Category Archives: Travel

TRAIN TRACKER: Season One

It’s T-minus six. The countdown has begun. In only six days, I’ll board a train in Schenectady, New York, bound for Tucson, Arizona. Who will I meet along the way? What exciting adventures will I encounter? How many times will I beat my head against the window wishing I’d opted for a sleeping car?

I’m calling this trip a train-umentary, and I’ve given it a summer blockbuster name: “TRAIN TRACKER.” Maybe Netflix will be interested, especially if true crime is involved! I’ll be blogging, taking photos, and maybe even interviewing people while sitting upright in a train seat for 62 hours, without access to a shower or bed. That’s a true crime already!

TRAIN TRACKER, SEASON ONE

Episode 1: Why A Train?

I live in Tucson and my family lives in New York. Out of necessity, I’ve flown cross-country annually (sometimes more than once a year) for the past sixteen years. I’ve enjoyed flying, but lately, due to plane crashes and what not, I wanted a lower-to-the-ground option.

Also, I’d wanted to bring my guitar with me this time. That’s actually what had gotten me started thinking about the train in the first place. Most airlines won’t let you carry a guitar on board unless you buy it a seat. Trains, on the other hand, treat guitars like carry-on luggage.

Episode 2: Why Coach?

Articles I’ve read, and sane people in general, strongly recommend the sleeper car, but I chose coach. Why? Price. By the time I decided to book my trip (two weeks ahead of time), the cost of one sleeper car ticket from New York to Arizona was $800 to $2000 depending on the date and route, while my coach ticket was only $219. I guess you could say I was willing to put up with the high probability of loud rumbling, screeching, swaying, shaking, a stiff back, swollen ankles, screaming babies, and odd smells for three days because I was too cheap to spring for a higher-priced seat. But I’d say I did it out of a sense of adventure. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Episode 3: Shopping

I went online two days ago, Googled “train travel tips,” and realized I’d need some extra items I hadn’t thought of before, like a blanket, a pillow, and maybe lots and lots of deodorant (for myself, and as free gifts to my fellow passengers). Did you know that Amtrak does not provide blankets and pillows? Well, I’m pretty sure they don’t, but I’ll check it out on the train and let you know for sure. (This is just an example of the fascinating, not -to-be-missed information I’ll be reporting on in Season Two!)

Here’s what I bought yesterday:

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The blanket should come in handy if I sit next to a baseball player, or to avoid eye contact with the conductor while I sneak into a sleeper car. I could also use it to throw over my head to hide from a train robber.

The red neck pillow scrunches up and fits in a round carrying bag, which I could always use as a stress ball if needed:

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Today I thought about train food and realized I’d probably be stuck with a diet of steamed hot dogs, Doritos, and canned soda for three days unless I packed my own refreshments, so I bought a few healthy snacks (and toiletries). I know my $219 ticket makes me seem cheap, but, after all, I did splurge on Fiji water. The granola bars and cashews should give me energy for writing. More importantly, they’ll go well with any adult beverages that I might be forced to buy if my stress ball isn’t working.

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Episode 4: Packing

Tonight, I made a pile of everything I’m going to need easy access to on the train, such as: camera, camera case, pillow, blanket, changes of clothing, water, snacks, sweater, toiletries, laptop, phone, and chargers. The pile was almost as big (and probably heavier) than my large suitcase. I guess tomorrow I’ll go shopping for a backpack for my carry-on items.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of TRAIN TRACKER!

 

 

 

 

Off the Rails

In about a week, this blog will be coming to you from the inside of a train car. Wish me luck, because I’m riding that train for 2,500 miles. That’s three days and three nights of hearing the clickety-clack of train wheels — all the way from Schenectady, New York, where I’ve been visiting family, to Tucson, Arizona, where I live most of the year.

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I’ll be in coach class the entire time, without a shower or a bed.  I’ll bet you’ve always wondered what that would be like. But never fear: I’m going to be blogging about it!

And I’m doing this by choice. That’s right. I’ve lost my mind. Gone off the rails, so to speak. Or maybe I’m just taking the train, no big deal.

I do feel unsettled tonight, though. Maybe that’s because, after flying east from Tucson, I’ve been driving around New York State for almost a month: Tucson to Rochester, Rochester to Albany, Albany to Plattsburgh, and very soon it will be Plattsburgh to Schuylerville, and Schuylerville to Schenectady. Whew. I feel dizzy just typing that.

For the past sixteen years, I’ve been making this cross-country trip annually (by air) and I’m growing tired of the back and forth. Am I getting too old for this? Or just temporarily burned out? Maybe I’ll feel better once I’ve returned home and stayed put for a while.

Perhaps my long train trip will help me sort things out. Hopefully, sitting still while moving at rapid speed for three days and three nights will settle my mind. Hey, did I just invent a new kind of mental health treatment — train therapy?

Do you have any advice for the long-distance train traveler, or questions about train travel that you hope will be answered in my train-umentary? If so, please leave comments below.

Birthday Breakfasts

My birthday is approaching. I’m not saying which one. That’s for me to know and you to Google. I will say this much: It’s a significant one.

As I mentioned in my recent post, Birthday’s Silver Lining, my birthday is causing me to ponder many things, such as the passage of time, the meaning of life, and … well, I’ve forgotten the third thing.

All this pondering is having an unexpectedly pleasant side effect: I’m finding extra joy in little things, like sunshine glittering on the lake, and the deep green color of the trees. I’m in a spectacularly good mood. Or maybe it’s just because I’m on vacation.

I’m staying in a trendy part of town, a neighborhood that I used to live in during my twenties. The area wasn’t always this trendy. Now it has cute little shops with names like Tru, and Roux, and Roam, and Hemp It Up. It also has a lot of gardens. Two days ago, after a rainstorm, I went out in search of some of my favorite things, like flowers with raindrops on them.

After taking pictures of flowers, I considered looking for more of my favorite things, like warm wooly mittens and bright copper kettles. But instead, since I hadn’t had my coffee yet, I headed to my favorite coffee shop, Glen Edith. It was only a few blocks away, right around the corner from the apartment I’d shared with three other roommates once upon a time.

As I walked past the old apartment, memories came flooding back: the music, the incense, the bell-bottoms, the vodka-spiked Kool-aid. (Just kidding, Mom.)

I kept walking, dressed in the long skirt, sneakers, and hipster sunglasses I’d donned that morning, and I suddenly felt young, energetic, and hip. Or maybe it was the thought of caffeine that was propelling me forward.

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I also felt rich, since I’d miraculously discovered some unexpected cash in my wallet the night before. I’m not making this up. There’s a secret hiding place in the wallet, right behind my driver’s license. I was looking for my Social Security card (don’t ask why) when I felt something wrinkly. I pulled it out and, to my shock, it was several twenty-dollar bills.

The last time I could remember having that amount of cash on me was on my previous out-of-town trip, and since then I’d lost my wallet and had it returned to me, contents intact. Good people still exist!

I went a little crazy that morning with my new-found wealth, deciding to treat myself to not one, but two breakfasts, since, after all, I have a birthday coming up, and life is short.

Breakfast number one was at the aforementioned Glen Edith, where I ordered a delicious cappuccino. It came with a tiny surprise: a mini-doughnut hole.

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And then, another surprise: a bright copper kettle on the counter!

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After the Glen Edith, I moved on to Jines Restaurant, a neighborhood institution since 1971, and ordered my old favorite, creme brûlée oatmeal.

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The creme brûlée oatmeal at Jines is decadent. Come to think of it, the word “decadent” has the word “decade” in it. Maybe “decadent” actually is a contraction, as in this example: “Did you turn 50 last decade?” “No, I decaden’t.”

Having two breakfasts at my two favorite shops in the neighborhood was a small thing that brought me joy. It was all part of my preconceived plan to pamper myself, since, in case you forgot, I have a rather significant birthday coming up.

Welcome to My (Wet) World

My five-week vacation to visit family in upstate New York is off to a cold, wet start. I’m staying near Lake Ontario, where the water level is high enough to create problems for those who live along the shore. I took a drive yesterday and saw closed roads, sandbags, and basements being pumped out. At one point, the water from a pond close to the lake had reached road level and was running across it.

On the bright side, there were the swans, a whole flock of them, gliding along next to the road like royalty in a parade. I stopped and took some pictures of them but only one was sharp enough to keep. I think I need a bigger lens. This could be an expensive vacation.

Meanwhile, here are some other photos I took around the water-logged neighborhood:

  1. Playground needing a lifeguard

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2. Great blue heron at Braddock Bay State Park

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3. Some kind of mushroom or toadstool — can you identify it?

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4. My dream house (if I wanted to live right on the lake, which I don’t). I just like the roof line. And the window. And the garden (see next photo).

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5. The lakeside garden:

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6. Random green things to photograph:

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7. And last but not least:

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Hoping for a sunny day tomorrow, and more photos!

My Airbnb Surprise

There once was a woman named Lori

who wanted to feel hunky dory

so she went on vacation

and to her elation

her neighbors were ducks, end of story!

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

Yes, my suburban airbnb host raises not only ducks, but chickens. And the ducks in the picture were standing by the chicken coop having a conversation with the chickens when I arrived.

My host said I can help myself to fresh chicken eggs while I’m here. She has more than she can use. But how do I get past the ducks? And how do I open the coop without letting the chickens out?

To be continued.

 

Words You Never Want to Hear While Sitting on the Tarmac

“Sorry for the delay, folks … We’ll be here a while longer … There’s a little problem with the fuel gauge.”

I was leaving town on vacation, and I had a window seat. I’d been buckled in for at least twenty minutes, and I was getting drowsy. I was just starting to wonder why the plane hadn’t moved an inch when the pilot’s voice broke in.

“Sorry for the delay, folks,” he said. It’s about time, I thought, expecting him to say, “We’ll be taking off in a few minutes.” But instead, the next words he said were, “We’ll be here a while longer.” Hmm … I thought, sleepily. How much longer? And then I heard his crackly voice again, announcing that “there’s a little problem with the fuel gauge.” I was immediately wide awake.

I knew I’d heard him correctly, and yet what he was saying didn’t make any sense. Why on earth would we still be sitting on the plane if there was a problem with the FUEL GAUGE?

The pilot continued talking, saying something about how they had to use an alternative method to fuel the plane. I pictured a long hose coming from the nearest corner gas station, and the nozzle automatically shutting off when the tank reached the “full” mark. I was aware of how finicky those gas pumps can sometimes be, shutting off too soon. I also knew of some gas pumps that were so slow they seemed to be pumping molasses. I figured that an airplane’s gas tank had to be at least 100 times the size of the one in my car. I calculated that we’d be sitting there quite a while longer — long enough for me to decide whether or not to run for the nearest exit.

Suddenly somebody laughed, and my brain did this strange thing. It told me not to worry. It convinced me that the pilot must know what he’s doing, and that if it wasn’t safe he wouldn’t let us take off.

Looking back, I wonder just how safe it really was … but I guess I’ll never know. We made it from Tucson to Chicago, and on to our final destinations. But I think if I ever hear those words “a little problem with the fuel gauge” again, I won’t trust my luck a second time.

For now, though, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the rest of my vacation. I’ll try to post often and to include photos, too. And if you like trains, stay tuned. There’s a good chance I’ll be taking Amtrak for the return trip.

Happy Saguaro Sunday

This weekend, I opened my front door and saw snow. That’s right, SNOW, right here in Tucson, Arizona. And not just ordinary snow.

I saw:

  • snow in the desert
  • snow next to tall saguaro cacti
  • big, flat snowflakes. They were about 1 to 2 inches in diameter and looked like little flying saucers
  • snow on 9,000-foot tall mountains
  • an icy-cold stream flowing down from those mountains, and I waded through it!

Here, have a look:

Saguaro National Park:
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Catalina State Park:

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Happy snowy saguaro Sunday!

 

Just Gelato

 

I needed a break from the news, a break from the work week, and a little break from writing today. I decided to just stare at this photo of gelato for a while.

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Unfortunately, the gelato in the picture is long gone. I consumed it last September while visiting Florence, Italy (the birthplace of gelato).

I’m feeling more chill now. I may be able to write again tomorrow.

This photo is dedicated to David Ellis … to further entice him to visit Florence as soon as possible.

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Spirit of Spontaneity

One year ago, I was a tourist in Florence, Italy. I’d just visited an old cathedral, San Miniato al Monte, which sits at the top of the highest point in Florence. I’d sat through a long sermon, spoken entirely in Italian by an elderly monk, and I’d snuck out during Communion so I could commune with nature outside. The view of the city from that spot is breathtaking.

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As the sun began to set, I left the church grounds and began the walk downhill toward the city. It was on this hill that I happened to pass a man who was blowing huge soap bubbles. I pulled my cell phone from my purse, swung around to face him, and took a picture of the bubbles, hoping the image would be in focus and that I wasn’t too late.

It turned out better than I’d expected. My upturned camera happened to capture not only the bubbles, but the cloudy near-twilight sky, as well as the tallest gate in Florence, the Gate of San Niccolò (Saint Nicholas).

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Sometimes the best moments are totally spontaneous.

For example, I just discovered (when I did a little research for this post) that San Miniato al Monte (the cathedral on the hill) was built in 1018, making it exactly 1,000 years old. Another surprise! Happy birthday, old church.

More fun facts: The Gate of San Niccolò in my bubble photo was built in 1324. It’s 60 meters (about 200 feet) tall, and it originally served as a watchtower as well as a gate. It had wooden doors and was attached to a wall that surrounded the city until the late 1800s, when the wall was demolished. People can climb the 160 steps inside the gate to get a 360-degree view of Florence.

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All That and Apples, Too

(This post is in response to a writing prompt from Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade. The prompt was “A Fall/Autumnal Food Memory.” Here’s mine — an adventure I’ve never shared in print before. And once again, thanks to Lorna for jogging my memory.)

 

For most young people, autumn signifies a return to school. But for me, in September of 1971, the cooler temperatures and colorful foliage of upstate New York were telling me to leave college, spend $90 (in other words, half my life savings) on a train ticket, and make my way west to California.

I had a little adventure with apples along the way.

In 1971, American kids were dropping out of college in droves. They’d read On the Road; they’d listened to California Dreamin’. They wanted to get back to the land and find themselves. So did I.

I’d planned to take a train from Toronto to Vancouver, and then a bus south to Santa Cruz, where my friend Sharon lived. I was sure I could find some sort of job (or perhaps gold) once I got to California.

At the train station, I met two women who also were heading west. We boarded the train together, and by the time we’d gotten to Winnipeg we’d decided to get off the train and hitchhike the rest of the way.

Call me crazy, but back then I believed it was safe for three 20-something ladies to hitchhike through the Canadian wilderness together. After all, the Canadian government was practically promoting it. They’d erected billboards all over the country telling drivers to “Pick Up a Hitchhiker.” And it was cheap, too. You could stay overnight at a youth hostel for only 50 cents a night.

But before you get too jealous and try this at home, don’t. My traveler’s checks went missing after a night at one of the hostels. Even worse, I had to talk my way out of a #metoo situation, and I managed to outsmart another potential perpetrator. Whew. I was lucky those times. So again, just don’t.

But I hitchhiked with the young ladies through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and half of British Columbia, and we survived unscathed. We made it as far as Cranbrook, B.C., where they decided to stay, since one of them apparently had met the love of her life named Colin. (For some reason I remember his name and not hers.) I decided to move on. Colin drove me to the Creston bus station, about an hour down the road, so I could safely get to Vancouver by myself.

Creston is a small, fairy-tale village set in a valley in the foothills of the snow-capped Canadian Rockies. It’s blessed with a clear blue lake, a nearby hot springs, and a lot of apple trees.

I was standing in the Creston bus station when a cute (in a teddy-bear way) long-haired blond French Canadian named Ernie approached me and said, “How would you like to pick apples for a while?”

To this day, I have no idea what he was doing in that bus station, or why he came up to me and asked me that question. And I have no idea why I said yes. But suddenly the whole idea of just parking myself in that beautiful little town to “pick apples for a while” sounded pretty appealing.

There was a cabin in the orchard where the apple-pickers could stay for free. It had two beds, a table, a couple of chairs, a wood stove, a parachute hanging on one wall, a collection of Cracker Jack toys, and a gentle, silver-colored German Shepherd named Mr. Morgan who was said to be part wolf. And of course, Ernie was staying there, too. He said I could stay there, no strings attached, and there weren’t any … until there were.

Each morning, we’d get up early, put on our apple bags, climb our ladders, and pick apples in the sunshine. At lunchtime, the owner of the apple orchard came by with tea and homemade baked goods, and we all had a wonderful picnic under the apple trees.

A neighboring farmer once left some turnips for us on the cabin doorstep. We roasted a turkey in the wood stove for Canadian Thanksgiving.

We made friends with a married couple who also picked apples and owned a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, and the four of us took off one day and drove all the way to California and back. We slept on the beach one night, and at a friend’s party another night.

When we returned from California about ten days later, the weather had changed. The snows were coming, and the cabin wasn’t made for winter. We had to leave. Ernie’s mom lived in Vancouver, so we moved in with her temporarily. His mom was lovely. I had my own pink room with a single bed and a chenille bedspread.

I found work in Vancouver as a waitress, and rented a tiny, furnished basement apartment. Ernie and I were doing well as a couple. I applied for permanent residency. I had no idea that you were supposed to do that before getting a job. I naively thought having a job would help me get residency.

The man at the government office told me I had gotten it backwards and that my residency was denied. I burst into tears on the spot. My parents wired me the plane fare and I was back home by mid-December.

Of course, this was before the advent of cell phones, email, or skype, and long distance phone calls were too expensive. Ernie and I communicated by writing letters throughout that winter and spring. He was a good letter-writer. I knit him a sweater for Christmas and mailed it off. We made plans. He was going to come east and we were going to bicycle our way around the Maritime provinces that summer. I would try again for Canadian residency.

But in the back of my mind, I must have known it was just more dreamin’, because when I received his “Dear Jane” letter in May I was disappointed but not surprised.

In spite of the way things turned out with Ernie, I’ve never regretted my adventure in the fall of 1971. If nothing else, I know what it’s like to live in a cabin, to climb a ladder and pick fruit in the crisp Canadian sunshine, to have an orchard picnic with tea and homemade baked goods, to eat a gift of turnips left on my doorstep, to cook a turkey in a wood stove, to travel to California in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, to sleep on a beach, and to live with a gentle, part-wolf, dog by the name of Mr. Morgan.

I had all that, and apples, too.