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.
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.).
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”