Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My Amtrak Journey Through the South or Why I Will Never Ride a Train Longer than Two Hours Again

I guess it's the post-"vacation" slump that has me in its sweaty grip. Next week, I am directing our church Vacation Bible School, and yet, since Babygirl and I returned from Florida, I have yet to even pick up a paper pertaining to Vacation Bible School, let alone glance at it or take action. I don't want to do anything.

But I trimmed the ivy which threatened to overtake our driveway and filled the yard-waste bucket to the brim. I went to the video game store and then to Target in pursuit of a game that YoungestBoy desires. I scrubbed my refrigerator until it was clean, then bought food to fill it. I washed and dried two loads of laundry.

All that just to avoid the Vacation Bible School thing. Once next week ends, my summer is free and clear, if you don't count taking care of my own four kids, plus another three (I'm adding another baby, just because I'm insane).

But, instead of looking forward, let's look back.

When we arrived in Texas, Babygirl immediately burst into tears and informed us she wanted to go home. When this song came on the radio, we proclaimed it her theme song and turned it louder. She eventually settled in, probably due to the fact that we stayed alone in my sister-in-law's house for a week. We spent the week playing at the park (in hundred degree heat), swimming at the community pool, and eating out. Babygirl mostly just wanted to be outdoors and I mostly wanted to be indoors, so guess who won? Well, she did and we both had crazy curly hair to show for it.

We visited with various relatives. The first Saturday, my husband dropped us off at about 1:00 p.m. at the house and went to locate a church we planned to attend in the morning. We expected his mother and stepdad and brother and sister-in-law to arrive at about 3:00 p.m. Only twenty minutes later, I heard a doorbell ring. I hurried through the shiny tiled entryway and peered through the glass door to see three people clad in stereotypical Harley-Davidson parapheralia. In fact, they were members of the Bandidos club, but not the specific one mentioned here. For a second, I stared at them, bewildered. Then I remember that this must be Oldest Brother. A-ha! I invited them in.

Then I had to make small-talk until my husband returned, which sounds like torture to me, but ended up being fine and dandy. Oldest Brother's Wife was delightful and after the day ended, I asked my husband who the second woman was. She was the daughter of Brother #2, who died last year. She's also the one who was featured on a tabloid television show getting breast implants with her mother. They are talked about going to South Dakota for the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

Variety is the spice of life, isn't it? My husband's mother and stepdad arrived and eventually, my husband returned and we had a nice afternoon visiting and eating and drinking sweet tea.

Stuff I saw in Texas I don't see around here:
1) Sno-cone stands;
2) Roadside places to buy crawfish, dead or alive;
3) Lizards.

We visited a bunch of other relatives, ate a lot of good food (Pappas seafood and Mexican food, yum) and then, it was time to leave. The Amtrak train was scheduled to leave from downtown Houston at 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday. Only, it was running a little late. At first, this seemed like good news--we wouldn't have to set our alarm clocks for 4:00 a.m. Then, it became bad news. The train didn't leave until 2:00 p.m. That's right, folks, a full eight hours late. Eight hours! Right before we boarded, we went to the Houston Aquarium and scarfed down lunch while the fish in tanks watched us eat their distant relatives.

The fact that the train station's air conditioning didn't work was a bad omen that I refused to look in the eye. I dismissed the facts that our seats looked shabby and the crumbs and bits of trash littered the train floor and the air smelled. Amtrak is fun! Amtrak is affordable! Amtrak for thirty-seven hours. One night. Fun, fun, fun! (Okay, tolerable! Tolerable! Tolerable!)

At least that's what I continued to tell myself until that three hours stretch right outside of Tallahassee when the train sat on the tracks, not moving, for three hours. Even Babygirl noticed and said, "The train taking a break?" I tried to believe this, even when a fellow passenger continued to pass the most foul gas and my fellow passengers commented, "Someone needs Castor Oil," and "Did someone eat cabbage?" and then laugh like a bunch of junior high school students. I didn't feel like laughing.

My husband was a few seats ahead of me with YoungestBoy. The man across the aisle from him, a mountain of a guy wearing Levis (waist 45, length 30) and a smeary tat*oo of "MATHILDA" lettered across his flabby bicep chatted with my husband throughout the journey. Mathilda Man had long greasy hair down to his shoulder blade. But that long gray hair couldn't hide his bald spot--I could see that even while he wore his baseball cap.

The boys regularly jaunted to the lounge car to look out the big windows and watch the movie. They played their GameBoys, listened to music, snacked. They seemed to be tolerating the long train ride fairly well.

Babygirl just wanted to go potty.

Have you been on a train? The bathrooms are made to accomodate someone the size of Mary-Kate Olsen, after she loses a few pounds. And all Babygirl wanted was to wobble down the aisles, rappel down the treacherous staircase and squeeze into the impossibly tiny bathroom stalls. Getting both of us in and closing the door required me to saw off my right arm and right leg. No matter. Babygirl found the entire procedure entertaining and fun. I grew more grumpy and soon enough would say to her, "Go ask your daddy." We went to the bathroom several times each hour. She never wanted to: 1) look out the windows; 2) sleep; 3) read books; 4) sit still.

But that first night, when the sun slipped from the sky, sliding right past the swamps and the scrubby trees, all seemed well. Babygirl snuggled up with an assortment of pillows, watched "Spongebob" on a portable DVD player and slept. Easy enough. I eventually dozed off myself, waking groggily in New Orleans, peering through the window at the eerie cemeteries as we click-clacked our way through the dark city.

I'm not sure where we were when The Loud Family boarded the train, but when I roused from sleep and squinted at my watch, I saw it was 3:00 a.m. This family--mom, teenage kids, grandma, maybe some others--spoke loudly as if they were at a major league baseball game, shouting over hotdogs and the roar of the crowd. I glanced down at sleeping Babygirl and just then, Loud Mom leaned over me and said, "You need to move her or she's going to get a crick in her neck."

I just raised my hand in the universal, "stop" signal. Had no one explained to Loud Mom that it's impolite to speak out loud in the middle of the night on an Amtrak train traveling at a snail's pace? Loud Mom continued speaking loudly to Loud Son and Loud Daughter and Loud Grandma. At one point, someone in the Loud Family said in a stage-whisper, "Y'all should be quiet." And Loud Mom poo-pooed the idea, out loud of course. Then she went on and on about grapes. "If no one else wants them, I'm going to eat these grapes. Grapes, anyone?" I was ready to lodge one in her windpipe. Alas, doing so might have made a ruckus and a ruckus might have disturbed Babygirl's sleep, so I did not murder Loud Mom, as she deserved. The next day, when Loud Family snoozed, I so wanted to shout into their blanket-covered faces. But, I did not.

What was supposed to be one night on the train--the closest I ever get to camping--turned into two nights. By the second night, I began to fantasize about flying directly home from Florida. Our original plan was to take the Amtrak to and from Florida. I started hallucinating about airplanes and Seattle. I just knew that I could not, would not, ride a train again.

An hour from Orlando, at about 5:00 a.m., a train conductor woke me to inform me that we would make the final leg of our journey by bus. I never did ask why. We gathered our belongings and the children and marched wearily outside into the sticky pre-dawn morning and boarded a bus. Then we sat and waited. Our bus driver left his seat and disappeared, leaving us all sitting in the semi-darkness, bleary-eyed and a little stinky.

After quite a while, a large woman made her way to the front of the bus and began pushing buttons until a door opened. She ordered the bus driver to get her suitcase. "I need my medicine. You said it would be forty minutes, but it's going to be longer than that. So get my medicine."

The bus driver said, "No. I'm going going to go through all that luggage to find your bag. Sit down."

She said, "Then let's go. I want to go or I want my medicine."

He said, "I'm not getting your bag. You should have kept your medicine out if you needed it. Now sit down."

She retorted, "Then let's go! We either go now or call 9-1-1 when I don't get my medicine on time."

At that point, I kind of wanted to see what would happen if she didn't get her medicine on time. The bus driver shooed her back to her seat and we left, but he muttered out loud, saying, "Lord, give me patience," in a Jamaican accent.

An hour later, we arrived at the Amtrak train station where our shuttle driver met us. By the time we checked into our hotel room, it was 8:00 a.m. We planned to stay in this cheaper room only one night, then transfer to the "Beach Club Resort" for the rest of our stay. Of course, we also planned to arrive at 8:45 p.m. the night before.

When it was all said and done, our train was ten hours late. Ten hours. And so we paid $166.00 for the privilege of showering at the hotel before we checked out and began our Disney adventure. We had to check out by 11:00, but couldn't check into our regular hotel until 3:00 p.m. But we had to get to the regular hotel to pick up our park tickets. We rode a bus there, picked up the tickets, ate some lunch and went to Epcot for our first afternoon.

I admit that my attitude was a little bent out of shape. A lack of sleep coupled with the frustration of not being able to sleep in the room we paid for, plus the idea that my carefully scheduled week at Disney was now in disarray can do that to a girl.

But despite our rocky start, we saw as much of Disney as we could. We had fun, mostly. We stood in only a few lines, none of them long, we saw spectacular sights, we ate vast amounts of good food, we swam in remarkable sandy-floored pool, we experienced a climate unlike anything the kids had ever imagined and made a lot of memories. The weather was good, meaning that it didn't thundershower on us until our last day. The skies were blue and the sun hot, but at least we didn't have to wear the rain ponchos I brought along.

And I didn't ride a train back home. Amtrak canceled the route due to Hurricane Dennis, but I'd already scheduled myself on a plane before that cancellation. For our trouble, Amtrak is giving us a refund of the portion of our tickets not used. They are also giving us vouchers to apologize for the ten hour late trip.

And just as soon as I get complete amnesia and forget the horror of traveling the rails, I'll ride Amtrak again. But never in the South. Only from here to Portland, Oregon, or maybe up to Vancouver, B.C. Never again overnight. Never, ever, ever and even though I said that once before (three nights on a train that time and I was eight weeks pregnant, too, though I didn't know it), I mean it this time.

Well. Babygirl's awake and clamoring for a bath (she's the cleanest toddler on earth), so off I go. Tomorrow, the boys will all be home and my life will resume here in the land of shoulder-high Shasta daisies and seventy degree blue skies and weeds growing like . . . weeds.


Blogger Cuppa said...

My goodness Maggy Muggins, that was quite an adventure you had. I am a tad worn out just reading about it.

Glad to hear that you made some special memories in spite of the trauma of the heat and train delays.

Good to have you home and writing again. I missed you.

6:28 PM  
Blogger jackabug said...

Once we went to Massachusetts from Florida and back on a train with
2 children. 22 hours one way. We would wake up in the middle of the night and the train would be stopped and we never knew why!
Never again! We had a loud family too!(with twin 2 year olds) Jackie

6:32 PM  
Blogger Anvilcloud said...

Who was that sagacious fellow who told you to cancel that train immediately, just as soon as he heard about it? Pay attention to your elders young lady.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

That Loud family? That would have been Hubba-hubba's family. They have absolutely no sense of when being quiet is appropriate. They are pretty much loud all the time. They also have little regard for other people.

Hmmm, were they traveling and I just didn't know it?

Mr. Personality loves trains, and we are actually going on one this weekend, but it will only be for forty five minutes. From your description, I don't think I will ever want to overnight on a train.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Julana said...

I was afraid this would happen, when you first mentioned it. :-)
I did an overnight when I was young, and it was bad. 27 years later, I still remember the awful toilets. You have made memories!!!

8:35 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

Ugh! Just, ugh.


9:54 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

I just discovered your blog the other day through Anvilcloud via Norma (Collecting My Thoughts). I love it!!!

I'm sure glad I'm waiting until after our trip to visit family in Boston to start potty training. (And that we're driving and not doing AMTRAK...althought it sounds romantic...)

7:29 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Darling said...

I rode Amtrack from Oregon to Wisconsin one time. That was 15 years ago. I have never done it since and will never do it as long as i live. I could have written this entry myself!

9:28 PM  
Blogger Chelsea said...

I love reading your stuff.

10:53 PM  

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