Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Amtrak, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation

We just returned from a family wedding in Ruidoso, New Mexico.  In a malaise of romantic thoughts about train travel, we decided it would be fun to travel from Kansas City to Albuquerque on the Southwest Chief.  We read the blogs on train travel, checked the Amtrak website for information on WiFi access, food, station parking, and comfort levels.  We made our reservations months in advance.  We were looking forward to a relaxed cross-country trip to bond as a family and enjoy the view.  We couldn't have been more wrong.  All factors below are on a scale from 1, being the least, to 10 being the greatest.

After a 3 and 1/2 hour drive to Kansas City to catch our train, our first disappointment came as we tried to find parking.  We had been told that there was free parking at the terminal.  That is true if you work at the museum, or don't park overnight.  Amtrak runs from the historic Union Station in Kansas City, which doubles as a museum.  The homeless man who was sitting outside the main entrance told us we would be towed if we stayed overnight in the lot.  The additional $60 took a bite out of any savings we had from train versus air travel.  Then in an act of generosity and kindness, my son gave the scraggly, but well informed, homeless man the $25 dollars he had just earned for helping a neighbor.  And so we parked and waited for the train.  Gratitude for the generosity of my son: 10.  Anger at the misinformation: 6

The train was on time!  That would be the last time it would happen on our trip.  As I checked our bags, I had the feeling that the ancient attendants were planning to keep our luggage and make sure it didn't get on our train.  I stood in line behind a man who was trying to make a reservation from Lamy to Kansas City and back again.  Apparently, since he had his luggage and was about to leave for Lamy,  the ticket agent couldn't quite grasp what he was asking.  After checking time-tables and asking repeatedly for this amazingly difficult ticketing situation, the ticketing agent told the customer he couldn't do it.  Meanwhile, back at the baggage counter, the woman who took our luggage was unresponsive to every 'thank you, you are so kind,' that I could muster.  I really think she must have been retiring the next day, and was taking a career's worth of angst out on my baggage with her angry looks.  Concerned about my luggage factor:  10

We boarded the train.  Sitting behind us was a couple in their 70's.  He never spoke, but she had a lovely habit of reading every inane billboard that could be seen from the train.  He never commented.  She shared every medical problem she had experienced in the last ten years.  He said nothing.  Weirdness factor: 7

Just in front of our seats was a young couple who gave every indication that they were running away from home.  He was dark and smarmy looking. If he spoke, he whispered in his girlfriends ear.  She was tall, shapely, and a little too blonde.  I couldn't tell if she was half-blind, schizophrenic, possessed, or on drugs.  While her boyfriend slept, she would write furiously on little scraps of paper or in small notebooks.  The entire time she was writing, she would look angry, troubled, violent...  Then she would just as furiously erase everything she had written, put the notebook away, and sleep.  She spoke to me only once, to ask if anyone had 'touched their stuff' while she and her boyfriend were drinking beers in the snack shop.  I told her 'no', and said I would watch her things.  Creepy fears for her safety: 9

We arrived in Albuquerque late enough that we knew we would be driving in the dark as we hit the mountain passes.  I drove as fast as our rented Ford Fusion would allow.  I know some people think the New Mexico countryside is pretty, but all I saw was blasted land.  It reminded me of the descriptions Tolkein gives to the land as Frodo and Sam leave Ithilien and come closer to the mountains of Mordor.  As the sun went down, we began to smell the smoke of the forest fires.  We had changed our route to avoid the roads that were closed.  This change meant we spent an extra 45 minutes driving at night.  Imagine the pleasure of driving on unfamiliar winding mountain roads, with your vision obscured by smoke from an unseen forest fire, after having less than three hours of sleep on a train populated with scary people.  Fun factor: -10.

Every time we left our hotel in Ruidoso we passed a building with a big sign that read, "La Grone Funeral Chapel." Punny name factor: 10.

 I don't want to talk about the wedding.  It wasn't a Catholic ceremony.  I will say this:  the dichotomy that exists between the two sides was astounding.  On one side were the bridesmaids covered in tattoos that could be clearly seen as they wore sleeveless dresses, and most of the tattoos were on their arms and  backs.  On the other side were men in full military dress uniforms.  Our favorite part of the wedding was the recessional.  The honor guard of friends of the groom  made a canopy with their ceremonial swords, and the last ones swatted the bride with the flat of the sword and said, "Welcome to the Army, Mrs. H."  Fun factor:  9.

After all of the wedding parties on Saturday, we found ourselves at a little parish called St. Eleanor's for Mass on Sunday morning.  It was a strange mix of a conservative Pastor trying to control a liberal populace.  Prayerful factor: 9.

On Monday morning we left early.  Can you blame us?  We were on the road to Albuquerque by 6:30 am.  We arrived with more than an hour to spare before the train came.  At this point I was trying to think of any reason that we could ask for the train tickets to be refunded so that we could be felt up by the TSA at an airport.  I think I would have gladly been strip searched, and undergone a cavity search, just to get home.  Anxiety factor:  49.

But the best was yet to come.

And so we were back on the rails again.  The first person we met was a middle-aged man of color.  The first thing he told us was that he was John F. Kennedy's son.  We quickly learned that he was either crazy from too many drugs, or autistic.  He did show some kindness to his fellow passengers.  He offered his magazines to all around him.  Kindness factor:10.

The next man we met on the train said he was going to be working as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Kansas.  He had piercings all over his face.  And I mean, all over.  It would take only a few more for his face to become a picture framed in silver.  He was kind and soft spoken, but appeared to have gang memorabilia tattooed all over his arms.  'What does this mean?' factor: 10.

There was a stow-away on the return trip.  She looked like Edie Gourmet.  Black wig, a face that may have included prosthetic nose and cheeks, a flower print dress with sequined fringe on the bottom... She was a sight to see.  Somewhere in Colorado she managed to run away unseen by the conductors.  The conductors/porters told us it was a federal offense to stow-away.  They also told us it would be a federal crime for them to use their microwaves to pop our popcorn.  Curiosity factor:  10.

There was a serious B.O. man on our leg back.  I don't mean Barrack Obama.  I mean BODY ODER!!!  I rarely use such emphasis, but this man could be used as a stink bomb to clear terrorists from perspective targets.  Smelly factor:  75.

We are so glad to be home.  My advice, after taking the train, is don't do it unless you are moving across country, or traveling for less than half a day.

If Amtrak is any indication of what Obama-care will be like, we are doomed.
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