Monthly Archives: February 2015

Choo Choo!: Soundtrack to a Train Ride

No trip is complete without the appropriate musical accompaniment.

Candidates for making the Choo Choo! Mix must satisfy any combination of the following criteria:
A) Songs with titles and/or lyrics about trains or travel, either in general or specific to this trip.
B) Songs with bass or drum lines that bring to mind the motion of a train (or in other words, anything by Johnny Cash).
C) Americana/country/folk songs, or some blend of the three genres.
D) Songs that I like, especially gloomy, atmospheric, winter-appropriate songs. No further criteria needed :).

I know this is a long mix (56 songs), but do you KNOW how many hours I’m going to be on the train? I better have a long mix!

Choo Choo! Mix
1. “Baby Did a Bad Thing,” Chris Isaak
2. “Set Out Running,” Neko Case
3. “I’m a Wheel,” Wilco
4. “Civilian,” Wye Oak
5. “Lake Michigan,” Rogue Wave
6. “Via Chicago,” Wilco – bonus points for mentioning both Chicago *and* San Francisco
7. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash
8. “The Way It Goes,” Gillian Welch
9. “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin
10. “Broken Train,” Beck
11. “Hey Porter,” Johnny Cash
12. “Black River Killer,” Blitzen Trapper
13. “Universal Traveler,” Air
14. “Move Over Mama,” Justin Townes Earle
15. “Right Down the Line,” Gerry Rafferty – best country-esque rock song written by a Scottish dude
16. “One Big Holiday,” My Morning Jacket -their album It Still Moves is just one big road trip mix
17. “Rox in the Box,” The Decemberists
18. “Scarlet Town,” Gillian Welch
19. “Straight Shooter,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
20. “Love is All I Am,” Dawes
21. “Louise,” Bonnie Raitt
22. “Bluebird,” Jim White
23. “Company in My Back,” Wilco
24. “Why Not Me,” The Judds
25. “Are You Ready for the Country?,” Neil Young
26. “The Vagabond,” Air
27. “Workin’ on the MTA,” Justin Townes Earle
28. “Shippin’ Up to Boston,” The Dropkick Murphys
29. “Ride Like the Wind,” Christopher Cross
30. “What Goes On,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
31. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
32. “On the Road Again,” Canned Heat
33. “Houston, TX,” Deer Tick
34. “Train in Vain,” The Clash
35. “Ride,” Lana del Rey
36. “Night Rider,” Jonny Corndawg
37. “Driver 8,” REM
38. “Steam Engine,” My Morning Jacket
39. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” Lucinda Williams
40. “One Way Ticket,” The Darkness
41. “Twenty Miles,” Deer Tick
42. “Mykonos,” Fleet Foxes
43. “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen
44. “Rooster Mountain,” The Court and Spark
45. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
46. “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Johnny Cash -makes me smile, as the train passes through many of these towns!
47. “Country Down,” Beck
48. “I Wanna Holler (But The Town’s Too Small),” The Detroit Cobras
49. “Entrance Song,” The Black Angels
50. “In a Big Country,” Big Country
51. “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes
52. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
53. “Harlem River Blues,” Justin Townes Earle
54. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon
55. “Horse with No Name,” America
56. “Golden,” My Morning Jacket

Shuffle. Repeat. Enjoy :).

Categories: music, Train | Leave a comment

Via Chicago

A train geek setting foot into Chicago’s Union Station is like a budding musician setting foot into Carnegie Hall.  Now this was a train station! I could have spent hours wandering around and taking photos of the magnificent architecture.  There was also a huge US map on the wall which detailed the numerous Amtrak routes throughout the country.  I stood there for a while (I am also a map geek), feverishly making mental itineraries of future trips and trying not to salivate, when I noticed that I was not alone.  A woman stood next to me, staring at the map and lost in her own internal geekout.  So I didn’t feel too bad.


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Recognize these steps from The Untouchables?

Recognize these steps from The Untouchables?

I mentally created four different routes in the ten minutes that I stood staring at this map.

I mentally created four different vacations in the ten minutes that I stood staring at this map.

I stepped onto an escalator to reach the food court.  I had originally planned to go to a museum on my first day in town, but since our train arrived four hours late, I decided to grab a quick lunch and just head to my cousins’ apartment.  A station employee riding in front of me turned and struck up a conversation:  “Are you coming or leaving?” I explained that I had just arrived and that this was my first time in town.  “Ah, on the Lake Shore Limited.  Welcome to Chicago!” he wished with a warm smile.  I marveled at his friendliness.  Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore!

I soon had my first experience with riding the El, Chicago’s elevated train.  It brought back pleasant memories of the Skytrain in Bangkok, although I don’t think Thai winter weather necessitates overhead space heaters at its stations!  I also thought it was interesting that the Ventra card kiosks offer instructions in Polish as well as the more commonly seen Spanish option.

I'll take da 3-day tourist pass, Bob.

I’ll take da 3-day tourist pass, Bob.

Shivering at one of the elevated stations

Shivering at one of the elevated stations

Lizza and Tricia, who are my third cousins, had generously offered to let me stay at their apartment.  Once I had showered and warmed up at their place, my night of fitful sleep caught up with me, and I didn’t do much else for the rest of the evening except catch up with my cousins over some Thai food.

I started off the next day slowly, finally getting in some yoga to stretch out my limbs which had been cramped into my train seat for over 24 hours. In the late morning, I set off through the slush and snow to grab a coffee at Intelligentsia coffee. I first heard of this place a few years ago at the Solid Sound music festival, where my favorite Chicago band, Wilco, brought their favorite local coffee shop up to North Adams, MA, to provide the festival’s coffee. (Yay Wilco!) While my coffee was eyebrow-raisingly (I just made up that word) expensive, I sat for half an hour and enjoyed really fantastic 60’s music that sent me scrambling for my phone to Shazam almost every song that came on.

I braved the nasty snow to take the bus to the International Museum of Surgical Science. While its dental exhibit was pretty paltry, it was interesting to learn about the history of surgery and pharmacy. They even had a model apothecary inside that showed how early medicines were made. A good afternoon of nerdy fun.

Ahem!  Lone dental exhibit.

Ahem! Lone dental exhibit.

The downside to my visit was the bitter, bitter cold.  I usually like to wander around new cities on foot, but I could only do so until I lost feeling in my fingers.  Then it was time for a stop at Elly’s Pancake House for some chili.  A hot, cheap meal: just the way I like it.

Chicago has some cute diners, no?

Chicago has some cute diners, no?

Later on, I was invited to dinner at the apartment of Ken, my walking buddy that I met last year in Guatemala, and his girlfriend Jen.  The walls were covered with Jen’s paintings, which were just as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as their view of the Chicago skyline and river.  We discussed the logistics of their upcoming spring trip:  completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by bike :).  Go for it, guys!

Tres peregrinos

Tres peregrinos

After Ken walked me to the El station, I realized that I might still have enough time to check out one of the free late-night improv comedy shows at Second City.  Stepping inside the giant complex, I was struck by a wave of awe and giddiness.  The walls exhibited black-and-white photos of so many famous actors and comedians that it wasn’t possible to see them all.  And I did another little geekout.  I have what you might call an unconditional love for Saturday Night Live and usually pepper my conversations with funny but obscure quotes and references to past movies and skits.  (Those who meet me either choose to accept this or never speak to me again).  So it was a real treat to hear the improv sketches of this group of up-and-comers, who welcomed me after the show with what I now realize is universal Chicago enthusiasm.  I hope that I can see some of them on SNL someday.

A warm welcome from the gang at Second City, satisfying my inner comedienne.  Only partly visible in the background are old photos of stars like Steve Carrell, Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, and others who got their start here.

A warm welcome from the hilarious gang at Second City, satisfying my inner comedienne. Only partly visible in the background are old photos of stars like Steve Carrell, Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, and others who got their start here.

The next morning, the windchill was below zero, so I didn’t really relish the idea of spending much time outside.  I dawdled around in the morning, working on the blog and doing anything to avoid leaving the apartment.  My feet -and wallet- also didn’t feel like spending the entire day walking through a museum.  So I did what I tend to do when I am unsure how to plan a vacation day:  I went out to eat.  I needed lunch at some point, right?

Let me begin by saying that although I love to eat and try new things, I am not a foodie.  I don’t want to have to wait three months to get a reservation for a trendy restaurant.  Although I know that these master chefs are at the top of their craft, I have no patience for this if it means little drizzles of sauce under an expensive matchbox-sized entree with a side of flavored foam.  I am entirely too hungry and cheap for that.  So I was excited to read that Stephanie Izard, one of the previous winners of Top Chef, had opened a diner called Little Goat across the street from her popular restaurant Girl and The Goat. A diner!  That’s much more my speed.

Little Goat:  diner chic

Little Goat: diner chic

One thing that struck me upon entering the diner was how friendly the staff was.  Not scary-clown friendly, but genuinely nice. (Ah, the Midwest.  It’s good to be back).  The second thing I noticed was the awesome music: a mix of everything from the Traveling Wilburys to Wilco to the Eurythmics.  (Bonus points for a Eurythmics song other than “Sweet Dreams.”)  I even caught a glimpe of Stephanie Izard herself. I happily scarfed down a coffee, Sloppy Goat -yes, that’s a sloppy joe with goat meat- and a fruit tart.    Thankfully, my server was nothing like this:

(clip from Billy Madison, 1995, Universal Pictures)

I rolled myself out of the diner and spent the rest of the sunny but freezing afternoon walking around the city and taking photos.  I lasted about an hour and a half before my frozen toes cried out for mercy.

View of downtown from the Brown Line

View of downtown from the Brown Line

Merchandise Mart, which was once the largest building (area-wise) in the world.  It has its own zip code.

Merchandise Mart, which was once the largest building (area-wise) in the world. It has its own zip code.

Macaroons in the French Market.  Thank God I had just eaten a big lunch, or this could have gotten dangerous.

Macaroons in the French Market. Thank God I had just eaten a big lunch, or this could have gotten dangerous.

The train rolls overhead

The train rolls overhead

I am an American aquarium drinker.  I assassin down the avenue.

I am an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue.

My last night in town, I met up with all the Chicago Zakelj cousins for a deep dish pizza dinner followed by a round of beers.  Fun Zakelj fact: everyone in my dad’s immediate family pronounces our name “ZAY-kel” while  all of my dad’s cousins and their children (including the Chicagoans) say “Zuh-KELL.”  Other New York cousins have had the “j” ending legally removed.  And guess what?  We are ALL technically saying it wrong, since the true Slovenian pronunciation is “ZHAH-kel.”  In any case, it was nice to be able to spend time with family that I so rarely see.

Look at all those good-lookin' Zakeljs!  Lizza, Tricia, me, Chris, and Mike

Look at all those good-lookin’ Zakeljs! Lizza, Tricia, me, Chris, and Mike

Before my train departed the next day, I had a bit of time to kill, so along with my luggage, I played the “get off at a random stop on the El and explore” game.  What I came across was Holy Name Cathedral, which had one of the most intricate wooden ceilings I have ever seen.image

My friend Pete met me for lunch shortly before I had to head out.  As I entered Union Station to board my train to Denver, I knew that I would be back in Chicago before too long. (At least when the weather’s better!)

Categories: chicago, diners, second city, union station | 2 Comments

All aboard! Boston to Chicago by train

No sooner had Boston cleared away some of the snow from Blizzard #1 did predictions for another heavy snowfall show up on the weather reports.  My train was supposed to be leaving shortly before noon on Monday, after the snow had started.

I realized just how quickly the snow was accumulating when I left Jane’s house:

This sidewalk was so clear the day before!

This sidewalk was so clear the day before!

I had no trouble getting downtown because the T was running normally.  The snow was plummeting from the sky and gusts of wind blew everything about, but because I was in the middle of a busy financial district with plenty of pedestrians, the sidewalks were mostly salted and clear.

I'd hate to be driving in this!

I’d hate to be driving in this!

Post Office Square, Boston

Post Office Square, Boston

CYA signs all over downtown

CYA signs all over downtown

Surprisingly, the problems came when it was time to cross the street. The roads were nearly devoid of cars, but the plows couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of snow. It felt like I was walking in quicksand while my wheeled suitcase gathered heaps of snow behind me. It was so slow going that I began laughing hysterically:  I had to stop and take a photo of the craziness of it all.


My bag in the middle of the street. CRAZY!

I was able to make it to South Station with plenty of time to spare.  My friend Lynnette works nearby and was sweet enough to brave the snow in order to see me off.  I was so relieved that I had not brought a car to Boston;  otherwise, it would have been buried under several feet of snow by the time I came back!

Once aboard the train, I settled into my seat.  It looked like there were quite a few people who were taking the train because their flights had been cancelled or they didn’t think it would be safe to drive.  The fact that our vehicle was on a track was mighty reassuring in the storm :).  The jovial conductor made his way down the aisle scanning tickets.  “Ooooh!  Rebecca… Za-KEL-juh!” he proclaimed when he read my ticket.  “That’s an unusual name!  Where’s that from?”  “Slovenia,” I answered.  “Yeeahhhh, ” he joked.  “I been there.  Hung out with some VAMPIRES!”  I laughed.  Probably 75% of people I meet don’t know a thing about Slovenia, so I am used to questions and misconceptions, but being confused with Transylvania was a first.  That said, this was a much more interesting and funny comment than the typical, “Oh!  I have a good friend from Czechoslovakia!”

It felt good to be warm and cozy on the train as it chugged through the snow and left Boston.  In western Massachusetts, I gained my first and only seatmate for the entire ride: a young woman with dyed blue hair and awesome green cowboy boots.  She would only be riding as far as Rochester, New York and immediately pulled out a small piece of colored lace that she was tatting.  I then spent the next hour trying to figure out why I had the line, “And when she has got them lined up on the mat-ting/ She teaches them music, crocheting, and tat-ting” stuck in my head.  (Note:  it’s a line from “The Old Gumbie Cat” from Cats.  I have not listened to Cats in approximately 20 years.  This is how deeply this stuff gets embedded in my brain.  Sad but true).

Later in the evening, we were stalled for quite some time.  The power went off temporarily, and the cafe car had to be closed until we started again.  Hungry passengers were starting to get impatient and cranky, especially since it we weren’t getting many updates as to what was happening.  At long last, the train lurched forward again, and the cafe car attendant (a very nice lady, by the way) announced that it was happy hour.  Anyone loitering in the aisle soon moved or risked being flattenend by the stampede of people who made a beeline to the cafe car.  It was quite the line.

Discounts on wine, you say?

Discounts on wine, you say?

I prepared myself for my first overnighter on the train.  Although sleeper compartments and smaller roomettes are both available on the Lake Shore Limited, neither was in my budget for this trip, so I figured I’d suck it up and sleep in my seat overnight.  The seats are spacious and recline 40 degrees, so between that, a footrest, and a panel that swings up from beneath the seat, it feels like being in a living room recliner.  I could do alot worse.

I noticed two things fairly soon: 1) it was very cold, so even though I had brought a blanket and sleep sack, my feet were freezing.  I think I ended up taking off my boots, putting on a second pair of socks, then wrapping my lower legs in my winter coat.  This was better.  2) The recliner can provide adequate rest if and only if you do not have a seatmate.  I squirmed in my seat for hours trying to find a comfortable position without slugging my blue-haired neighbor.  When we reached Rochester in the middle of the night and she disembarked, I said a silent prayer of thanks and stretched out between the two seats.  Then tried to lie down on my right side.  Then woke up with a cramp and tried to curl up on my left.  Then stretched out diagonally.

This must have worked, because when I next awoke, I felt well-rested and the bright morning sun flooded over the lakeshore.  Yay!  We had made it all the way to- wait, what?  We’re only in Sandusky?  The train goblins had made their mischief overnight, and we were now four hours behind.  At least the weather was beautiful.image

Cedar Point from across the lake.  High five, optical zoom!

Cedar Point from across the lake. High five, optical zoom!

Thin ice

Thin ice


As I packed away my blankets, I saw a familiar face walking down the aisle.  It was Jacob, the Amtrak conductor I had met on my previous ride to Boston, though I couldn’t quite remember his name in my morning fog.  “Hi!” I called out as I waved to him.  His face brightened in recognition.  “Hey!  You’re the traveling dentist!” he remarked.  “And you’re the elephant man!  Oh. Wait. That came out wrong,” I stuttered.  (Please refer to my Blizzard Bound post where it was established that Jacob hails from the Ohio town where the circus used to unload the animals -in particular the elephants- for a parade down the streets.  Now hopefully interpret my comment to him not as a sign of clinical insanity but of signal transmission gone haywire in a brain which direly needed caffeine).  He laughed, thank God.  🙂

In the cafe car, I enjoyed another one of my oatmeal cup breakfasts while Jacob did some work.  I had been treated to a coffee by Tom, a retiree from California whom I met while waiting in line.  Soon after, I was joined at my table by Judy, a homemaker and nature volunteer from Missouri. We talked for a good hour.  I love the variety of people that you find on trains.  It never gets boring.

Before too long, the sights of Chicago came into view.  It’s probably a little strange that I, a Midwesterner, have visited something like 40 foreign countries but have never been to Chicago!  Our train finally pulled into Union Station, and Tom gave me big hug goodbye as we went inside.

I was really looking forward to the next three days!

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Categories: amtrak, blizzard, boston, chicago | 6 Comments

Between Blizzards: My week in Boston

On Wednesday morning, we awoke to sunny skies and a well-needed reprieve from the snow.  Falling snow, that is, not the stuff on the ground, which had buried everything on the street.  John and a few others had gone out at times the day before to shovel small sections where they could, but the task remained to unearth three cars so that Jane’s sister Abby and her fiance could drive home.  Short a shovel, I pushed mounds of snow from the tops of the cars with a large broom until my fingers were frozen and I felt lightheaded.

John hard at work

John hard at work

I spent most of the afternoon visiting my old office. It was hard to believe that it has been almost an entire year since I have seen my former coworkers! It was good to get the chance to catch up with everyone. I also stopped by to say hi to my friends who work at Bob’s Pita Bakery, my favorite little grocery store in Roslindale. Later that night, I met up with some friends at The Haven, the best (um, and only) Scottish pub in Jamaica Plain.

Thursday morning, I braved the cold and headed down to the convention center for the Yankee Dental conference. Even though it was chilly, the walk from Downtown Crossing past South Station to the seaport made for some beautiful photos.

Ahh, South Station.  Now THAT'S a train station.

Ahh, South Station. Now THAT’S a train station.

image image

In the evening, Jane had invited me to join her at a gallery event hosted by the MFA (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) at the Boston Design Center, which coincidentally was only a few blocks away from the convention.  Yay for short walks in the snow!  I had never been to this place before, but it had a really fun, funky converted-warehouse feel to it.


After my courses were over on Friday, I met up with my friend Melissa for lunch in Back Bay, then headed back to the BCEC to attend two dental receptions that I may or may not have been officially invited to :P.  I won’t get to see my former boss and colleague very often, so it was good to have some time to hang out with them.

With Dr. Novid and Dr. Paul.  N.B.,  I do not always wear après-ski gear to dental conferences.

With Dr. Novid and Dr. Paul. N.B., I do not always wear après-ski gear to dental conferences.

Friday night was a highlight, sadly without any good photos:  I met up with a group of friends to sing karaoke along with Kevin Mac Daddy, our favorite local DJ.  On Saturday, everyone slept in, then I headed out to breakfast at the Rox Diner with Jane, John, and Alora.

Jane and Alora

Jane and Alora

Cutest teddy bear ever.

Cutest teddy bear ever.

I had been on a mission to get some good Malaysian food stateside ever since I came back from Southeast Asia, so my buddy Kevin joined me for dinner on Saturday night at Penang restaurant in Chinatown.  In preparation, I skipped lunch.  We feasted accordingly.  I was pleased to recognize a lot of the wall decor as street art that I had seen and photographed when I was in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia in November.

At Penang restaurant, holding my own photo of street art taken in Penang, Malaysia next to identical photo on the wall.

At Penang restaurant, holding a photo that I took of street art in Penang, Malaysia next to an identical photo on the wall.

On Sunday morning, I met up with a big group of friends for brunch at Canary Square in JP.  (JPers are big on brunch).  By mid-afternoon, it was time to catch up with other friends at the Galway House down the street.  How I missed visiting this JP institution during my 7.5 years of living here is beyond me.  The walls are full of traditional Boston paraphernalia, road signs, and sports posters.


Over the phone, my mother had asked me, “Where are you going to watch the game?”  I laughed and answered, “‘Watch’ would be the operative word in that sentence.”  I have never really been excited about professional football, so any Super Bowl festivities that I have attended in the past have revolved more around chili and seven-layer dip than actual attention to the game.  So while one of the most exciting games in football history was going on in the background, I was hanging out with Jane and taking videos like this:

OK, so I actually did end up seeing the amazing final fifteen minutes of the game.  Well worth watching.  Go Pats.

The final thing I did before going to bed was check the weather forecast for the next day.  My train was scheduled to leave Boston for Chicago just before noon, but another blizzard was supposed to be rolling into town in the morning.  Here we go again.

Categories: blizzard, boston | 2 Comments


After a chilly first night in Boston, I awoke to find the snow continuing to fall heavily outside. The best blizzard days are those that are planned for, and everyone in Jane’s house knew that we would be spending the entire day indoors. We had a very packed schedule.

1. Hearty breakfast
2. Lots of TV; play with the baby
3. Lunch
4. Lots of TV; play with the baby
5. Dinner
6. More TV
7. Bedtime

In proper Bostonian blizzard fashion, we drank Sam Adams while watching and providing commentary to Sons of Liberty, a three-part miniseries that had recently aired on the History Channel. While the show was entertaining, it was not exactly what you could call historically accurate. There were a lot of history buffs in the room, and any disputed plot points or questionable character references were quickly pointed out. There were also two people fact-checking on their phones as we watched ;). Paul Revere had somehow already developed a modern Boston accent, colonial characters said things like, “Put it on my tab,” and Sam Adams morphed from a patriot in his early 50s to a brooding, sexy 20-something. Not that I’m complaining about having to watch him for three hours. But he did look a bit too much like Bret from Flight of the Conchords for me to take him seriously as a historical figure.

I'll have a Sam Adams, please.  ('Cause he's the hiphopopotamus.  His rhymes are bottomless).

I’ll have a Sam Adams, please. (‘Cause he’s the hiphopopotamus. His rhymes are bottomless).

Eliot from ET and John Hancock

Eliot from ET and John Hancock

By the afternoon, we were onto Vikings and then ventured into some weird programs like Big Giant Swords in the evening. I think the only time that I ever watched this much TV was when I had pneumonia. A happy distraction was Alora, who is Jane and John’s baby and possibly the cutest thing in the world. Currently working on her crawling skills, she almost always has a smile on her face.


Snow days can actually be really fun if you are stuck inside with your friends!

Categories: blizzard, boston | 2 Comments

Blizzard bound on Amtrak

It was not planning ahead but falling behind that caused me to travel to Boston by train.  My original intention was to drive to Boston just to use my time more efficiently while visiting friends in different parts of town.  As mentioned in my last post, I ran into some issues with transfering all of my auto paperwork from Massachusetts to Ohio.  Unsure whether everything would be done in time, I decided just to play it safe and book with Amtrak.  It would be a long ride, but at least I could read or take naps along the way.  Plus, I found a $6 frequent flyer flight fromo SFO back to Cleveland.  Decision made.

This proved to be the best thing that could have happened.  Several days later, I started reading forecasts for The Big Storm that would be hitting the East Coast.  When the news developed on Sunday that blizzard conditions were to start on Monday night hours before my scheduled arrival into Boston, my small-scale freakout began.  I was relieved that I wouldn’t be driving, but in the superstorm conditions that were anticipated, would train travel even be safe?  I didn’t sleep well on Sunday night.

At 3:45 Monday morning when I woke up, the Amtrak website stated that my train was neither cancelled nor  delayed.  Looks like I would be Boston bound in two hours’ time.

My dad drove me downtown to the Amtrak station, which neither of us had visited before.  I mistook the nearby glowing, white-framed RTA station for the Amtrak station, then was disappointed to return across the snowy parking lot to the actual station, which was underwhelming in comparison.  I later read that this smaller edifice was built in the late seventies to replace the original central rail station at present-day Tower City, which explains its very utilitarian appearance.  The station was clean and felt safe, which I know are the most important things, but the train geek in me had greater expectations for a train station in a mid-sized city.

Clean and functional.  But South Station it ain't.

Clean and functional. But South Station it ain’t.

As I soon found that my train was running about 40 minutes late, I asked my dad to wait with me a little while. We were seated across from a grandmother and mother of a young girl of about three.  She wore a magenta jacket with a thick grey fleece scarf coiled so high around her neck that she resembled Randy from A Christmas Story. A sock monkey hat peeked out from under the pink hood of her coat.  Obviously getting impatient with our late train, she turned her attention to me.

“Hi!  I see you!” “Do you like my hair?” “I like your glasses!”  We were comparing the qualities and colors of our winter boots when the train arrived. We all exited the station into the snowy darkness to check our tickets.

Fun times in Cleveland, yeah!  Still Cleveland!

Fun times in Cleveland, yeah! Cleveland! Come on down to Clevelandtown, everyone!

Trudging through the snow to board

Trudging through the snow to board

Once aboard, I carefully stepped down the aisle of the dimly-lit train, trying not to jostle and awaken the many sleeping passengers.  I settled into my seat as the train rolled through Euclid.  It is a bizarre experience to see your hometown (I lived in Euclid until I left for college) from the vantage point of a moving pre-dawn train when you have only previoulsy seen it by car.  Snuggled beneath my coat and fleece blanket, I promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke over two hours later, it was light outside and we were in Pennsylvania.  I bypassed the frozen car ahead (the electricity had gone out overnight but was later fixed) to reach the cafe car, which was empty save for a number of Amtrak employees.  A younger attendant, Jacob, was originally from Peninsula, Ohio, which I recognized as the town where the Ringling Bros. circus used to unload the animals and parade them down the street.  We all chatted about everything from Eva Peron to Andre the Giant as the fragrance of my coffee and oatmeal filled the car.  Budget travel breakfast tip #1:  Quaker oatmeal cups, particularly the ones that are on sale for $1.50 at CVS.  Add hot water, stir, and become the envy of everyone in the dining car who brought a granola bar or is shelling out the big bucks for a mediocre danish or croissant.  As the train crawled past barren, snow-covered vineyards, a mother and her two young sons, both clad in Spiderman pajamas, passed through the cafe car.  The cafe attendant enthusiastically began singing the old cartoon theme song (“Spiderman! Spiderman! Does whatever a spider can!”), causing the boys to cling wide-eyed to their mother’s legs and make a quick exit to the other side of the car.

And then this was stuck in my head for the next two hours:

(copyright 20th Century Fox)

Blurry vineyards.  My bad.

Blurry vineyards. My bad.

After breakfast, I spent the rest of the morning doing “work” stuff: catching up on my JADAs (that’s ten months’ worth of missed Journals of the American Dental Association from 2014) and doing my daily Spanish and German language apps.  Here’s where many people find train travel boring.  I actually love being on a train for hours on end.  I can get up, move around, eat, nap, read a book, talk to other people, or just sit and stare out the window.  I always say that if you give me my music to listen to and drive me around somewhere, I could be indefinitely happy.  Even if the scenery is somewhat dreary and snow-covered.

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For most of the day, I would obsessively check the weather reports around the east coast.  I read that Boston was instituting a driving ban after midnight and that all public transportation would also be shut down.  The train was scheduled to arrive in Boston just after 9pm, but at the time we left Albany, we were already an hour behind.  If anything happened to delay the train’s arrival until after midnight, I might not be able to get to my friends’ house.  The idea of being stuck in Back Bay station overnight in a blizzard was not appealing.

In the meantime, there were some technical issues with the train.  The heat on the train had definitely been fixed, but now there was the opposite problem.  I had stripped down to my t-shirt and yoga pants and was still burning up.  Also, the toilets weren’t flushing anymore and the sink in our car was clogged, with the turbulence of the train sending large waves of murky sink water splashing onto the floor.  Ew.   Fortunately, they were able to repair this while we were halted in Albany, at which point the New York City-bound cars of the train separated from our Boston cars.


The arrival of snow

The arrival of snow

Other passengers were beginning to worry as about whether they would reach their destination in the storm.  One woman from Massachusetts was particularly vocal about her complaints.  “I mean, WHY are we just SITTING so long here in Albany?  They told me that they are working on the New York-bound train.” [Note: they were also fixing our toilets at this time.  Well worth the delay, if you ask me].  She continued, “I told them, I don’t CARE about the New York car, I care about ME!  What about ME?”  At least she was totally up-front about her shallowness.  Another MA father nearby was trying desperately to silence his young son, who, as 7-year-olds are wont to do, was both excited and antsy to be stuck on a train.  The dad griped to the boy in a thick Boston accent, “Ya know, you’ve been askin’ all aftahnoon, ‘When ah we goin’ on the train?’ And now we’re heah : cantcha just SIT theah and take a NAP?”  He then returned to an argument he was having with his girlfriend over the phone regarding comments made by other women on his Facebook page: “You know I doan know who half of them ah!  So freakin retahded. I love you so much.  Ahm sahry, baby girl.” It was like being on reality TV.

The snow became progressively thicker as night fell, but I noticed that we were catching up on time.  Soon, the familiar sights of Boston began to appear, and I knew that making it “home” that night wouldn’t be a problem. By the time we arrived at Boston Back Bay station, we miraculously were only about 13 minutes off schedule.  Not bad at all!  I bought a 7-day transit pass (a steal at $19) and jumped on the Orange Line.  Ten minutes later,  I was in my old neighborhood and a quick walk away from my friend Jane’s house, where I would be staying for the next week.

Blizzard conditions, but still very walkable

Blizzard conditions, but still very walkable

The neighborhood liquor store stayed open until midnight for those last-minute blizzard supplies :)

The neighborhood liquor store stayed open until midnight for those last-minute blizzard supplies 🙂

Once at Jane’s, I took my spot on the couch and joined the rest of the family (including her husband, baby daughter, two sisters, and soon-to-be brother-in-law) in hunkering down under comfy blankets for the storm. Tomorrow, Tuesday, would be a snow day.   And we weren’t going anywhere.

Categories: amtrak, blizzard, boston | 6 Comments

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