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.
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! Cleveland! Come on down to Clevelandtown, everyone!
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.
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.
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
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
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.