Travel Daze

Vivian in Train

Happy Independence Day to my American readers.

I don’t care how much of a railfan you are, getting up at four a.m. to catch a train is a tiring experience. And travelling with two children under the age of three is a stressful experience. And taking them through Chicago’s Union Station during Independence Day was quite possibly insane.

Still, it’s probably better than it would have been if we’d driven. For one thing, we’d only just be arriving in Chicago. For no other reason that we wouldn’t have gotten up at four in the morning to catch the train.

So we got up before the sun and drove down to the Port Huron Amtrak station. We managed to load our extensive luggage collection on board and were off on time, just as the dawn touched the sky. Service was good. We travelled in single level coaches with leg room and a snack car elsewhere on the train. We were able to move about which helped Vivian a lot, and we spent a fair amount of time sleeping.

We got into Chicago fifteen minutes late, and tipped a Skycap about twenty bucks for going above and beyond the call of duty in lugging our luggage to the right place to get our tickets to Kansas City. I managed to collect my tickets from an automatic machine and checked the bags and the car seats in far less time than probably would have happened had we been on our own. As it was, just carrying the carry-on luggage AND the kids was a painful experience.

Looking at the Bean

Vivian has been stressed by the disruption to her schedule, by the strange surroundings, and by the crowds and noise of Chicago Union Station, which of course stresses us all. However, the kid has been doing remarkably well, all things considered. She’s been alternating between crying and wanting to go home, and normality. We were able to grab a cab (driver’s name: Saddam Hussein, seriously) who drove like a maniac through the central streets of Chicago to Millennium Park, where Vivian enjoyed seeing the Bean (officially known as Cloud Gate, but referred to by everybody else as “the Bean”) and the wonderful splash park. Our trip was much too short, with no road food, but Erin and I will have to stay overnight on our way back, so we’ll make a day of it.

Right now, I’m typing this on the Superliner coach of the Southwest Chief just outside of Napierville, on my way to Kansas City. (This will be posted after the fact, because Amtrak trains don’t seem to have on board wi-fi) We’ll be making a day of that as well, and I’m looking forward to returning to Arthur Bryant’s for a burnt ends sandwich, but this wasn’t our original plan. This last week has been a little bit fraught because, on Tuesday, Amtrak called us up and told us that our original plan, to take the California Zephyr to Osceola, just an hour’s drive south of Des Moines, was no go. Surely we’d all heard about the terrible floods that had afflicted the state. Well, a bridge was out, and service had been completely suspended (including motor coach alternates) between Chicago and Omaha.

Well, we had a frustrating time getting through to customer service, and once there, they basically stonewalled us with the “it’s an act of God” defence. But, I’m sorry, you suspended service on June 13, but sold us the tickets on the website on June 22nd, giving us little indication that there was even a problem, much less a possibility that service wouldn’t be operating on the fourth. The best they could do was offer to refund the unused portion of our trip from Chicago to Osceola.

After much scrambling for other arrangements, I managed to find that the Southwest Chief was still operating on a more southerly route. Kansas City was just three hours away from Des Moines, as opposed to Chicago’s six. We picked up the last roomette plus two coach seats (giving us a place for Vivian to retreat to) and our journey was assured.

However, I still ended up paying more for my tickets to Kansas City than I paid for my tickets to Osceola, and there’s the stress they’ve put us under. This isn’t the last that Amtrak is going to hear about this. The service on board the train has been great, but their customer service when it comes to dealing with unexpected problems leads much to be desired.

It’s 6:10 p.m. as I write this, and it’s outside of Galesburg, Illinois (the Southwest Chief is running so on time, you can set your watch by it). I’ve just had a dinner in the dining car with Erin, which came included with the sleeper accommodation. And there’s nothing more civilized, nothing that improves the mood, more than a good dinner on the train.

We sat across from a former military man named Anthony, built like a tank, and shared pleasant conversation. We all had the steak dinner, and it was an excellent cut of meat, well prepared. The assorted vegetables were tasty and fresh and the mashed potatoes had a good buttery flavour to them. We relaxed as we ate, watching the cornfields slip past. I wish we could do this more often.

At 6:51, we approach the Mississippi river. I cannot help but notice that there are sandbags lining all of the roads around the farms.

At 6:59, that’s followed by what appears to be a rescue boat, parked in a parking lot, not far from the river. And it doesn’t have a trailer hitch or wheels.

Finally, we are in our hotel in Kansas City, having met grandpa Michael at the station. Vivian is heading to sleep, and Nora is asleep in her crib. We will make a day of Kansas City tomorrow and then head back to Des Moines, where we hope we won’t have to travel much for a couple of days at least.

I do heartily recommend the Superliner Roomette option if you can afford it. Vivian was entranced by the bed that folded down from the ceiling and managed to get some sleep on it. I managed to retire to my coach seat for some private time, and dinner was wonderful.

The sun set as we approached Kansas City, and we saw a couple dozen separate fireworks displays on the horizon, from the various small towns that dotted our route. The observation car was packed with people who wanted to see the show, and Amtrak was more than happy to turn out the lights in the car for the full effect.

(written a little beforehand)

In the Okay, This is Creepy Department, I used to find it a little disturbing to have my cellphone buzz me a text message once I crossed the border, telling me that all of my regular services were still available, don’t I worry. And, I mean: right when I crossed the border. How did it know?

But after a few trips, I got used to this feature and thought nothing more about it. That is, until I switched my cellphone contract to Bell and upgraded to a Motorola cellphone. Here I am, in coach, just leaving Chicago, typing up something else, and I text my father to say where I am and that everybody is all right. Then I take a look at the time: 3:30 p.m.

Then I look at my watch: 3:30 p.m.

Then I think: wait a minute, I set my watch back an hour once I crossed into Central Time. My cellphone did it automatically.

Ho, boy!

Hello, there, Mr. Big Brother. Can you see what finger I’m holding up right now?

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