs they stop for a good length of time in certain stations. For instance, the Sunset Limited has a scheduled two-hour stop in New Orleans. As long as you have your ticket stub, you are allowed to leave the station, if you like. Just don’t be late getting back! They don’t check to see if you are on board and won’t hold the train for you. Also, be sure to check with the conductor about when the train will actually leave; when we pulled into New Orleans, we were so far behind that they shortened the stop to a half hour. That gave me time to wander around the station, but not to go any farther.

Just because you have a room on the train doesn’t mean that you are restricted to it. Coach class passengers aren’t supposed to enter the sleeping cars, but the reverse does not apply. You can wander into the coach cars if you wish, although unless you know someone in there there isn’t much reason to do so; the coach cars are full of seats for the coach passengers. Tables and the like are limited to the lounge and dining cars.

Unfortunately, the dining car is only for dining. As odd as it seems, when meals are not being served you cannot use the tables for any other purpose. Try as we might, my fellow passengers and I could not convince the dining car staff to let us sit at the otherwise empty tables and play cards. Perhaps they’ve had problems with people that wouldn’t leave once the meal service was to begin. Whatever the reason, if you want to sit at a table with others outside of a meal you are pretty much limited to the parlor car.

On the Coast Starlight, there are two parlor cars: one for the sleeping-car passengers and one for everyone else. And the parlor car we had was very nice: upholstered seats, wood trim, and the like. Unfortunately, this appears to be a one-of-a-kind car; the other trains I have been on so far have no such thing. Only a single parlor car for the whole train, with a limited number of formica tables.

The “normal” double-decker parlor car you get on a train such as the Sunset Limited has fixed-position seats, both singles and doubles, facing out the side windows all along the top level. There are no tables anywhere on this level. Curiously, there are video screens at the ends of the car so that passengers can enjoy the nightly movie; however, because the chairs are fixed and facing out of the window, in order to watch the movie you have two either turn your head (for the duration of the film!) or sit sideways in the chair.

On the lower level of the parlor car, there is a snack bar that sells a bit of everything: sandwiches, candy bars, drinks both alcoholic and non-, and even decks of cards. Also at this level you’ll find two booths that can accommodate four people each, and two longer couches—one on each side of the car—fronted by cocktail tables. The one parlor car serves the entire train. As you can guess, the two booths are in great demand; they are the only place on the train where four people can comfortably sit and play cards, say. And be aware that there are video screens on this level, too, and the movie plays on them whether you want it to or not. Thus, during the movie this isn’t the most ideal place to sit and have a relaxing chat.

On the longer runs, you settle into a routine pretty quickly. Life revolves around meals; other than those, which are regularly scheduled, you find that time moves at a different pace on the train. I started out obsessively checking the schedule each time we pulled into a station, to see whether or not we were on time. After a while—really, after we got so far off schedule as to no longer make a difference—I came to learn that on the train, you just can’t worry all that much about time. The train will get there when it gets there. Don’t plan tight connections, and if possible take a cell phone so that you can alter your plans along the way. And then just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view. You’ll see parts of the country you never would traveling any other way. Large towns, small towns, deserts, prairies, mountains, lakes, oceans: you see it all on the train. And because you aren’t driving, you can take a long, good look at the world passing by outside. Even at night. I found that I enjoy leaving my curtains open at night. Lying next to the window, its really fun watching the lights—and the dark—go by. 

Unfortunately, Amtrak gets short shrift in Congress these days, and accordingly it is the low man on the totem pole when on the tracks. Freights get priority, so it is almost impossible to keep an Amtrak train on schedule. The Sunset Limited (LA to Florida) is the worst of the lot, I hear. On my trip, we arrived 11 hours late. The Coast Starlight was running about two hours late by the time I got off the train in the Simi Valley. On the other hand, the Silver Meteor, which at one point in my journey was running an hour and a half late, arrived in New York’s Penn station only 15 minutes behind schedule. As I write this I am two hours away from boarding the Lake Shore Limited, which takes me to Chicago. It’ll be interesting to see how on time it is.

Traveling by train takes time, to be sure, but it is time you can use productively, and time that you can relax. Unlike airline travel, you don’t have to run the security gauntlet. You can stand anywhere you like on the train, for the entire duration of the trip if you prefer. And you get proper meals, not just peanuts and a Coke. Unlike driving, you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road. And you can stretch, take bathroom breaks, and even eat proper meals while continuing along your way. If you absolutely have to be wherever you are going as soon as possible, fly. If you must have your car at your final destination, drive. Otherwise, consider the train. It works, it is reasonably priced, and one way or another they will get you to where you are going. 

http://www.amtrak.com is where you’ll find schedules, pricing, and a map of the entire Amtrak system. You can also use the website to track the progress of any Amtrak train, a feature that my family has been regularly taking advantage of.

Part V: Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot

December 11, 2004

Folks: pardon the delay in getting this next installment out. I wasn’t able to finish it before I had to head for the train, and there is no Internet access on the train. Once here in New York, it took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t going to be able to connect to the Internet from my hotel. But thank heavens for Starbucks! I’m sitting in one right now, sipping a hot chocolate and nibbling on banana nut bread, catching up on my emails and sending this to you.

After Walt Disney built Disneyland back in the mid 1960’s, he quickly came to regret not purchasing a much larger plot of land. The hotels and restaurants that sprung up around his park were not up to his standards and, of course, not under his control. He vowed not to make that same mistake again, so when he began planning Walt Disney World he first, under great secrecy, purchased a whopping 28,000 acres of land here in the Orlando area.

Starting with the Magic Kingdom, the Disney company went on to build a number of additional parks: Epcot, the Disney/MGM Studios, various water parks, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Not to mention Downtown Disney, and innumerable hotels, golf courses, and even camping areas. In addition, there are a number of non-Disney attractions, including Sea World and Universal Studios Florida. Clearly, there is way too much here to take in on a single trip. I concentrated on two parks: the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

If you are driving, getting to the park can be a bit of a challenge. For some reason, the roads around here are a real maze. You need to pay very close attention to all signs; nearly everything says “Disney” something-or-other, and you have to navigate numerous freeway-style interchanges before you actually get to where you are going. For that reason alone, if you have the option I would highly recommend taking the Disney shuttle from your hotel. Plus, you save the parking fee. If you must drive, have a capable navigator in the right seat to guide you to your destination.

Given all of that Florida real estate, the most obvious difference between Disneyland and Florida’s Magic Kingdom becomes apparent just as soon as you have purchased your ticket. In California, you simply walk from the ticket booth to the entrance gates, mere steps away. Not so in Florida. Here, Disney actually built an artificial lake right in front of the park entrance. After having purchased your entrance ticket, you have the choice of either getting on a Monorail and riding it to the park, or getting on a ferry boat and taking that to the entry gates. I took the ferry; not only is it a more interesting way to approach the park, but from the middle of the lake you can also get a good view of the various lakeside hotels and resorts.

Once inside, Disney’s Magic Kingdom will look very familiar to those of you who have been to Disneyland. In fact, unless you are really familiar with Disneyland, you could easily confuse the two. Both parks have the same basic layout, and most of the rides you know and love are there, and in the expected locations. The most visible difference? There is no Matterhorn Mountain in the Magic Kingdom. As well, the locations of the Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Mountain have been swapped, and the area surrounding the Haunted Mansion has been named “Liberty Square” (this is also where the Hall of Presidents—kind of a Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln on steroids—is located). But the train still circles the park, rocket ships still zoom through Space Mountain, that rhino still has those natives up a tree on the Jungle Cruise, Pirates still threaten the innocent townsfolk in Pirates of the Caribbean, and there are 999 happy haunts hoping you’ll join them in the Haunted Mansion. Oddly, the Pirate ride is shorter than the Disneyland version: the entire burning town scenes at the end of the ride have been omitted. On the plus side, the Haunted Mansion is almost completely identical to the Disneyland version, and they don’t re-theme it based upon “Nightmare Before Christmas” as Disneyland does from Halloween to New Year’s.

I was very excited to see that the Magic Kingdom still has the original (well, slightly updated) Carousel of Progress! Disneyland turned it into “Innoventions” and, in my opinion, completely ruined it. If you miss this ride as I do, be sure to visit it here in the Magic Kingdom.

More for the nostalgia files: here they have something similar to the old People Mover. That ride has been gone from Disneyland for a long time now. The one here doesn’t seem to get all that many riders, so it may not be long for this world either, but it is fun to ride it and reminisce. The Magic Kingdom also has a “Circle-Vision 360” theater, but it was closed (and was most recently showing something called “The Timekeeper”, not the old “America the Beautiful”).

Smaller changes abound. The exterior design of the Haunted Mansion is different (it is a brick building, here). The castle in the center of the park is Cinderella’s (Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty’s castle). And the shops on Main Street are much less interesting here; most are selling the stuff you’d find in the Emporium in Disneyland. There is no Magic shop, no glass blower, no Disneyana shop. None of the “specialty” shops you find in Disneyland appear to be present here in the Magic Kingdom (but they do exist in the other parks here). The Tiki Room show has been updated, but I’d bet you almost anything that they are updating the Disneyland show to match, so that hardly counts as a change.

Missing are the Indiana Jones ride, the Matterhorn, “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” and Star Tours—although the latter two can be found in the Disney-MGM Studios park. New—well, it takes the place of Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, but they are hardly comparable—is the Hall of Presidents. This thing is excellent; be sure and see it. They have animatronic versions of each of our Presidents, from George Washington right up to the current George W Bush. Mr. Bush and Mr. Lincoln do the speaking, but all of the others fidget and fuss throughout. It is very impressive; they would do well to import this one to Disneyland.

If you are comparing only Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, I think that Disneyland wins hands-down. But that isn’t necessarily a fair comparison, since nowadays you really need to compare the entire Disney complex in California (Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure, and Downtown Disney) with the one here. And given the sheer size and variety of offerings here, Florida’s complex comes out on top.

I spent a good part of one day in the Magic Kingdom. It easily would have taken an entire day, but the crowds were light, I didn’t ride the roller coasters, and I skipped Mickey’s Toon Town. I then spent an entire second day at Epcot. This is a park you can definitely do in a single day, although don’t sell it short: spend the entire day and explore everything it has to offer. I think you will like it.

IMG_0013_4

EPCOT once stood for “Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow.” As originally conceived by Walt Disney, it was to be a utopian community where people lived, worked and played. The design changed over time, however, and what is left is simply named “Epcot”: the name doesn’t appear to stand for anything any more. (For what it’s worth, the idea of a utopian community does survive in a separate Disney development named “Celebration.”) What remains is hard to describe. Its purpose seems to be education, using Disney’s usual techniques to make learning fun. If likened to a school, Epcot is divided into two main disciplines: Future World, which covers Science and Technology, and World Showcase, which is the equivalent of a World Studies class. Fortunately, there are no English, foreign language, or math courses!

I’ve posted the pictures from my day at Epcot along with the others from my trip: [deleted]. I drove to this one (and got hopelessly lost; it took me quite a while to get turned around and back on the right track). Upon entering the park, you find yourself standing right in front of “Spaceship Earth.” Using projections and animatronic robots, this is a slow tour through the history of communications in a People Mover-type car. It’s pretty well done, as most Disney rides are, although don’t really expect to learn anything you didn’t already know.

IMG_0001_4

Once out of that ride, you discover that the guy who designed the roadways around this place must have also designed the Future World layout. What looks to be extremely simple on the park map turns out to be very complex in practice. I mean, you sit in one spot until you are positive that you have yourself precisely located on the map, with the map properly oriented given the surrounding buildings, and yet when you strike off towards your intended destination you quickly discover that you are hopelessly lost. The map doesn’t appear to be wrong, it’s just that for some reason translating the map to reality is extremely difficult. Fortunately, the World Showcase half of the park is arranged around a central lagoon such that your only choice is to either go clockwise or counter-clockwise. It’s pretty hard to get lost in that section of the park.

After I got out of Spaceship Earth I headed for what I thought was Universe of Energy. Somehow, I wound up at GM’s Test Track ride. Fortunately, I wanted to try it out, too, so I just changed my agenda and went on the Test Track next, instead.

Test Track is sponsored by GM, and purports to show you how they test their automobiles. The queue area takes you past a number of working test rigs that are bashing, stretching, and otherwise abusing various car parts. But I didn’t get much of an opportunity to look at all of this: a number of the rides in the Future World section not only use the FastPass system (where you can kind-of make a “reservation” to go on a ride, and then at the appointed time you practically walk right on), there is also a separate line for single riders. As you can guess, that suited me just fine! I walked right to the head of the line, no FastPass needed, and got on in very short order. It makes sense; they always have an extra seat or two, and filling them with single riders is more logical then letting them go empty.

The Test Track ride is sort of a cross between Mr. Toad and Indiana Jones. It starts out somewhat slow, going through some “road tests” (including a “crash test” that is similar to what you go through in Mr Toad when you crash through the wall at the end), but then the ride really takes off. Suddenly you find yourself whipping along in excess of 60 MPH, zooming in and out of the building. This is all on a relatively level track; there are no loops and no real hills. The sheer speed makes for a pretty impressive finish, though! Once off the cars, you walk through what is basically a new car showroom without the salesmen (although there is an information desk where you can find out more about the GM cars on display). Here you have the opportunity to enter a drawing for a new Cadillac SUV.

From this ride, I once again got my bearings and headed towards Universe of Energy. But HP’s new Mission: SPACE ride was on the way, so I decided to ride that one next. Again, the single-rider line makes the boarding process quick and painless. But then comes the ride. Repeatedly they warn you about a number of aspects of this ride. If you are AT ALL prone to motion sickness they advise you not to ride. If you have problems with claustrophobia or pitch darkness, they advise you not to ride. They warn you about this over, and over again. And you know what? They are NOT kidding. This is the first Disney ride I’ve ever known that has motion sickness bags at every seat. They actually point them out to you!

This ride is a simulated mission to Mars. You “travel” in groups of four, with each person being assigned a job: Commander, Pilot, etc. The four of you are placed in your spaceship side-by-side. There are something like ten or twelve of these all attached to a heavy-duty spider-like arrangement overhead (imagine a giant claw, with each car—holding four people each—attached to the tips of the “fingers”). This allows them to orient the cars in any direction and to spin the cars as a group to simulate acceleration and gravity. Once you are in your seat, an overhead safety bar lowers and then the control console in front of you advances until it is a foot or so in front of your face. You are packed in tight at this point, hence the claustrophobia warning. The console has a cool air vent blowing right into your face at this point, thank goodness!

Now the thing is oriented and spun in such a way as to simulate strong acceleration, while the screen on the console in front of you shows you “blasting off.” You go into simulated cryogenic-sleep (hence the darkness) and then “awake” seconds later in an emergency situation: there is space debris all around you. Your ship has to execute a number of violent maneuvers in an attempt to avoid mishap. This is very similar to Disneyland’s Star Tours ride, where you avoid and occasionally crash into what appear to be giant chunks of ice. Eventually your ship reaches Mars, swoops through some canyons in an out-of-control manner, and makes a crash landing, skidding right to the edge of a cliff. All in all, it is an interesting, but extremely intense, experience. I’m not all that motion-sensitive but I came off the thing feeling a bit queasy. I’m glad that I’ve ridden Mission: SPACE; now I don’t need to ride it again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they either tame this one down or shut it down altogether: it really seems to step over the bounds of what is acceptable for a ride at a Disney park.

As you exit the ride, you are taken through a large room where you can enjoy various hands-on activities to learn about Mars and space travel in general. I skipped that part, but there appears to be a lot you can do there.

Finally, I made it to Universe of Energy. This “ride,” like most in the park, is clearly not your typical theme-park ride. For one thing, it is 45 minutes long… Hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”), it is a humorous introduction to where and how we obtain energy. After an 8 minute film that sets up the “story,” you proceed into what at first looks like a large theater. You quickly realize that the seats are organized into giant cars that take in excess of 100 people apiece. Once everyone has been seated, the presentation begins. At first everything is on the large screens in front of you, but soon the cars rotate, and then slowly begin to move. You wind your way from room to room, learning about the subject through both on-screen presentation and animatronics. All in all, it’s pretty good. It’s a nice way to get people thinking about energy production (and, to a disappointingly small extent, conservation) while keeping everyone engaged.

IMG_0004_4

After Universe of Energy, I decided to make my way to the other half of the park: the World Showcase. Here, arrayed around a large lagoon are a number of “pavilions” each showcasing a different country. Currently, there are 11: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom, and Canada. One of the reasons I decided to head to this half of the park at this time was the fact that I was hungry, and each pavilion, in addition to showcasing the best that the respective country has to offer, sells appropriately-themed food. Thus, I had the choice of Chinese food, Mexican food, you name it. And drink. This is NOT your father’s Disneyland. Disneyland has a strict no-alcohol policy (with one exception that is not open to the public). Not so here. In the Mexico pavilion, they serve Margaritas. Want beer? Most pavilions have it: various German beers in the German pavilion, Bass or Guinness in the UK pavilion, and so on (I didn’t check what they serve in the USA pavilion – probably Bud or Michelob or something). How about wine? You’ll find wine for sale, by the glass and by the bottle, in the French pavilion. They even do wine tastings!

IMG_0030_4

Food service at most of the pavilions comes in two varieties: counter service, or restaurant-style. The restaurant-style restaurants take reservations. And as you might expect, they charge accordingly. I never ate in one of these nicer restaurants, so I can’t tell you if the food was worth the extra expense. Me, I had Chinese takeout. And I couldn’t resist a beer from the German pavilion.

IMG_0010_2

Each pavilion is designed to show the host country in its best light. At first, I wasn’t all that interested, but after lunch I explored the China pavilion and I quickly realized that I really ought to check out each one.

IMG_0009_4

Call me sentimental, but the China pavilion has a Circle-Vision 360 theater. And unlike the one in the Magic Kingdom, this one was operating. I haven’t been in one of these since they closed “America the Beautiful” at Disneyland, and I’ve always thought that doing so was a mistake. This “theater in the round” is a great way to show off a country such as China. (Although I must say that the part where the camera came out of the forbidden city and proudly showed off Tiananmen Square struck me as a bit odd.) In addition to the theater and the Chinese restaurants, the China pavilion contained a really good display of ethnic Chinese clothing.

The star attraction at the USA pavilion was a 30-minute history of our country put on in their 1000 seat theater. Hosted by animatronic versions of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain, the show was part film, part robot. Prior to the show a group of a capella singers entertained the waiting guests.

France showed an 18 minute film, “Impressions de France,” that presented the cities, towns, and countryside of modern-day France.

Canada also had a Circle-Vision 360 theater; they similarly used it to give you a great visual tour of Canada.

The UK seems to have one of the bigger pavilions, although they don’t have any kind of ride associated with theirs. The UK pavilion consists of shops (selling products of the UK—including Scotland and Wales, and a large shop that sold various items emblazoned with your family crest), pubs, fish-and-chip places, and an outdoor stage where a group was doing Beatles tunes.

Mexico has an actual ride in their pavilion. It is a boat ride that is sort-of a cross between “Pirates of the Caribbean” (for the caverns) and “It’s A Small World.” As you can see from my pictures, one room seems almost lifted from that latter ride (although they aren’t singing the Small World song!). Their shops sell serapes, sombreros, figurines; all the stuff you’d expect. And, like the others, they have two different restaurants: one takeout style and one where you are waited upon.

IMG_0031_4 IMG_0036_3

Even the Norway pavilion was great fun. Theirs also consisted of a boat ride, which was most appropriate given their Viking heritage and their intimate relationship with the sea. They take you through a brief tour of Norwegian culture, and then you get off the boat and sit through a five minute film all about Norway. Repeatedly they point out that “Its spirit is its people.” O-kay…

One thing to be aware of if you visit Epcot: the two halves of the park have different hours. After circling the World Showcase lagoon and exploring all it has to offer, I still had two hours until the closing fireworks show. I decided to spend some of that time going into areas of Future World that I had not yet explored. In particular, I wanted to check out “The Land” and “The Living Seas.” Again, crossing into that half of the park was like going into the Twilight Zone: I got seriously lost, and twice had to consult the map and reorient myself. When I finally made it to “The Living Seas,” it was obvious that it had closed. I then took a closer look at the schedule of show times I had been handed along with my park map, and to my dismay discovered that although World Showcase was open until 9:30 p.m., Future World closed at 7:00. You could still walk through Future World, fortunately, since the Main gate from which I entered—and outside of which my car was parked—was on the far side of it, but the place was almost completely devoid of people. Kind of creepy, really.

To kill time, I took one last tour of the World Showcase, but there was little to see that I hadn’t already seen (except a really neat exhibit of tin toys in the Japan pavilion). By 8:30, I was done. I saw little need to hang around for yet another hour just to see the fireworks show, so I headed back to my hotel.

Speaking of my hotel, if you are planning a trip to this area I can definitely recommend the hotel I stayed in. The “Doubletree Club Lake Buena Vista” (quite a mouthful) is a family-oriented hotel about as close to the official Disney Resort as you can get without being in it. By not being part of the official Disney Resort, you save a lot. The location is in some ways better, too, since this hotel is right across the street from nearly every restaurant imaginable. It has a cocktail lounge in the lobby, wireless Internet service throughout the hotel, a coin operated laundry (which I took good advantage of), a concierge that will sell you tickets to most of the area attractions, and a free shuttle bus to and from the Disney complex. There is a regular Doubletree hotel about two blocks from this one, but it is more expensive. Fresh and clean (it was recently purchased and renovated by Doubletree), convenient and cheap—what more could you ask for?
My time here in Florida was spent pretty much in three places only: the Disney parks, the Space Center, and within walking distance of my hotel. Thus I can’t say much about Florida in general, other than to note that even in mid December it was both hot (mid 80’s) and humid. I cannot imagine what this place is like during the summer. And there was a lot of visible evidence of hurricane damage, so parts of the year must be really nasty. Orlando itself appeared to be a typical American urban sprawl. No worse, but not visibly better, than your average American city. But most people don’t come here for the city itself, they come for the attractions. And this one must have the largest concentration of theme park-style attractions of any place in the country—or, for that matter, the world.

Part IV: Space Coast

December 8, 2004

The first thing I thought of when I realized that the Sunset Limited terminates in Orlando was Disney World. Then I looked at a map of Florida and realized that there was a far more important reason for me to go to Florida: the Kennedy Space Center.

The Kennedy Space Center (and Cape Canaveral – they are two different places) is an amazing place. For one thing, it sits within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge (and, by extension, the Space Center) is teeming with wildlife. Birds, turtles, alligators, snakes, armadillos, etc. are everywhere. The alligators especially love the landing strips—there is a group of alligator wranglers who’s job it is to clear the landing strip before the Shuttle can land! Throughout my time here I saw countless alligators, and, as you can see from the photos, turtles. Driving to the Center on the second day, I had to swerve into the opposing lane because a turtle was crossing the highway and was right in the middle of my lane.

IMG_0044

Did you catch that? “The second day.” Yes, there is so much to see here that I had to come back for a second day. Fortunately, the entrance tickets are good for two days (with validation). You could probably cram it all into one day, but I took both of the extended tours that they offer, and each are more than two hours long. That, plus exploring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center (with two IMAX theaters, a large number of other exhibits, and the “worlds largest space shop”) is tough to jam into a single day.

If you visit, plan your time accordingly. At least, arrive promptly when they open so that you maximize your day. And do research in advance so you know exactly what you want to do. I’ll describe the two extended tours in just a minute. But one other thought about planning a trip: learn from my mistakes. This is a WORKING facility. That means that they are actively shooting rockets off all the time. Like an idiot, I didn’t check to see if anything was launching while I was planning my trip. I leave here on Thursday, December 9. On Friday, December 10, they are shooting off a Delta 4 rocket. I’M MISSING IT BY ONE DAY! As Charlie Brown used to say, AAUUGH! Be sure to check out my pictures: you can see the rocket and even the trucks bringing the rocket fuel. (See [deleted] for the Kennedy Space Center photos, and [deleted] for the Cape Canaveral photos, including the pictures of the rocket that goes off on the 10th.) As for how to find out what is launching, just check the web. For instance, https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/events.aspx lists what is launching in December of 2004; right at the top is the Delta 4 that I’m missing. Sigh. I guess I’m going to plan another trip back here someday…

IMG_0039_2

Back to the Space Center. Basic admission gets you into the Visitor’s Center complex. They have a number of movies, interactive exhibits, and the like. A couple of times each day they have an astronaut give a live talk where you can ask questions. You can wander the rocket garden, explore the full-size Shuttle mockup, and, of course, shop in the “worlds’s largest space shop.” It’s a pretty good shop—they have a ton of space-related stuff, from kid’s toys to shirts and jackets to pins and postcards to books and expensive artwork. Your basic admission also gets you on a bus out to see pad 39A and B (the twin pads used to launch all of the moon missions starting with Apollo 8, and all of the Shuttle missions), and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The Center is neat: they have one of the three remaining Apollo rockets. The one here at Kennedy was supposed to be Apollo 19, but funding cuts prevented it from ever being launched. They also have a moon rock that you can actually touch.

IMG_0055

That’s the basic tour. Pretty much self-guided, plus a couple of videos played while you are on the bus out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. If you are willing to pony up some extra $$$, however, there are two other tours you can take that give you a more in-depth experience. The first is the “NASA Up Close” tour (see the photos at [deleted]—pretty much all of these are from that tour). I did this one the first day. They take you out on a bus with a real live guide, so you can ask questions. They go all around the Kennedy Space Center, which is where the NASA missions take place: the moon shots and the Shuttle missions, mostly. We first went into the building where the International Space Station modules are processed. This is truly an international effort: there were six or so modules in there, three of them from Italy and one from Japan. The modules are brought here from their countries of origin and then tested prior to launch. As you can guess, with the Shuttle flights temporarily halted, the modules have been stacking up a bit… The Shuttles are scheduled to resume flying in May 2005 (hopefully) so we should get the Space Station project moving again.

IMG_0022_2 IMG_0027_2

The Up Close tour then takes you out to 89A and B (the launch pads used for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions). You don’t actually get right up to the pads, but you get much closer than the regular tours. You get to go out to where the closest cameras are mounted—automatic cameras, since this point is far closer than humans are allowed to be when the rockets are launched. We walked around there for a bit, and then we went out to the Shuttle landing strip. They say that this is the longest landing strip in the world—three miles long. It’s just a landing strip, not much to look at. But apparently the alligators just love it. They actually have people who’s job it is to go out on the runway prior to a landing and chase the alligators off! Once the Shuttle has landed, they tow it off the runway and right down the middle of an extra-wide street (temporarily blocked off, of course) to the Shuttle’s hangar. We drove down that street, and right by the three hangars where the three flyable Shuttles currently are. Discovery, one of the Shuttles, is there in its hangar, actively being prepped for launching in May.

IMG_0061

The Shuttle hangars are close to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which most folks have at least seen pictures of. Tourists aren’t allowed inside, unfortunately, but even from the outside this is a pretty impressive building. They claim that by volume it is the largest building in the world. This is where the Shuttle is put together (what most people think of as the Shuttle is just the orbiter; the Shuttle is the orbiter plus the large external fuel tank plus the two solid rocket boosters; see my mockup photos for the various pieces). They start by bringing the launch platform in. Then they place the two solid rocket boosters in their proper positions. Next, they drop the external fuel tank between the two boosters, and fasten them together. Finally, they bring in the orbiter and attach it to the external fuel tank. The whole process takes about two weeks. Finally, when it is all ready, one of the crawlers comes in, slips underneath the plaform, raises up and then trundles off to the launch pad. The crawler moves along at the blazing speed of 9/10 miles per hour. The pad is three miles away, so it takes a while to move the assembly out there.

IMG_0029_2  IMG_0034 IMG_0031_2

One of the things I found interesting about the launch pads was the water tower off to the side. I knew that there was a lot of water involved in the launch (I’ve never noticed the tower, though, where the water is stored prior to the launch), but I always thought that they shot it into the space below the platform to keep things cool. They do shoot it into the space below the platform—a lot of water, in a very short time—but it isn’t for cooling. It actually acts as a noise suppressor, and is necessary because the rockets are so loud that at full volume the sound would actually shake tiles off of the Shuttle! It’s amazing some of the solutions they had to come up with make these things fly.

IMG_0039

The Up Close tour—and the “Cape Then and Now” tour, too—ends up at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, so if you take either of these tours you don’t need to take the regular tour as well. You aren’t missing anything.

I spent most of my first day on the Up Close tour and exploring the Apollo/Saturn V center. I made it to one of the IMAX movies, but didn’t get to much of the rest of the visitor’s center. While I wouldn’t have come back just for the visitor’s center, I was interested in the “Cape Then and Now” tour, and so decided to come back for another round of space stuff.

The Cape Then and Now tour focuses on Cape Canaveral. Many people confuse Cape Canaveral (for a while named Cape Kennedy, but the name has been changed back) and the Kennedy Space Center. The two are adjacent, but distinct places. Cape Canaveral is the military facility where the early launches took place. Kennedy Space Center was built for the moon launches; this is where all of the Saturn V launches (starting with Apollo 8) took place. Since the first tour only covered Kennedy, I only got half the story.

As you can see from my Cape Canaveral photos ([deleted]), the Cape is an interesting mix of historical (the Apollo 1 launch pad, the old blockhouse used for the smaller rocket launches, etc.) and current activity. They have a number of pads still in use. At this very moment, there are five rockets on launch pads all being prepped for their various missions.

IMG_0011

We couldn’t get terribly close to any of the active pads, of course. The inactive ones are a different story. I was very pleased to see that they’ve made the Apollo 1 pad into something of a memorial to the three astronauts who died there during a pre-launch test. There isn’t much in the way of a memorial—just some benches in their memory, and a kiosk describing the event (that isn’t in my photos because the recent hurricanes blew it into the bushes; they have yet to put it back in place). But it doesn’t need much. As they are, the concrete structure upon which the rocket rested, the scorched fire bricks that show the evidence of various launches, and the general air of peace and tranquility seem fitting somehow.

IMG_0028_3 IMG_0036_2

I enjoyed seeing the old computer technology in blockhouse that was used to control and monitor the launches. The blockhouse itself was amazing: two-foot thick walls, and those amazingly-thick windows (forty-five panes of glass, in three groups of 15). It was built this way because at the time, with the technology they had, they had to be physically located within 100 yards of the rocket itself! It must have been something, to be in there and watching a launch from that close. Nowadays, you can’t get any closer than about 3.5 miles…

IMG_0013_3

This second tour also ended up at the Apollo/Saturn V center (they’re proud of it, as they should be); I didn’t spend much time there since I had already explored it. Instead, I headed back to the Visitor’s Center and spent the rest of my afternoon exploring that more thoroughly.
The Kennedy Space Center complex is a 45 minute drive from the center of the Florida Disney universe, so if you are planning a trip to Disney World you should consider spending at least one day out at Kennedy, learning about our space program. I’ve always been a huge fan of the program (can you tell?) and of course I enjoyed it immensely. But if you aren’t all that familiar with the history and current status of our activities in space, do yourself a favor and check it out. I’ve always believed that space exploration is our destiny; it’s something that we really need to do as human beings (well, exploration in general—but we’ve explored just about all of the land on earth, so that only leaves the oceans and outer space). Unless we push on to explore further outside our environs, as humans we’re just marking time. And the huge number of technological advances that have come out of our space program (all paid for at taxpayer’s expense, true, but then all made freely available to the public; NASA by law cannot patent any of their inventions and cannot collect royalties on anything) have, I belive, more than repaid us for what we spent. Continued exploration of space means that we’d be having to face and deal with new challenges. Overcoming those challenges will benefit us all.

Space may well be the “final frontier.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s get out there!

Part III: Traveling Companions

December 5, 2004

Traveling by train is not like most other forms of travel. Usually, it is the destination that is the reward, not the journey itself. Whether traveling by plane or by car, you usually just want to get to your destination, when your trip really begins. But a trip on a train, for whatever reason, can become part–or all–of the trip itself.

IMG_0003

In Los Angeles, my brother Ric walked me to the platform and saw me board the Sunset Limited, bound for Orlando, Florida. After finding my compartment and depositing my bags, I crossed to the empty compartment across from mine and waved goodbye through the window. Through the magic of cell phones—Ric pulled out his and called mine—we said a final set of farewells. It was after we signed off, however, that an extraordinary—for me, anyway—thing happened. I was in compartment 9, the end unit closest to the dining car. Turning to return to my own compartment, I noticed a man about my age approaching. He said hello and started to deposit his things into the compartment next to mine, number 7. Behind him were two attractive young ladies who turned into compartment 5, the next one down. Almost immediately, one of them popped her head out and asked where the lounge car was. My neighbor—his name was Michael—came back into the hallway and said he wasn’t sure. Because Ric had scoped out the train as I was boarding and had told me over the phone that the lounge car was immediately beyond the dining car, I responded and told everyone—the two girls, who were by now both looking into the hallway, Michael, my neighbor, and an approaching black man who looked every inch a pro football player—where the lounge car was. One of the girls then said in what I shortly learned was an Australian accent, “Great! After we settle in, who’ll join us for drinks? The first round is on us.”

None of us could refuse an offer like that! As the others bustled about their compartments getting organized, I took the opportunity to make a quick call home to check in with my family. After only a few minutes, the girls emerged from their shared compartment and gathered up Michael. The trio then stepped to my door and asked both me and my across-the-hall neighbor–the football player-type who I later learned was named Willie—if we were coming. I indicated I was, and, encouraged by Nancy on the phone, ended my call and joined the group. Willie, on his own phone to his wife, said he’d be along in a bit.

The four of us headed through the dining car and into the lounge car. On this train, the lounge car is not nearly so nice as the one on the Coast Starlight. That train’s first class lounge had upholstered swivel chairs and couches, upscale carpeting and wood accents. On this train, the only lounge car’s upper level consists of fixed plastic-and-vinyl chairs, mostly singles and some doubles, all facing outwards. Downstairs, where the snack bar is located, there are two tables for four and, in a separate room, some oddly-configured banquettes running the length of the room on either side. Again, all done in vinyl and plastic. Since the tables were taken, we snagged some space on the banquettes, sharing with some of our fellow passengers. Having secured a place to sit, one of the girls took drink orders and headed off to stand in the snack bar line. I kept an eye on her and, when she got to the front of the line, helped her carry the drinks back.
As the train began its long journey east, we introduced ourselves. Michael lives in Santa Barbara and is a documentary filmmaker. Currently he is dealing with PBS: they are interested in his most recent documentary, which is the story of his father’s mysterious activities on a frog farm in Cuba. Apparently, in the course of doing research for the story Michael learned that his father may well have been a CIA recruit.

IMG_0022

The Australian girls, Stephanie and Rahni (pronounced “Ronnie”), are both journalists. Rahni is actually a foreign correspondent: she works for an Australian TV network but has lived in Santa Monica (California) for the last eighteen months, covering US events. Stephanie is a print journalist currently residing in Sydney. [Note: I’ve put updated photos on the website. One of them is a picture of the four of us. Rahni is the blonde, and Stephanie is, well, the other one. And may I just say how scary Google is? I just “googled” both the of them and got a number of solid hits. Being journalists, I found articles that Stephanie wrote, interviews that Rahni did, etc. Big brother may not be watching, but somebody sure is…]

The extraordinary thing that happened? We clicked. Aided I’m sure by the fact that we were in a similar age group (an age group that is in the minority in the sleeping cars, I can tell you), and probably by the fact that we were all relatively new to the mysteries of Amtrak travel, we soon discovered that we all really enjoyed each other’s company. Until Houston, when Michael left, we ended up eating all of our meals together, spent a great deal of time in the lounge car together, and hung out in each other’s roomette doorways, just talking. Even when one of us was otherwise occupied—Rahni had to get some work done, and Michael slept really late one morning—the rest of us were together. So much so that the staff in the lounge and dining cars started assuming that we were going to always be together, and would ask if one of us was late.
Needless to say, this made the journey significantly easier. No worries about making small talk at dinner with a new set of strangers every night: I had a fixed, comfortable set of companions for each and every meal. After Rahni had expressed interest in playing some cards—coincidentally, I had purchased a deck while on the Coast Starlight—and I taught her the rudiments of Gin Rummy, we decided that the four of us should play something. Hearts immediately came to my mind, and though none of the others knew the game, I was willing to teach it and they enjoyed learning it. That set the agenda for each night after the first: we played Hearts all evening, stopping only to eat dinner. We finally stopped when we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer, which usually was about 1:00 am.

In truth, there was a fifth member of our group, but he came and went because of a special obligation he had. Willie, my neighbor across the hall, had introduced himself when we first got on the train, but never did join us for drinks that first night. I thought at the time that we probably wouldn’t see much of him after that, but I was wrong. I noticed him at meals, always sitting with an elderly white woman. The way he was treating her, I thought at first perhaps he was related in some way. Maybe an adopted son or grandson? He always escorted her in and out of the dining car, helped her with the menu, and often fetched things for her.

On Friday, Michael and Rahni slept in, leaving Stephanie and me to fend for ourselves. We made our way to the dining car, and were seated by the steward across from Willie and his traveling companion. This gave me an opportunity to observe the two of them close up. At first, I saw nothing to contradict my original assessment. As the meal progressed, however, some of the questions the woman—Jane—asked of Willie made it clear that she was no relation. She didn’t know what kind of kids Willie had, for instance (a bunch, of varying ages in case you were wondering). I gradually grew to realize that they were in business together, or were working together, or something like that. Earlier I had had a brief interaction with Willie in which he mentioned that he was in show business in some way. He said he had done some acting, but didn’t want to elaborate. Putting two and two together, I guessed that maybe she was also in “the business.”

The four of us had a nice breakfast. Willie was turning out to be a delightful person, and I could see that he would fit into the group nicely. Jane, on the other hand, was somewhat crotchety. She was very particular about what she ate, and she had a number of strong opinions. I suspect that old age has a lot to do with that; I, like the others, gave her lots of slack. Once Jane had finished her breakfast, Willie dutifully got up and escorted her back to her room. Stephanie and I lingered a bit, and then finally made our way back to our own respective rooms. Shortly thereafter, Willie returned to his. But before he went into his room, he stuck his head into mine, told me how much he enjoyed having breakfast with the two of us, and then said, “So, did you recognize her?” I said no, and he then informed me that I had just had breakfast with Jane Russell (a bombshell in her day, she is perhaps best known for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” – see http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000066/). It turns out that he was escorting her to a gathering of older actors in Memphis. And we later figured out that he is principally employed these days as a bodyguard. (Check out http://news.findlaw.com/prnewswire/20041004/04oct2004025846.html; I’m pretty sure he’s the “Willie Green” mentioned in the article. Ouch!)

Regardless of his profession, I was absolutely right about Willie fitting into our little group. When he discovered that we had a card game going, after he saw Jane safely to bed he joined us in the lounge car. Hearts can’t be played by five people, and he didn’t know the game, so he decided to watch Rahni play and then coach her. Although he didn’t know Hearts, he knew how to play Spades and apparently they aren’t all that different. He caught on extremely quickly, and proved to be a solid partner for Rahni. The following night he joined the game again, and this time we each took turns sitting out so that he could actually play, and not just watch. I had actually invited Jane to play as well—she had mentioned during our breakfast that she knew how to play Hearts—but she chose to retire to her quarters instead. Too bad—that would have made for one heck of a story!

As we approached Houston—Michael’s destination—we all became increasingly uncomfortable. Michael started to openly consider changing his plans—he was going to see his son and (we had a hard time believing this; look at his picture) his grandson—and instead tagging along with the girls for a few days. He even went so far as to call his son and sort of jokingly suggest that he might do such a thing, just to gauge his son’s reaction. Well, Michael did get off in Houston, so you can guess how well his little “joke” went over. When the train pulled into Houston, we all got off the train to say our final farewells and, as it turns out, to meet his son. That wasn’t quite the last of him however; Stephanie received a phone call about ten minutes later from Michael. He had forgotten to tip our room steward and asked if she could take care of it for him. As we had exchanged contact information, Michael promised to reimburse her, and she agreed to do as he asked.

IMG_0024

Though you wouldn’t know it by reading the schedule, Houston turned out to be a late night stop. Since we would arrive in New Orleans sometime the following morning, we had a very drawn-out breakfast so as to spend together as much of the time left to us as we could. Willie joined us for part of it, so the table was even full for a while. But all good things must come to an end, and when we reached New Orleans they did. New Orleans was a longer stop, so I took the opportunity to walk everyone into the station. From there, Willie and Jane headed to the ticket counter (well, Jane settled into a seat and let Willie handle the tickets) to confirm the details of the next leg of their trip. The girls gave me a hug and then headed out the front door in search of a taxi, off to their New Orleans hotel.

IMG_0026

I’ve got to tell you that getting back on that train was very, very hard. Especially hard was seeing new people, joining the train in New Orleans, occupy the rooms that my friends had just vacated. I kept wanting to drop in on someone, but I had no one else to drop in on. These new folks were just people—strangers to me. That day, for the first time in the trip, I skipped lunch. When the dining car steward came by to take my dinner reservation, I felt a great sadness as I confirmed that indeed it would be just one for dinner that night. When 7:00 rolled around I almost skipped dinner, too, but I knew that I needed to get back into the swing of things as best I could. At dinner, the couple that I was seated with were nice enough, but try as I might I just wasn’t up to being talkative. I wasn’t completely silent, but I ate my meal quickly and then excused myself, not willing to linger any more than I had to. I hoped to relieve some of the emptiness I felt inside by talking to Nancy, but it wasn’t to be: we were in the middle of nowhere by that point and I had no cell coverage. I ended up watching a movie on my laptop, hoping that by the end we’d be somewhere with adequate coverage, but no luck. I went to bed that night feeling more alone that I had on the entire trip thus far.

************

They say that “time heals all wounds” and though I can’t say I’m completely healed, a night’s sleep and the process of dealing with the next morning’s arrival in Orlando (in Sanford, actually, but that’s a story for another day) did help a lot. I’m now in a hotel where although I’m a lot less likely to meet other people, I’m back online and I have great cell coverage so I can once again contact all of my regular friends. I miss you guys! Thanks for continuing to read these; they are proving to be of cathartic value (Dan and John: get out your dictionaries and look it up!) as well as serving as a record of my trip.

Next time I’ll cover some details of the Sunset Limited itself, and what it’s like to spend that much time living on a train.