Category Archives: Travel

Lucky to Live in the ROC (Part 2)

I’m back with another exciting installment of “Lucky to Live in the ROC,” an ongoing series in which I extoll the virtues of my hometown, Rochester, New York.

(Bonus tip: Scroll to the bottom to see the CUTEST PICTURE EVER TAKEN OF MY DAUGHTERS, and then return here to continue reading.)

Part 2: HIGHLAND PARK

When I first moved to Rochester as a child, I immediately noticed the abundance of trees.

Maybe my impression was colored by the fact that my former street was a busy four-lane highway, and my new address was on a quiet road covered by an arc of leafy elms. But to my twelve-year-old mind, Rochester was a green oasis compared to the drab Buffalo suburb I’d come from.

I soon discovered many lovely parks in and around Rochester that supported my first impression. And, of all the parks in the area, Highland Park turned out to be my favorite.

Highland Park was designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of New York’s Central Park). Its 150 acres are located within the city limits. It’s an arboretum that showcases more than 1,200 lilac shrubs (over 500 varieties), as well as magnolias, rhododendron, azaleas, and many other beautiful plants, while maintaining a natural, flowing vibe. It also features an amphitheater, Highland Bowl, that is used for outdoor movies, theater productions, and music concerts.

Highland Park is a great place to visit in the spring, when many flowering plants are at their peak. For a guide to what’s blooming when, click here.

A Lilac Festival is held in Highland Park each May, with music, art, food, and – of course – lilacs.

Winter in Highland Park can be a good time for photos, too, until your fingers get numb from the cold.

Here are my top three memories from past visits to Highland Park:

#1: Attending a Sarah Vaughan concert in the 1980s at the Highland Bowl amphitheater. Fun fact: My daughter Erica (age 1 at the time) came along with me. About 30 years later, we learned that her husband, Richard, had been there, too. Coincidentally, they tied the knot at Warner Castle, located IN HIGHLAND PARK! Could their fate have been written in the stars that night?

#2: Seeing Herman’s Hermits there during the 1990s. Somewhere in my archives, I have a blurry snapshot of Peter Noone (taken by me) singing “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.”

#3: Taking my daughters there to see the flowers. One year, on Mother’s Day, a reporter noticed Katie and interviewed her. She was on the news that night!

Well, I guess you can see why Highland Park is special to me. I think I’ll go there today and take more photos.

Tip: Follow me so you won’t miss the next fascinating episode of “Lucky to Live in the ROC,” in which I’ll discuss the FOURTH-OLDEST ROLLER COASTER IN THE WORLD!

Two Bridges and More

Inspired by a recent post by my friend Mary (“A Bridge Too … High!”), I’ve decided to post something about bridges, too.

While Mary’s article is about a bridge in Ireland; mine is about two bridges in Italy.

And, while hers is witty and thoroughly entertaining, mine is more along the lines of “here are some photos of bridges, and here is all I can think of to say about them at the moment.” Oh well. One can’t always be witty and entertaining!

I hope you enjoy the photos, and that you’ll check out Mary’s blog as well.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy, 2017:

Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) is aptly named; it’s over 1,000 years old! (The first written record of it is from the year 996.) These days, it’s lined with shops, and tons of tourists. I just noticed that there are at least six bridges in this photo!

Gazing at this picture brings me back to the moment when I captured it. I’d just toured the nearby Uffizi Gallery. In fact, I was standing inside the gallery when I took the photo, looking down at the Arno River. It was my first trip to Italy (first time in Europe, too). I’d flown there from Tucson, Arizona with a small travel group (only eight of us). Together, in just one week, we visited several interesting and beautiful sites around Tuscany, including Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Lucca, and Siena.

On my last day of the trip, I took a 20-minute bus ride from the outskirts of Florence, where we were staying, into the city, all by myself, just so I could absorb some of the local culture and language on my own time. It was an amazing experience. I could barely speak a full sentence in Italian, yet the people on the bus (who barely spoke English) helped me out when I wasn’t sure which was my stop.

My day of solo museum-hopping (which included a delicious three-course lunch – meat, pasta, tiramisu, and of course vino) went by much too quickly. At about 5 p.m., after standing at the wrong bus stop for ten minutes, I discovered my error just in time to catch the last bus back to the hotel. I wasn’t the least bit nervous. It was a friendly, warm, and welcoming place, and gorgeous, too.

Ponte Sisto, Rome, Italy, 2019:

Two years after my first trip to Italy, I had the chance to go again with the same tour group. This time there were only four of us, and we were going to study Italian in Sicily for a week! After the week was up, rather than flying home directly from Sicily, two of us opted to spend two extra days in Rome. I mean, how could I possibly skip seeing Rome when I had the chance? (I LOVED Rome and hope to return some day.)

Ponte Sisto (the bridge pictured above) has a long history. From what I can gather from my online search, there was a bridge on this site in the 4th century known as Pons Aurelius. It was partially destroyed in 772 when Rome was attacked and taken over by a Lombard king, Desiderius. In 1473, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the rebuilding of the bridge. It is now only for pedestrians and spans the Tiber River in Rome’s historic district. I didn’t realize it when I took this photo, but that’s the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (in Vatican City) in the background!

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about bridges. My post, “Bridges in Literature,” will bring you up to speed on the many appearances of bridges (or lack thereof?) in books, songs, and movies. Here’s a sneak peek at the photo I used in that article. It’s a bridge somewhere in southern Arizona:

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One last thought: The “featured image” at the top of this post is a blue and yellow banner in honor of Ukraine. These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the bridges there, and about how so many thousands of innocent victims of the Russian invasion are trying to cross them to safety.

This post is dedicated to the brave people of Ukraine.

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If you haven’t already done so, please check out my brand new book, “Wordle Poems: A Poem a Day for Wordle Nerds,” on Amazon. It contains 30 original poems inspired by the daily act of Wordling. No spoilers! Reviews are greatly appreciated!

For more of my writing, visit my author page over at Bardsy, as well as my book, “Standing in the Surf,” on Amazon. It’s a photo journal about the Pacific Northwest area known as the Salish Sea, which includes Whidbey Island, Vancouver Island, Stanley Park, Butchart Gardens, and more.

New Latitude, Episode 4: Tossin’ and Turnin’ in Tucson

If you’ve been following my current blog series, New Latitude, you’ll know I’m moving 2,000 miles northeast, and that my offer on a house I’ve seen only via the internet was accepted. I don’t usually toss and turn, but buying a house like this, and moving across the country in the middle of a pandemic, can change a person. And I have no one to blame for my recent sleepless nights but myself.

Oh, and I also blame my upstairs neighbor, a young guy who plays loud music, has squeaky floors (and a squeaky bed), and owns a shrill alarm clock that wakes me up at five a.m., five days a week. I’m really looking forward to getting out of here, and into my own home, where I can sleep as late as I want to and play my own loud music!

Last week I closed on the house, and I’m now the proud owner of … well … we’ll find out just what it is that I’m the proud owner of in about four weeks, when I finally get to set actual eyes on the place.

I realize I’m one of the lucky ones, seeing as I’m retired, I’m healthy, and I’ve managed to secure an appointment for my first COVID vaccine. But meanwhile (or quarantinewhile), here are some of the challenges I’ve been dealing with regarding my upcoming move:

  • New date! The mortgage company changed the closing date and gave me about a week’s notice to get my banking act together. Inconveniently, that week included a federal holiday (MLK Jr. Day) and the U.S. Presidential inauguration (which I also thought might be a bank holiday). I needed an in-person appointment to withdraw my funds, and appointments that week were scarce! On top of that, my lawyer didn’t know the exact amount I needed to send him yet. I managed to secure an appointment on a Tuesday, learned the final amount on Wednesday, and the wire transfer went through on Thursday. That part had to be requested by me using an online form. The confusing instructions I was given referred to a “title company” but, being just a regular human being, I did not know what that was. I took a guess that it was the bank holding my mortgage, and pressed “send.”
  • Not signed? After I electronically signed one of the necessary forms, the person at the other end said it wasn’t signed, although it was … I checked … and I wasn’t able to sign it again. It all got sorted out eventually.
  • Am I insured? My homeowner’s insurance account listed two different effective dates. When I called it to their attention, they said it was just a glitch and not to worry. Right! Tell that to my pillow when I’m crying into it at night!
  • Misspelling! My realtor’s name was spelled wrong on one of the forms (the bank’s error) and needed to be retyped during the closing.
  • Whew! The wire went through, the forms got corrected, the closing was conducted on Friday via FaceTime … and after an hour of signing papers, I was congratulated on being a new homeowner! At least I think I was … it’s all a blur.
  • Vaccination Plans! I’d been hoping to get both COVID vaccines here in Arizona before I moved (I’m in group 1b) … then because of the delays in vaccine distribution, I thought I’d get the first one here, then get the second in New York. Luckily, I checked this plan with the hotline in New York and they said no, I’d have to get both in the same state. I was able to get an appointment for the first one in New York, even though I’ll have to drive 300 miles from my new home to the vaccination site.
  • Managing the Move: I then spent countless hours determining how and when to leave Arizona (and who would move me). I needed a spreadsheet and flow chart to time my arrival in New York early enough to factor in a 10-day quarantine (required by the state), settle into my new home, and then drive to my vaccine appointment.
  • Moving Supplies: Normally I would just go to grocery stores, ask for empty boxes, and drive to U-Haul for other supplies. But as we know, things are not normal. I ordered boxes, tape, and bubble wrap online and got to work packing, taping, and labeling. I ran out and had to re-order. May have to do it again!
  • Anti-COVID Supplies: I bought a good supply of masks (I’m planning to double-mask), sanitizer, gloves, wipes, etc. I also made a list of food and supplies to bring in the car, in order to minimize stops along the way.
  • AAA SNAFUs: I called AAA for route suggestions and a list of COVID-safe, pet-friendly hotels, and they were glad to oblige. Unfortunately, they snail-mailed the info to one of my old addresses. They also said they’d email me a copy. I never received either. When I contacted them again, they said they’d re-send the email with my correct address (but didn’t). When I called a third time, they finally got it right.
  • Snow Patrol: I’d probably be driving through snow, so I bought a snow brush and ice scraper on Amazon, ordered more warm socks, and checked to make sure I knew where my gloves and hat were hidden. We don’t use them too often here in Tucson, but we do on days like this:
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  • Car Headaches: My car dealership had recently recommended that I buy two new tires and change my differential fluid (they wanted to charge me $700). I decided to go to my trusted mechanics down the road instead. When they saw my car, they informed me that I do not need two new tires and that they could not in good conscience sell me any. Further, my differential fluid was very clean and did not need to be changed. I then purchased a tire tread gauge (curbside pickup!) and double-checked the tire tread depth myself — and triple-checked by taking the car to a second tire store (again, curbside service!) — and everyone agreed that the dealership was trying to rip me off. I paid $50 for some new windshield wipers and an air filter and felt just fine about never returning to my car dealership again.

For the record, I’m not holding any of these SNAFUs against anyone, because I know times are tough and people are overworked, underpaid, and doing the best they can.

And even though I’ve been tossing and turning, I’ve recently discovered a way to cope! And I owe my new attitude to three excellent documentaries. Which ones, you ask?

Well, I hate to leave you hanging, but this blog post has gone on long enough. Please stay tuned, because very soon I’ll be blogging about those three documentaries, and how they improved my attitude. See you during the next exciting installment of New Latitude!

New Latitude, Episode 2: Do’s and Don’ts

Previously, on New Latitude:

After having moved from upstate New York to Tucson, Arizona seventeen years ago in search of a decent climate and better job, I’d come to a realization. I’d had my fill of blue skies. I was sick of sunsets that bathed the mountains in rosy hues each night. I hated wearing sandals in January. Authentic tacos were the worst. And all those darned hummingbirds! I longed for upstate New York, where the winters are brutal, the summers are humid and mosquito-filled, and there’s only one hummingbird – the ruby-throated – to identify, if it ever shows up at all.

Ruby-throated hummingbird. Image by Susan Killian @ Pixabay

No wait … none of that’s true, except for the first sentence. Rewind!

What I really meant to say was this: I’ve loved living in Tucson, but the pandemic had called a sudden halt to my regular flights back home to New York State to see my family. Who knew when I could travel there again? Call me loco, but I decided to relocate – to Rochester, where I’d be within a day’s drive of my entire immediate family. Sure, winters would be less than wonderful, but I could at least gaze upon my family’s frozen faces in person, instead of on a computer screen. Besides, the lease on my apartment was coming up for renewal. It was time for a new direction, so I took my first baby step: “Zillow-surfing.” 

And now for Episode 2: Do’s and Don’ts (of buying a house)

Zillow-surfing brought me up close and personal with hundreds of houses, without ever having to set foot in them. I got to see the good, the bad, the ugly, and in some cases, the dirty laundry. Through Zillow-surfing, I made some major decisions, like:

rent vs. buy

1 bath vs. 2

¼ acre vs. 10 acres and a barn

fenced yard backing up to private woods vs. unrestricted view of the auto body shop next door.

Image by Harald Dona @ Pixabay.

Once I’d narrowed my choices down, I started to get excited. But the more excited I became, the more impulsively I acted. I guess I got carried away and ignored common sense.

If you, too, are considering buying a home, here’s some unsolicited advice:

  1. DON’T rule out renting an apartment before buying a house you’ve seen only on the internet. Photoshop can give houses an instant makeover that’s even more amazing than the ones you’ve seen on Fixer Upper.
  2. DON’T cancel your Disney Channel and Hulu Plus subscriptions in the hopes these sacrifices will enable you to afford a house above your means. You’ll soon come to regret your decision, especially if you haven’t seen enough of “Cuomo Prime Time” or “Hamilton” yet.
  3. DON’T fool yourself into believing you’re a skilled negotiator. You’ll just be disappointed in yourself.
  4. DON’T buy a house in a “hot market” city, especially if it happens to be during a “seller’s market.”
  5. DON’T waive an engineering inspection.
  6. DON’T commit to making up the difference between the purchase price and the bank appraisal.
  7. DON’T mail a sizable deposit to the seller without confirming you’ve written the check on the correct bank account — the one with sufficient funds — and not the other one, the one with only $33 in it.
  8. DON’T buy a house in the winter and plan on leaving the house vacant until spring. Pipes in vacant homes have been known to freeze and burst.
  9. DON’T buy a house during a pandemic without knowing when a vaccine will be available. You’ll want protection while driving cross-country, and I’m not talking about a bodyguard (although that would be nice).
  10. DON’T buy an 8-foot couch and two recliners immediately before deciding to move.

By the way, I’m guilty of all of the above.

Image by Gerd Altmann @ Pixabay.

Oh, and DON’T hire a moving van without shopping around. Luckily, I HAVE been shopping around, and the estimates differ wildly — as in a low of $2,800, and a high of — don’t laugh — $14,000. That’s not a typo! “Two Men and a Truck” wanted to charge $12,000 to $14,000 to move a two-bedroom apartment. That must be some classy moving truck they have. And speaking of trucks, did they think I just fell off a turnip truck?

Yeah, those are pumpkins, not turnips. Good eye!
Image by Sweethearts82 @ Pixabay.

On the plus side, interest rates are low right now, so I took the plunge. I bid on a house, and my offer was accepted. And don’t worry, I think I got a sweet deal, an engineer looked at the house before I bid on it, the bank waived their appraisal, the check eventually cleared, and I’m hoping the vaccine will become available soon … for everyone’s sake.

Yes, moving is going to be a pain, and yet I feel good about my decision. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and DO some of the DON’Ts.

Tune in again next time for the next exciting episode of New Latitude, in which I’ll reveal the outcome of my mortgage application! (It’s still a mystery to me.)

Oh My Gluten (Free)

My sister is flying across the country tomorrow to visit me. She’ll be staying with me for five whole days. YAY! I love family visits. I don’t get them very often, so I hope to make the most of it, with the usual food, fun, and frivolity.

She’s gluten-free (and I’m not), so that just adds to the fun of preparing for her stay. I’m not being sarcastic. I actually enjoyed my gluten-free scavenger hunt at Trader Joe’s tonight. I googled “Trader Joe’s gluten free” and found a list that included these yummy items. (I can’t wait to try that almond cashew macadamia drink.)

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For dessert, we can snack on Lara Bars. I love the cashew/date ones. I hope she leaves those for me. Actually, they’re the only ones I’ve tried. That lemon bar looks good right now. Hope I can wait till she gets here.

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I also bought some fruits and veggies, and made a centerpiece to welcome her into my home. Luckily, my sister gets my sense of humor.

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Is wine gluten-free? Oops. I just might have to consume these all by myself.

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I KNOW these aren’t gluten free. Impulse purchase!

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Tucson is an International City of Gastronomy, which means we’ll definitely be going out to sample some gluten-free tacos, tamales, burritos, salads, baked goods, and Margaritas while she’s in town. I’ve got my Best of Tucson issue on the coffee table so we can find all the best places.

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Needless to say, I might not be posting anything for the next five days. But after that, I just might have some food photos to share!

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This is post #5 (but who’s counting?) of NanoPoblano2019. Don’t know what NanoPoblano2019 is? Just click the link! It’s gluten-free, too!

 

Dona Nobis Pacem

The Roman Colosseum, built between 72 A.D. and 80 A.D., is a symbol of brutality.

It is widely believed to have been built by tens of thousands of slaves. During some of the spectacles, it is said that 10,000 animals were slaughtered in a single day. Gladiators fought to their deaths and criminals were executed, all for the sheer entertainment of crowds of 50,000 or more. It is not my favorite place.

In fact, I never was very interested in Roman history, or in seeing the Colosseum. But when I was in Rome for two days in September with someone who did want to visit the Colosseum, I said, “sure, why not,” and went along.

It’s big. It’s old. And it’s kind of shocking to be strolling along on an ordinary cobblestone street, turn a corner, and there it is, looming over everything. Kind of spooky, actually.

Colosseum 3

But for me, the most compelling part about the Colosseum was the fence around it — a fence that was covered with children’s colorful drawings calling for peace. I loved the contrast.

Maybe there’s hope for this world yet.

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This is post #3 for NanoPoblano2019. Click the link to read some other posts from a wonderful bunch of dedicated bloggers known as “cheer peppers.”

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Grandma’s Friendly Village

My grandmother Angeline was born in central Sicily, in a small village with the beautiful name “Villarosa.”

In 1910, at age 8, she emigrated from Sicily to America with her own grandmother, got married at age 16, quickly had five bambinos, and was widowed at 30. She later remarried and had a good life, but she never got to see Villarosa again.

Here she is at about age 30 (I’m guessing).

Grandma Armenia

I liked going to Grandma’s house. She always seemed cheerful, and she served us plenty of macaroni, ice cream, and raspberries, saying the word “mangia” practically as soon as we’d walked through her door. Her house was decorated with colorful starched doilies that she’d crocheted herself. I wonder if she crocheted the collar in the above photo. I have a special memory of the two of us sitting in a summer garden next to some pansies while she taught me to crochet.

Although Grandma never talked about her childhood (probably because I never asked), I’d always wondered what Villarosa was like. About a month ago, I finally got to see it for myself.

I’d signed up for a 5-day Italian language immersion program in Taormina, Sicily, mainly so I could learn about my Sicilian roots and visit Villarosa. Luckily, our group leader and two other students also were interested in seeing more of Sicily, so we rented a car on day 6 and headed for my grandmother’s home town.

Villarosa (pop. 4,824) is on the outskirts of Enna. The two cities couldn’t appear more different. Enna (left), seen from a distance, was a glittering city on a hill, while Villarosa (right) was its poor, dusty cousin. But Villarosa, as it turned out, was AMAZING.

I’d Googled “Villarosa” the day before we set out and learned a surprising fact: It’s kind of well known for its man-made lake, a popular fishing destination. And the man-made lake was the result of the building of Ferrara Dam. OMG, I thought. Grandma’s maiden name is Ferrara!

Here’s the dam, the lake, and me:

After parking in town, we looked around, hoping to find a place for lunch. Directly across from our car there was a restaurant, complete with group of Italian men deep in conversation. It looked like something out of a movie. Then I noticed the sign above the doors: F.lli Ferrara (Ferrara Bros.). And on the doors, the initials “LB.” Grandma’s maiden name, and my initials!

Men

We didn’t want to interrupt the men (OK, maybe we did feel a little intimidated) so we walked on down the block. Seeing a small, elderly man nearby, one of our group asked (in her newly-learned basic Italian) where we could eat. The man pointed down the street and rattled off directions in Italian. Then, probably realizing we didn’t capice, he escorted us all the way to tiny “Casa Mia.” It wasn’t open yet, but they welcomed us in. No one who worked in the restaurant spoke English. I ordered bruschetta and risotto (in Italian).

Suddenly, a family of about 20 people entered. It was an 80th birthday party! We smiled and nodded at them. A woman (angel?) from their group approached our table and asked (in English!) what had brought us to Villarosa.

“My grandma’s from Villarosa,” I said. “I was hoping I might find some family here.”

I’m an interpreter!” she said, handing me her business card. “I can help you.”

After I provided my Grandma’s name, and what I was pretty sure were Grandma’s parents’ names, she made a few phone calls, and within an hour I was sitting across the table from Gaetano Ferrara, owner of the Ferrara Bros. restaurant that we’d seen before lunch. His grandfather and my great-grandfather shared the same first and last names. It’s possible we’re cousins.

Gaetano spoke no English, but, with the help of the interpreter, I was able to ascertain that his brother, Pietro, owned a gelato/cannoli shop in town, and would be there at his shop to meet us! Mamma mia! It doesn’t get much better than that. But then it did. On our way out of the restaurant, the owner treated us all to shots of grappa and limoncello, on the house.

When I learned that the limoncello was homemade, I asked if they’d be willing to share the recipe … and they did. And yes, that alcohol is 90-proof.

The hospitality didn’t end there. When we got to Pietro’s store, we were all treated to free gelato and cannoli. Here I am with Pietro Ferrara, another possible member of my family tree.

Connolo Cousin

After returning home, I discovered that Ferrara is a common name in that part of the world, so I’m not sure if Gaetano and Pietro are my cousins, but it doesn’t matter. It was an amazing trip, one I’ll never forget. I’m so happy to know that my roots include such a warm and welcoming town. And I’m still in touch with that lovely interpreter, who has offered to translate a letter for me so I can get in touch with the folks at the Villarosa town hall to learn more about my relatives.

For now, ciao until next time!

P.S. This is my first post for the 30-day November blogging challenge known as NanoPoblano2019. Our challenge is to write for 10 days, read others’ posts for 10 days, and share our posts on other blog sites for 10 days.

Please click this NanoPoblano2019 link and read some of the wonderful posts from other members of our little writing group.

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TRAIN TRACKER, Season Three, the thrilling conclusion

Note: This is the final episode of TRAIN TRACKER, my version of a travelogue by train. To make any sense of it whatsoever, you’ll probably want to go back and read all the previous thrilling episodes, namely, TRAIN TRACKER: Season One, TRAIN TRACKER: Season Two, TRAIN TRACKER: Season Two, continued, TRAIN TRACKER, Season Two: Episode 3, and TRAIN TRACKER, Season Three: Stranger Things on a Train.

And now, for the final, thrilling conclusion of TRAIN TRACKER!

Season Three, Episode 2: I Want My Wi-Fi!

I’d just left Chicago on a train bound for Tucson when I discovered, to my horror, that my train was not equipped with Wi-Fi. I took the following selfie as proof of my misery:

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I wanted my Wi-Fi! I wanted it as badly as Mark Knopfler wanted his MTV. But did I write a chart-topping song about it, like he did? No. I was too bummed out to be able to think of anything that rhymed with Wi-Fi.

Of course, now that I’m home, it’s clear to me that “sci-fi” rhymes with Wi-Fi. So, with apologies to Queen, here’s the first verse of my new song, “Cross Country Rhapsody.”

Is this the real life?
Is this just sci-fi?
Caught in a train car
Ain’t got no wi-fi.

I’ll let you know if I win a Grammy.

Meanwhile, I can tell you right now how I managed to get through the 66-hour train ride home without any high-speed internet access:

I read a book. Namely, Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Less. It’s a comedy about a gay man named Arthur Less who’s on a trip around the world. Entertaining and enjoyable.

If you’re going to bring a book on the train, I recommend the type with actual pages. You never know – an attractive stranger might notice it and start up a conversation with you. Or, you could use it as a fan in the event of A/C failure. If it’s thick enough, you might try wedging it behind your back for lumbar support. I actually did try that.

I watched part of a movie. Before my trip, I’d rented three movies on iTunes, but somehow I’d only downloaded one of them. (Silly me — I thought renting and downloading were the same thing.) When I tried to play the movie I’d downloaded, I discovered that my iPhone headphones (the only ones I’d packed) didn’t fit my new laptop.

So when we stopped in Chicago, I bought a $10 pair of headphones. Problem solved — or so I thought. One problem, though: the right earbud was dead. Undeterred, I tried watching the movie anyway, in mono, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I needed subtitles to understand the British accents that were buzzing through my one and only cheap earbud. After fifteen minutes, I gave up.

OK, I thought, I’ll just watch one of the other two movies I’d rented. But this was not to be, since, as you already know, and as I was finally realizing, there was no Wi-Fi on that train!

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I watched an intelligent stand-up comedy special. I had a link on my phone to Aziz Ansari’s new show, Right Now. I was able to watch it on my phone because I “had data.” (I don’t really know what that means. All I know is, it worked!) Aziz Ansari has had some bad P.R. lately, but he addresses it honestly right at the beginning of his special, and he comes across as genuine, sensitive, and “woke.” It’s really good, and funny, too.

I tried Zen train walking. About a week before my train excursion, I happened to come across a strange little book, Zen Driving. It’s all about how to drive a car in a more calm, aware manner, using Zen ways of thinking (or not thinking). I decided to try applying the techniques I read about in Zen Driving while making my way down the aisle of a moving train car. I tried gliding, I tried focusing straight ahead, I even tried bounding down the aisle. I think maybe it helped, because I never fell in anyone’s lap, not even once.

I watched the scenery go by. This could be done from my seat, which had a pretty large window, or from the observation car, which was practically all windows and also had tables where people could eat, play cards, etc. I saw the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the “burrito lady” in El Paso, rainbows, sunsets, forests, flooded fields, farms, cattle, goats, sheep, vultures, pronghorns, cattle egrets, and more.

I listened to classical music on YouTube. I’m trying to expand my musical horizons by working my way through the book, Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill. It contains one-page descriptions of 365 pieces of music, one for each day of the year. I listened to James Ehnes performing Paganini’s Caprice Op. 24, and I was absolutely astounded at how good it was. Check it out!

I interacted. I met interesting people from all walks of life, usually in the dining car:

One woman from Chicago told me where to find the best pizza, corn bread, jerk chicken, and soul food in that town.

Three women (including the one above, her stepmom, and a lady across the aisle who wanted to join our discussion) talked with me about politics. We all supported the same candidates!

A grandmother who was born and raised in Texas shared her love of books, her koi pond, her grandsons, and her dogs. As I got up to leave, she added, “I hope you have a blessed trip. My name’s ___, and I’m on Facebook.”

A man explained to me the reason for his trip: he was returning home after having achieved his goal of riding on the “Big Boy” – the world’s largest steam locomotive.

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I translated a few sentences for a woman who spoke only Spanish and needed some help. Another Spanish-speaking woman helped me out in turn. I had asked her in English “which way to the dining car.” (I told you I have no sense of direction.) But when I realized she spoke only Spanish, I switched to that language and she understood, even though I’d made mistakes. People just love it when you try to speak their language.

As in real life, it wasn’t all pleasant. Four teens almost got kicked off the train for getting into a heated argument among themselves; a tipsy woman lifted her shirt and showed off her gall bladder scar. An older woman trying to walk through the observation car suddenly lost her balance and crashed violently into a seat when the train lurched suddenly. (She wasn’t hurt, but I really think trains need to be made safer for people of all ages and for those with disabilities, as well.)

Friends have asked if I’ll take this trip again. I probably will. It was nice to sit back and enjoy the ride, knowing that I had three full days ahead of me without any obligations, without having to be anywhere or do anything else.

In a way, I think it was as close to a Zen experience as I could have asked for while crossing the continent. And you know what? I’m actually glad that I didn’t have my Wi-Fi!

 

TRAIN TRACKER, Season Three: Stranger Things on a Train

Episode 1: Banging and Clanging and Pronghorns, Oh My!

As you may recall from TRAIN TRACKER, Season Two, Episode 3, the post ended with a cliffhanger. I was somewhere outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, heading west, and I was eavesdropping on the passenger behind me as he discussed the intimate details of barbecue sauce with a woman he hardly knew. Would I ever get to hear his secret recipe? Well, no … I fell asleep.

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I was jarred awake at 1:30 a.m. by a sudden lurch, accompanied by loud banging and clanging. I later learned that we were coupling. Now, don’t get too excited. It’s not what you think. 

We’d arrived in San Antonio, Texas — the end of the line. Most of the train would be reversing direction, heading east again, but some of us (including the car I was in) were continuing west. This required a feat not unlike the mitosis and miosis that I vaguely remember from high school biology. The train split into two, each part with its own engine (or nucleus, if you will). So, basically, I got to witness train reproduction from inside the train.

It was a slow process, more like how I imagine turtles doing it. We sat still for hours, and the lights and A/C were turned off during this time. I started to doze.

Sometime about 2 a.m., two conductors came striding down the aisle with flashlights blazing. They stopped at a seat up ahead. “Sir, wake up. We need to see your I.D.,” they said. I was instantly wide awake.

They demanded that the sleepy man produce either his I.D. or his ticket, and they announced in front of everyone that they’d been told he was supposed to have gotten off in St. Louis. Several minutes passed before the poor guy could find his I.D. The conductors loudly read his name and then left. I think they must have made a mistake, because they never came back or ejected him from the train.

After another hour, I saw a conductor and asked him why we weren’t moving. “They had to fix everything and change the train,” he stated, continuing down the aisle. Not exactly reassuring, but he said it so matter-of-factly that I assumed it was all going according to plan.

Finally, at 4:45 a.m., we started moving. “Why are we going backward?” someone said, looking panicked. It was the lady to my left. She was looking to me for an answer.

I don’t know why people think they should ask me questions about directions. I’m the last person they should ask. I once drove 50 miles in the wrong direction before noticing I was heading west, not east. But I did happen to be holding my cell phone when she asked me, and she looked so worried, so I decided to “phone a friend.” In other words, I consulted my GPS. Indeed, we were heading in the right direction, and I said so. But I didn’t tell the lady that I was just as confused as she was. How the hell were we still going west when we were also going backwards? Where was Einstein when I needed him?

About five hours later, the crew came along and reversed all of our seats. We were moving forward again, and we had survived the strange night. I moved to the observation car and took in the views.

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Taking photos of scenery from a moving train is a challenge. To avoid reflections, I held my phone against the window and hoped for the best. The result was often blurry, but I like being reminded of how fast we were going (about 79 miles per hour).

A few specific places were announced along the way.

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The Amistad Reservoir, straddling the U.S./Mexico border, was pointed out as we zipped past. It lies 12 miles northwest of Del Rio, Texas. “Amistad” means “friendship” in Spanish.

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The famous Pecos River also was announced. It begins in New Mexico and empties into the Rio Grande River in Texas. I’m not sure, but I think we were on the Pecos River High Bridge. Yikes!

And then there was a scene I’ll never forget (and didn’t get to photograph): a herd of wild pronghorns galloping swiftly next to the train! I feel so lucky to have been at the right place at the right time to see them. I made a note of where I was (on the north side of the train, just after Alpine, Texas). Pronghorns, I’ve learned, are often seen in this exact spot. You can read more about them here.

In tomorrow’s episode (“I Want My Wi-Fi”), I’ll tell you how I passed my time on the train without a high speed internet connection. Believe it or not, it can be done!

 

TRAIN TRACKER, Season Two: Episode 3

(Note: For previous details about my train trip from New York to Arizona, see TRAIN TRACKER: Season One, TRAIN TRACKER: Season Two, and TRAIN TRACKER: Season Two, continued.)

Episode 3: The Good, The Bad, and The Good

They say bad news should be sandwiched between slices of good news. Here, then, is today’s Train Tracker Sandwich.

The Good
After riding through the industrial northern edges of Ohio and Indiana, we arrived in Chicago. It was 9:30 a.m. The sky was overcast and the architecture looked just as bleak. The train pulled into a dungeon-like underground terminal.

left: Whiting, Indiana (between Gary, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois); top right: unidentified building near Chicago’s Union Station; bottom right: lower level, Union Station, Chicago.

But then, like a rainbow after a storm, a Starbucks appeared, and they were playing one of my favorite tunes, “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. Suddenly, as the song says, “the world’s alright with me.” I did a happy dance right there in the station.

While sipping coffee, I planned out my four-hour layover with the help of my new best friends, TripAdvisor and GPS.

First, I walked a block or so to the Willis Tower (the second tallest building in the U.S.).

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Willis Tower

Next, I hailed a cab (something I love doing because it makes me feel like I’m Elaine in Seinfeld) and visited the nearby Art Institute of Chicago.

I’d learned from Trip Advisor to buy my admission ticket in advance to avoid long lines. (Good advice. I got to skip the long line, scan a bar code, and walk right in.)

I’d also read on Trip Advisor that luggage and bags could be checked at the museum for only $1. This was also true. Goodbye duffel bag, for a while, anyway.

Unencumbered, I dashed around the museum for about an hour, lingering over some masterpieces, taking quick photos of others. I focused on the Impressionists and a special Manet exhibit that I paid $7 extra for.

I then hailed another cab for the trip back to the station (this time imagining myself as Carrie on Sex and the City). Both cabbies were friendly and very helpful. One, from Nigeria, even explained to me the layout of Chicago’s city streets.

I made it back to the train station an hour before my scheduled departure time and headed for my gate.

The Bad

The gate was crowded with confused travelers. There already were dozens of people in line, and the line wasn’t moving. Within minutes, dozens more had joined the line. At least 50 other travelers were clamoring about. Some were waiting for train number 21, others for number 421. At least three people approached me and asked if they were in the right line. I trusted my gut and told them,”Yes, but I could be wrong!”

I didn’t want to be attacked by an angry mob. They just might have pushed me down the Union Station staircase, as in that scene in The Untouchables.

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After about 20 minutes, we were herded into a seating area where we waited for the boarding call. We waited. And waited. An hour later, we were still waiting when I decided to check my email. I had a new one from Amtrak: “Your train has been delayed, but don’t worry, we’ve already set up alternate transportation for some or all of your route.”

A passenger began loudly complaining; she’d heard the train wasn’t going any farther than Little Rock because of bad weather. We were assured by a harried Amtrak employee that we would all get to our final destinations. Finally, we were given the go-ahead to board our train, which turned out to be both number 21 and 421.

Once we’d started moving, though, there was an announcement: Flooding from Tropical Storm Barry had damaged certain portions of the track. We would all have to get off the train in Little Rock, Arkansas at 3 a.m. Those who were traveling beyond Little Rock would then take a FIVE HOUR bus ride to San Antonio, where they’d board another train for the rest of the journey.

Our train continued on, but not for long. Soon it was stalled for TWO HOURS, due to a signal problem with a freight train up ahead.

The Good

When we arrived in Little Rock, we learned that the flooded track had been repaired. No bus would be needed after all!

And even though we are now three or four hours behind schedule, there’s more good news to report. The new train (the Texas Eagle that I boarded in Chicago) is nicer than the Lake Shore Limited (the one I rode in New York State). The window curtain works, for one thing, and the bathrooms are cleaner. (There are FIVE bathrooms per car!) There’s a real dining car, too, with actual food, and an observation car with big windows.

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By the way, a talented musician friend, Don Armstrong, wrote a beautiful song about the Texas Eagle train. Of all the songs I’ve heard him perform, I think it’s my favorite. You can hear him perform it here or here.

Amazingly, I’ve still got two seats all to myself. It’s been a smooth, quiet ride with plenty of leg room. The only downer is that there’s no WiFi.

The most interesting thing about this trip is the people. Take, for example, my dinner partners (assigned by the servers): a 50-year old teacher who claimed to own over $1 million in Chicago condos, his four-year-old son who’s already been on four train trips, and a 70-something active retiree who travels everywhere by train.

Or consider this young man. His face, neck, arms, and hands (and perhaps more) were covered in mint green tattoos to match his hair. When someone asked him where he’d gotten his tattoos, he replied, “I did them myself.”

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And then there’s the talkative guy sitting directly behind me. His phone conversations are hilarious. He’s already told one of his lady friends that he plans on visiting her “on Hollywood Boulevard” as soon as he gets his restaurant up and running. This restaurant, he claims, is the best place for ribs in Detroit. Actually, he goes on, it’s the best rib joint in the country. When he comes to see her, if she doesn’t happen to be home, he’ll camp out on her balcony — in his sleeping bag. When she apparently protests, he assures her it’s no problem because he is “the original cat burglar.”

Another woman just called him. He didn’t remember who she was at first, but now he’s telling her about his barbecue sauce.

To quote Dave Barry, “I can’t make this stuff up.”