Weary Traveler

Earlier today I drove to Clifton Forge, VA and picked up Matt after his long adventure out and back.  It was a very different experience from dropping him off in Staunton, VA.  Zoe went with me as she as been a little mopey since last Sunday when this whole adventure began.

The 1 hour ride to Clifton Forge is 1000 times better than the drive to Staunton on 81.  Rt 220 goes directly to Clifton Forge.  It was a delightfully scenic divided highway most of the way until the last 10 miles or so.  Going up I only passed one (maybe two) tractor trailers.  I knew I was early so I took my time and really enjoyed the scenery.  Because of weather delays coming out of Chicago the train ended up being about 3+ hours late.  I had to chuckle at the Amtrak customer service rep.  I asked when exactly the train would arrive in Clifton Forge, she said 3:30ish.  I just thought how silly that would sound to any European.  ish, now that is something I would say about when arriving for dinner but not for a train.  Seems it isn’t that much of an exact science.

Clifton Forge’s Amtrak Station/platform leaves a little something to be desired.  If you are looking for the full train platform experience then stay with Staunton.  But if it is a closer/easier commute from Roanoke with a descent parking area then opt for Clifton Forge.  The signage into the station is almost non existent.  I guess most people from there know where it is.

The town itself was a bit lost in time.  The downtown has a crazy one way two street pattern that didn’t seem to have that much traffic to control.  Not sure if we were just being directed to the second street of stores or why exactly the streets were like that.  One interesting place that caught my eye was the C & O Railway Heritage Center.  As I approached I was hoping that this was the train station.  You can see and learn about trains there but not Amtrak.  And then the other very odd thing that caught my eye was the Kroger.  The style of the building took me back to my childhood.  It was set up exactly as I remember the Kroger and SuperX (drugstore) in my neighborhood.  A long vestibule with storefront windows and then a small cramped store.  Definitely a flashback lost in time.

So after meandering around Clifton Forge for a short time Zoe and I went to find our spot to keep a lookout for Matt’s train.  First lots of CSX cars and trains at the very industrial railyard/Amtrak stop.  Then finally a light and an Amtrak train.  Matt was one of the first off.  He looked tired, dirty and very glad to be home.

With a full belly, a freshly showered Matt is already sleeping at 8:30 tonight.  Proving once again it is always so much fun to travel but even more wonderful to come home.

Butt Crack Union

Some of you may think that showing this picture is mean. But no, it’s not mean. This girl asked for it. She went out in public like this. Ya, b***h, that’s really cool. It would be easy to wind this into a “kids are so stupid” kind of thing, but the truth is that there were even more opportunities to catch adults doing dumb things. This girl just happened to sit down next to me right when I needed some comic relief. Today I’m not going to discriminate. I’ll make fun of everything today.

Usually at this time of year I’m boarding a plane, and it seems to be becoming a tradition for some thing to go wrong, like 18″ of snow in Virginia, or a bank of fog surrounds just the airport, or who knows what. This year I thought I had it all outsmarted, taking the train. But no. It still snows, and Mother Nature is maybe a little spiteful, since I outfoxed her this year. Or so I thought. The snow falls, and flights are delayed, and everybody tries to get home on the train, and of course that delays my train. So Mother Nature wins again, although not by the incredible margin she got me by last year (big snow storms on both ends of my trip, delaying departure from home and arrival home).

So because of the bad weather, and the 2 hour delay of my train, there was a crowd in the waiting area. There were about 200% too few seats. I only got to sit for about 15 minutes of the 3 hours I was there. Was I regretting not paying the extra cash for the sleeper car, which also comes with a very nice waiting area upgrade? Youbetcha. But then again I would have passed up the opportunity for gathering material.

Anyway, so there was a crowd. And I was sitting on the floor next to butt-crack betty, who was so cool by the way, which I only knew having read her shirt. And how do they have the waiting room set up? Right next to this sea of humanity, maybe 1000 people in a big waiting area that is nonetheless 1/3 the size it needed to be: A couple of union workers sitting in a huge (and empty, and roped off) waiting area full of chairs. These areas are literally right next to one another. Now putting travelers in those chairs wouldn’t have completely solved the problem of all the people without chairs, but it would have given 100 people chairs who had been sitting on the floor. And it would have given 200 people room to sit on the floor who had been standing. Go union.

It’s easy to see that someone is really in charge here at Chicago’s Union Station, because upstairs in the food court there was a big lack of tables, but I saw at least 3 areas stacked with tables with the sign “Area Closed”. Same guy running the show upstairs as down, it seems.

Do you love/hate technology?

I’m riding the train today. Trains are old-school technology. There is a lot of new technology there, to be sure, but trains may have ridden these tracks I’m riding on right now for the last 200 years, roughly unchanged from those times. A little faster. A little less coal dust, but still the same view on the world – you can travel a thousand miles without seeing a single strip mall. You’re more likely to see an orchard than an office building. You’ll go through a tunnel you never knew existed – how does someone bore a 20 foot diameter hole through a rocky hilltop without it being a big deal? You see features of the landscape that are a little bit amazing, or you wish you knew how to get back to so you could explore, little canyons carved out by creeks, and moving water always holds a fascination for me.

From the train you can see that there are people with vastly different lifestyles and values from yours or mine. A small stack of bloody animal carcasses raises the questions how did it get there. Why so much blood. Were they killed by a man or a beast? What does it take to kill something like that, and then have the presence of mind to stack it like there was not some mindless crime of passion that created that bloody scene? An execution of duty to some perhaps. The carcasses could not even be identified, dogs, deer, sheep, calves, wolves, unwelcome visitors. They were bloody, and they were peeled, and they were stacked, and I saw this from the train at 50 yards and 80 miles an hour.
But violence is not something that callous men impose on nature. No. We are part of nature, and we have learned violence from her. From my perch on the second level of the Superliner car, I see the violence of water and gravity as they carve swaths of earth, rip trees from their places, and pile their wooden carcasses unceremoniously in a pile across a creek bed. Nature is a far more brutal killer than man, and she’s senseless in the way she combines beauty with terror and death.
My train ride took me to see an 8 year old boy who could sit in a room of adults just staring at his small rectangular window into someone else’s made up world. A 3 minute attention span spent flitting between various Facebook games. He didn’t go outside. He didn’t play with the dog. He didn’t use his own imagination to build or make up stories or wonder about things, or even investigate questions about life. He stared into someone else’s made up world and followed the pre-set pathways, following the steps the game laid out for him.
His world was filled with people 70 years or more his senior. One born immediately after world war 1. These people are not prepared to direct an 8 year old’s experience with technology. Their experience with technology is a cordless phone and a microwave oven.
Of course I write this critique of technology from the train, with a laptop, using a cell phone to bring the www to where ever I am. And you are reading it on your little window into someone elses made up world. The real world out there exists as if in a museum, behind the glass windows of the train. Who is being closed in? For the electrofied among us, we have made the outside something we can understand, we have made it part of our world of technology by calling it “the environment”.
Maybe I need to go outside, sweat in the freezing weather, dare nature to take a swipe at me, do something risky or primal. And then of course take pictures of it and put it on Facebook.

Flying high on all 88 wheels

Because I’m trying to get work done while sleeping on the train going 2/3 of the way across the country, Kim talked me into getting a sleeper car on the train. If coach class on the train is nicer than first class on the plane, having a sleeper is like getting a couple of rows to yourself.  You’ve got a semi-private loo, a little shower, and a couple of cots, plus a table and enough room you can actually move around in. Your meals are paid for. You get a special waiting area with free refreshments and comfortable chairs.

The people that you meet riding the train are different. They are more recreational “travelers” than the hard-core type-A businessmen that infect airports. In general people are more laid back, less uptight, and more patient. I like that.

I’m here in the Chicago station reading and writing about the SolidWorks conference in San Antonio, and a boarding announcement is made for the Texas Eagle train that goes to San Antonio. I’m a bit relieved to be skipping the conference this year. There are a couple of individuals I’ll miss, and a couple of events I might wish I could have been at, but any information that’s worth having, I can get right from onboard the California Zephyr train in the middle of an Iowan cornfield. No ears popping. No seatbelts. No cheap thrills for otherwise unemployable TSA agents. No monotonous safety announcements. No deafness inducing blaring bings from the PA or jet noise. No long lines. No passengers stacked like Oreo cookies.

Driving out here is monotonous. At least on the train I don’t have to watch where I’m going. I can see individual trees probably 3 miles away.

Last call for Charleston

The train trip is a mixed experience. The cause of the trip is my grandmother turning ill, which is too upsetting to want to write about here. But I love travel, and adventures (meaning stuff I haven’t done before) are a particular favorite. I have ridden the train before, but never this direction, and never this far. Going to western Nebraska is also something I’ve done several times, but never on the train.

The trip doesn’t come at a convenient time. Stuff like this never does. We don’t – or I don’t anyway – plan for stuff like this. I’ve got a book deadline at the end of this next week, and it may turn out that I’m on the train coming back on that deadline. So that means that this is a working trip. Again, working trips aren’t new to me. I’ve written chapters in the passenger seat of a rented minivan as Kim drove to Florida. I’ve been found typing away in the living room of a Williamsburg condo so I could spend some time with my parents on vacation. Typing on the train is nothing new.

What is new is tethering my computer to my cell phone to enjoy web access on my laptop where ever I can get a cell signal. I intended to not be traveling this week, having skipped SolidWorks World in part to meet this book deadline, but here I am traveling anyway. I hear some of the tweets of folks at the convention carrying multiple devices (iphone, iPad and netbook for example) which sounds ridiculous to me. Technology may never lose its appeal as a status fad, but it eventually figures out more optimized form factors. I think we’ll see phones that are more like bluetooth earpiece, with the phone built into a single portable device that is powerful enough to work like a “real” computer, yet has all of the convenience of the tablet with a cellular connection.

Anyway, I’m writing this as we travel through the wilds of West Virginia coming to Charleston. We passed the Greenbrier resort, followed the Greenbrier river, passed through back yards, farms and we’ve seen some amazing looking trout water. West Virginia is a great place to have as a backyard, although it’s not exactly very cell-signal friendly. It’s important to be able to function while you’re disconnected. We’re raising a couple of generations of folks who don’t know what to do without a plug. Going to see my grandmother, born in 1917 in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, brings up ideas like this. While I don’t exactly yearn for the good-ole days of the depression, I do value what her generation has to teach us about what life is, what communication is, and what’s really important.

Travel these days is so undignified. I keep saying my last flight is going to be my last flight. The train seats are more comfortable than first class on the plane, and the ride is smoother. You have more flexibility with walking around and where you sit. You don’t have to get felt up by a government employee, and the seat next to you is generally open unless you want someone else to sit there. True, the train to Nebraska takes 40 hours, but it costs half of what it would cost to fly, allows me to work, and is so much easier on the nerves.

Leaving on the Train

Matt took off today for a trip on the train to see his Grandmother in Nebraska.  Hopefully he will squeeze in a few blog posts about his adventure on the train along the way.  But here is my perspective waving goodbye from the platform.

Matt decided to catch the train in Staunton, Va (Matt’s old stomping grounds) partly because it was familiar to us.  He booked his reservation and packed his computer and suitcase and off we went.  Zoe and I drove him up to the station.  She doesn’t care much for driving on the interstate and high-speed (70 MPH is fast to a dog), beside tractor trailers and under bridges.

After a quick lunch and stretch through the park we were off to the cramped parking lot at the Staunton Amtrak Station.  It is one of the unmanned stations that has a small waiting lounge that was full of people trying to stay warm on such a cold day.  We opted to wait it out on the platform.  Zoe stayed in the sunshine in the car and offered her support through bark fits anytime anyone got near the car.

The first train showed up headed east bound on its way to Washington DC.  That was train number 50 – wrong train.  That cleared out most of the passengers.  Few got off if any but about 30 or so got on.

Then about 10 minutes later Amtrak’s westbound Cardinal #51 rounded the bend and pulled into the station.  Several attendants helped about 20 people off the train.  And Matt lined up with the rest for boarding.  No strip search, no security line,  just a quick once over look by the attendant and up you go.  So much more civilized if you ask me.

Matt grumbled a little at the bag of food my Mom and I put together for his trip.  But looking at the people in line they almost all had their reusable grocery bags with various chips and whatnot peeking out.  The guy in front of Matt even had a hard-sided cooler.  The stories of train food along with our own personal experiences encouraged us to send him on his way a little better prepared.  By the time he makes it to Chicago I would guess that his load is much lighter.

So as the train loaded up and pulled out.  I could see Matt through the window settling into his seat.  I hope he has a good trip and his Grandma is in good spirits and feeling well.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.