Apples, Kids, & Attitude
Good Morning America, How Are You?
“OK,” I thought, “this sounded really cool when I dreamed up the idea.” Those words were running through my head as my kids and I arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles on our way to boarding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Chicago. Now that we were seated at the station with all of our travel stuff I began to wonder if this really was the best of ideas.
A Dream Becomes Reality
I had long thought of taking my kids to and from my home state of Connecticut by train. I wanted to experience the romance of the rails and for my kids to see the country in an up close and personal kind of way. Although in a few minutes from that moment the romance of the rails would take on a whole new and unexpected meaning (please see the iSight review in this issue of ATPM), the reality of three days on Amtrak trains began to sink in.
The Southwest Chief was running late on that July day. It gave us more time to become acquainted with Sue and Clayton Spayer, our surprise companions on the trip to Chicago. We were scheduled for a three-hour layover in the Windy City before my kids and I were to board Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and its overnight trek to Penn Station in New York. But for now, getting settled for the two-day wheeled excursion to Chicago was foremost on my mind.
I had arranged for my kids and I to share what’s called a “Family Bedroom” from LA to Chicago. The first impression as the three of us loaded our gear into the sleeper was that Amtrak’s version of a family must have come from Lilliput during Gulliver’s stay in the land. There was barely enough room for the three of us to sit in the space and accommodate our carry-on bags. It was obvious we’d spend little non-sleeping time in the room.
Prepared for three days without Internet access, my kids and I had our iPods, and I brought along my Titanium PowerBook for notes and writing along the way. But once the wheels began to move, all agendas and preconceived ideas had to be left at the station.
On Our Way
We felt a little jolt as the train pulled away from Union Station, taking slow and winding turns as the locomotives and cars moved through the expansive yard of tracks heading in all directions and passed the collection of rail cars seemingly marooned by the side.
The rhythm of the rails has a kind of inebriating effect on the mind and body, but soon after settling in to our room it was time to head to the dining car for dinner. Already behind schedule for a 6:45 PM departure, the crew lost no time readying the tables for the Southwest Chief’s eastbound guests.
The dining car was positioned about four cars forward from the sleepers, and learning to straddle the short tubes that connect the rail cars was our first lesson in the peculiarities of train travel. As we navigated the narrow corridors in the coach cars, in turn yielding the right of way to other passengers, it came to mind this was less of a trip home and more of a pilgrimage across America. It was an opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of places in America hidden away by the matrix of superhighways and long forgotten by a nation of people that prefer to travel by air.
A few days before the trip, and still using a dial-up connection at home, I drove to the Glendale Apple Store to use my AirPort card on the store’s broadband network to purchase a few songs for the journey. I wanted a copy of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” on my iPod for the trip. The song’s refrain “Good morning America, how are you?” was a unanswered question to which I wanted to see and hear a reply as my children and I ambled across the country on wheels at sixty to eighty miles an hour.
After dinner, as we sat with our travel companions in the Southwest Chief’s observation car, we engaged alternately between active conversation and silence as we watched the day give way to night. By midnight the crowd in the observation car had mostly dispersed. Remaining in the car was our party of five and a few other passengers, seeking refuge from the cramped conditions of the coach cars or desiring to be wakened by the first rays of the new day’s sun as it splashed through the floor-to-ceiling glass of this special-purpose rail car. The only light in the car a couple of hours after midnight was the glow of the Apple logo on my PowerBook as it reflected in the windows.
Good Morning, America
Morning comes early on the train. Within minutes of waking, we hurried to the dining car for breakfast in an effort to beat the crowd. We walked quickly through the coach cars as passengers slowly got themselves ready for the day. Many travelers were still sleeping as the clock’s minute hand moved through the 7:00 AM hour, but the narrow corridor between the rows of seats began to fill quickly with hectic human traffic. We stepped almost apologetically past the sleeping passengers, hoping a sudden and abrupt bank in the train’s movement wouldn’t throw us off balance and make us an impromptu wake-up call for a resting guest.
Breakfast over, my kids and I worked through the logistics of showers. The family bedroom contained a small bathroom compartment that combines a shower and toilet. A sit-down shower in cramped confines didn’t look like a comfortable solution, but it was surprisingly refreshing.
By midday we were on route to our biggest stop on the schedule, a forty-five minute stay in Albuquerque. The train station and its surroundings had an old southwest charm, and vendors were ready at the tables with goods to sell to passengers. Native Americans, touting their heritage, eagerly offered blankets and jewelry to the weary travelers seeking a moment’s respite on unmoving ground. Cheryl’s Bus Stop, a converted old school bus, sold snacks and other refreshments. My kids and their 15-year-old traveling companion enjoyed a popsicle treat in the sweltering New Mexico heat. Rather than board early, they chose to play on an abandoned piece of track between the train and the station. It was a timeless pursuit that has been enjoyed by generations of children.
Santa Fe and The Raton Tunnel
Soon after Albuquerque, time lost its conventional meaning. We were no longer concerned with the actual hour of the day. The change of time zones and the striking changes in topography distorted time’s meaning. Time was now measured in distance between stops, the schedule for the dining car, and the remaining time needed to recharge our digital devices. I spent a lot of time watching the signal indicator on my digital cell phone for periods when calls could be made. The journey through the southwest’s barren terrain, and now the southern reaches of the Rockies, left me without cell phone service—which I would otherwise take for granted.
We reached the Raton Tunnel during daylight. A sign just short of the tunnel indicated we had reached the highest point on the Santa Fe railway. At an elevation of 7,588 feet as we approached the tunnel, the train paused as if it were triumphantly taking in the moment.
As the Southwest Chief snaked its way through the mountains there were points at which we could see the locomotives in the front and the cars at the end of the train. Set against the backdrop of the mountains, it was a picture postcard view of rail travel in America. But the horseshoe bends provided evidence as to one of the reasons the train was now well behind schedule. The Southwest Chief was loaded down at the rear with freight cars and mail cars. This added to the train’s burdens. By now the published schedule was little more than a reference to the time between stops rather than an indicator of when we might arrive at a particular station.
Fire In The Sky
At 5'9" my 12 year-old daughter is an imposing presence on the court for her parochial school basketball team. She also guards the heart of her single father better than a talented NBA point guard protects the lane. A child of divorce, she knows the bitter pains of separation and instinctively appreciates the emotional dangers that might come from her father seeking camaraderie or friendship with a member of his opposing sex. With nothing more than a glance, she can dispel her father’s sometimes-whimsical notions. Rarely would she consider befriending a woman of the approximate age of her father.
But here, suspended somewhere between the real and the unreal, experiencing a means of travel trapped between yesterday and today, even her vigilance gave way to the magic of the moment. For hours she sat talking and laughing with Sue, our surprise travel companion on the journey to Chicago.
Jessica and Sue spent the afternoon hours huddled together in conversation, but brilliant flashes of lightening in the early evening sky abruptly silenced their dialogue. We all sat in awe as we witnessed the splendor of nature filling the sky above the flats of Colorado with a spectacular performance of sight and sound. The Rockies were now miles behind us, and we were heading into Kansas and across the Breadbasket of America.
The Mighty Mississippi
Evening quickly turned to night and night passed swiftly into a new day. By now we had become accustomed to the constant forward movement and not-so-subtle vibrations of the train. We had acclimated to the Southwest Chief’s unique exercise in time and learned to navigate the paths between the sleeper car and the observation and dining cars. Adapting to the motion of the train while walking is the closest a landlubber might come to learning sea legs.
Overnight we had slept through most of Kansas but we were well awake by the time the train entered Missouri. It was a bittersweet day. In a few hours our travel companions would be departing a few stations before Chicago. The remainder of the journey to Connecticut the three of us would experience together but alone. But on our minds this morning was the mighty Mississippi.
I had read many of the great classic novels to my children over the years, including two books by Mark Twain that featured characters who lived on or near this greatest of the American rivers. My kids eagerly awaited the river crossing. Without saying a word, I knew as we crossed the river’s expanse that my kids were comparing their eye’s view of the river with their mind’s view of the Mississippi that had been conjured by their imaginations over many nights of my reading. Matthew and Jessica were not disappointed by what their eyes beheld. Mark Twain’s work artfully mixed the natural beauty of the river with the colorful lives of his fictional characters.
Between the Mississippi and Chicago the train made a lone stop in Iowa. It was a brief visit to the Hawkeye State, but my kids could count Iowa among the sixteen states they would visit on our trek across America. After our companions departed at a remote stop in central Illinois, we prepared for the change of trains in Chicago.
The Windy City
We arrived in Chicago desiring to finish our journey to Connecticut but happy to have a rest at Union Station. It’s a cavernous train station with many shops for train passengers and rail commuters. Sleeping car accommodations afforded us entry to Amtrak’s 1st class lounge with free beverages and couch seating. It was a relief. An ample number of outlets allowed us to charge my laptop, my daughter’s digital camera, and our iPods at the same time. We ventured outside for a few photos, but my kids were just as happy to sit in the lounge and watch a movie on my laptop. They were restless and just wanted to see the end of the three-day ride.
I ventured out of the station to buy snacks and saw a number of Amish families changing trains. It reminded me of the conversation in the observation car the evening before with an Amish man who approached me and asked about the appropriateness of the content of a movie being shown in the car for his young kids. We discussed our views of today’s movie industry, and he volunteered a few insights into Amish theology. He was now a cabinetmaker, married with two young boys. From our conversation I surmised he was a convert to the Amish faith and culture. Many Amish sects eschew modern modes of transportation and other trappings of our material world. After traveling 2,000 miles from LA to Chicago with a number of Amish families, I was surprised by their comfortable synthesis of sophistication and simplicity.
Back at the lounge, my kids busied themselves watching movies and taking advantage of the beverage fountain. My son had two goals during our travels—Chicago-style pizza in Chicago and a New York-style hot dog in New York. Both goals were accomplished, but the pizza would wait until the return trip and the longer layover in Chicago when we headed west.
The Lake Shore Limited
The boarding call for the last leg of our eastbound journey came late, long after the scheduled 7:00 PM departure. The family bedrooms were sold out from Chicago to New York, so we took the available sleeper space. Choosing not to check our carry-on bags, there was little room to sit, and the accommodations were downright uncomfortable for three passengers. My daughter, by virtue of her gender, had the top bunk to herself. My son and I managed an uneasy sharing of the scant remaining space.
The Lake Shore Limited lacked an observation car and the lateness of the departure meant the dining car did not fully open. There was no time to seat all the passengers who desired dinner. To satisfy the hungry passengers our sleeping car attendant took dinner orders and delivered the food prepared in the dining car to us in carryout trays. Our trip east had quickly turned from an adventure to an odyssey.
Lacking space in the sleeper, I took advantage of every opportunity to detrain and stretch my arms and legs. With brief overnight stops in Toledo and Buffalo, I became acquainted with the heavy air of the lakeside region and remembered the high humidity of the northeast I experienced as a kid. With each passing mile I now felt closer to home. The topography had changed from prairie towns to small industrial cities of the east.
There wasn’t a shower in the sleeper but a shared shower space at the end of the car. Though the shower handled one person at a time, my kids were too bashful to shower outside the room. Having wakened for the stop in Buffalo before sunrise, rising with the attendants and engineers, I could sense their fatigue from an evening of little rest. I was the first passenger in the car to use the shower facility and then woke my kids for an early breakfast. Weary from three days of travel, they were ready to feel the comforts of a Connecticut countryside home.
The final stop before Penn Station was Albany-Rensselaer, NY. It has a large and modern rail station that serves as a hub for passengers traveling to and from Boston. The sleek design of the station’s building stands in striking contrast to the ornate older buildings of the city in the distance. It was our last resting point before the scheduled two-hour, forty-minute stride to New York City.
The trip from Albany to New York paralleled the western border of Connecticut. I grew up in a town on the Connecticut-New York state line. I saw again the familiar names of towns and cities I had long ago left behind. The train took us past these familiar towns only for us backtrack to the area by car. The lush summer greenery enlivened my senses. For so many years I was accustomed only to the sights of summer in LA’s coastal desert basin. The last time I was home was a few months before my daughter was born. After twelve years it was like coming home to a place I had never been before.
Connecticut At Last
We arrived at Penn Station, grabbed our carry-on bags, and made a mad dash for the exit. It was a weekday afternoon, and I wanted to find our waiting car as quickly as possible. We rushed from Penn Station’s subterranean lighting to midtown-Manhattan’s afternoon sun. The change in brightness combined with my inherent lack of a sense of direction left me momentarily disoriented, so my daughter stepped in to take charge of finding our bearings. Penn Station shares space and the city block with Madison Square Garden. After a couple of quick turns and a pedestrian crossing at the corner, we were on West 33rd Street and had found our car.
In an effort to avoid rush hour traffic, the driver took us up Manhattan’s upper West Side, past Central Park and through Harlem. I was startled at how clean New York City had become in the dozen years since my last visit to Gotham. Soon we were out of the City and in Westchester County. The route became hauntingly familiar and my mind raced backed to much younger days. Soon we were driving the winding country roads of Connecticut and arrived at my mother’s home. It was a long overdue reunion that seemed far too slow in coming but not a moment too late.
From Sea To Shining Sea
The arrival in Connecticut was not the end of our travels. On Sunday we drove with members of my family back to Manhattan for Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lunch in the City. My son realized his goal of a New York-style hot dog in New York at a Manhattan restaurant called Ellen’s Stardust Diner. The wait staff dresses in 50s and early 60s attire and entertains the patrons with song. Ironically, his New York-style hot dog was served to him not by a native New Yorker, but by a talented young lady who had migrated to New York from Van Nuys, CA, just a few miles from our home in Burbank.
My daughter’s goal for the trip was a bit more problematic. She wanted to put her hand in the Atlantic Ocean. She would not be satisfied with a stroll along the Connecticut coast. The waters off of the coast of Connecticut are in the Long island Sound. She wanted to put her hand in the Atlantic Ocean proper, not the waters between Connecticut and the Island.
The day after the trip back to Manhattan, my sister drove my kids and me to Mystic Seaport and then on to Westerly, Rhode Island so that my daughter could touch the ocean water. She dropped my daughter and me off at a sandy entrance to Misquamicut State Beach. My daughter and I walked over the sand mounds that separated the beach from the street while my sister turned the car around to head home.
It was close to low tide at Misquamicut, so accomplishing my daughter’s goal required a sojourn of another fifty feet. I remembered that a week before our own journey my daughter had spent the weekend with her mother near the Channel Islands Harbor outside Ventura, California. As we walked toward the approaching waves I realized we had traveled from sea to sea, a distance of almost three thousand miles without ever leaving the ground.
The eccentricities of rail travel and its unreal distortion of time were more than matched by the awesome sights and sounds of a beautiful land. “Good morning America, how are you?” I asked myself one more time as my daughter set her hand in the waters of the Atlantic. “At this very moment in time,” I said to myself, “America is just fine.”
Also in This Series
- Good Morning America, How Are You? · October 2003
- Martians in the Manholes · February 2001
- The Golden Touch · May 2000
- Three Kids and an iMac · February 2000
- How? · November 1999
- Apples, Kids, & Attitude · August 1999
- Play Ball! · May 1999
- A Time For Change · February 1999
- New Year, New Times · January 1999
- Complete Archive