NYC to Burlington, NC via AMTRAK
Travelling by train is always more fun than by plane – in my view. There is room to get up and walk about, more leg room and much more comfortable seats. The panoramic views of the country side are interesting, travelling over bridges and through tunnels adds variety and it seems that the language of graffiti is universal, the world over. Maybe we should all be learning to write and speak “graffiti” instead of Esperanto or even English. That the graffiti images on the bridges of Madison County are as familiar as those in the tunnels of Perth is something I find somewhat disconcerting – although I am not quite sure why. The internet is no longer new and there is no logical reason to think that graffiti taggers would not use styles that are very similar, even identical, even though they are continents apart. Maybe, it has to do with the ease and skill (or lack thereof) in using paint from a spray can.
The Jane Hotel was too far to walk with my luggage to the subway entrance at 8th and 14th which was a steep flight of stairs and in any event, I had no desire to try and negotiate the subway up to Penn Station at 6:00am. I had asked the Hotel to book me a town car to Penn Station, since in New York you cannot book a taxi as you do in Australia and I wasn’t interested in traipsing up to Washington Street on a grey, rainy morning in New York, hailing a cab and then getting the driver to stop at the Hotel while I collected my luggage. When I came down at a few minutes after 6:00am, the desk clerk said he hadn’t booked the car, because it would cost too much for such a short trip up to Penn Station. He quickly understood that $25.00US was an acceptable price to me and the town car arrived within about fifteen minutes. I was a little edgy, because my train left at 7:05am and I had to check in my luggage before getting on board. As it turned out, the trip was short and quick, the driver totally bemused that I would use a town car instead of a cab and not too happy that there was no tip when the usual cab fare would have been about $10US, tip included!
Having collected my ticket the day before and having had a look around the station then, I was quite comfortable with the idea of boarding and enjoying the trip to Burlington. I was travelling First Class, whatever that meant on Amtrak, and looking forward to it. Nana’s Walkabout should be First Class.
The first hiccup came when the baggage staff told me that Burlington is an unmanned station and I could not check my luggage. So, big red suitcase and all, I had to find my way to the train. I stopped at Hudson’s and picked up a couple of new books to read while on my travels, along with a bottle of water and some tissues. That was another bag to carry.
Penn (Pennsylvania) Station in New York is a great crossroad of travellers and the boarding gates are set out by designations as being East, West, South or North. So, finding Gate 13East was no trouble at all, when it was time to get aboard. However being told by the station staff to put my large suitcase behind me on the descending escalator did cause some trouble. I descended that escalator almost prone with the suitcase fallen against me, the other bags tumbling down the moving stairs and me pressed as hard as I could against the stainless steel walls of the escalator, sliding against them and holding fast to the rail. From the top, alerted by my loud cry of “Oh, No!” as the case fell forward, the young attendant watched with eyes wide, expecting to see me and the suitcase roll down the moving staircase.
As the grooved steps slid into the matching slots of steel teeth at the end of the descent, my other two bags tumbled off the escalator and I managed to step forward and yank the suitcase upright and onto its rollers before we all ended up in an undignified heap on the platform floor. Somehow, I managed to hold on to the cooler bag and keep it from being crushed under the suitcase. My polar jacket was wedged against the handle of the suitcase and not in any immediate danger of coming free. There was a group of three elderly African-Americans in front of me with more luggage than they could easily manage, and no platform staff, so I quickly sorted my own things out, with a baleful backward glance at the train employee who had directed me onto the escalator. Given that the suitcase and I had negotiated many an escalator since arriving with it, two matching red bags (handbag and computer bag) as well as a zipped up cooler bag that holds some fragile items and my spare shoes, my displeasure was understandable. Nevertheless, it was a nice relief to be able to get on board my next mode of transportation without being half-disrobed then scanned after disgorging most of the contents of my computer bag onto a shiny, stainless steel bench – to be pushed along the rollers and into the scanners. I even got to keep my boots on!
The conductor took a quick look at my ticket and motioned me aboard at the first available door. A young man coming aboard after me helped hoist the suitcase over a five inch gap between the platform and the carriage. Within a few minutes, I had stashed the whole travelling sideshow into the area reserved for disabled passengers – deciding that if anyone questioned them I had a case to mount for being disabled by the fact that I couldn’t check in the bags.
After a little while, I asked the woman sitting next to me, who was on her way to Washington and with whom I had struck up a friendly conversation, what the other carriages were like, since she had already gone through to the Club Car for a sandwich and cold drink. It transpired that I was not travelling First Class, but Coach – and my ticketing had not been issued as expected when I booked. Since the seats were comfortable, there seemed not much reason to move now that the luggage was stashed. I had already worked out that I could move back one row of seats, use the drop down tray for a work table and still keep an eye on my luggage. So, I stayed where I was.
While she watched my bags for me, I traversed the bumpy, rocking journey through four carriages to get to the Club Car where I bought a micro-waved sausage and egg hamburger. It was hot, soggy but edible. The coffee was not too bad, with some extra cream, although about a quarter of the cup slopped out into the cardboard carry tray once I was back in my seat and putting in the creamer and sugar, having taken the lid off the cardboard cup. It was quite tricky balancing a very hot cup of coffee that slopped up through the lid, while keeping your feet steady in a train that rocked back and forth with some vigour.
In Washington, the engines were changed – from electric to diesel. Almost everyone got off at Washington and when we departed, there were probably only four or five people in my carriage. The crew was changed and the new conductor was a tall, older African-American who took one look at my luggage and asked me if I had moved to the USA. I explained that I had not been able to check my luggage as expected and that I was supposed to be in First Class too. He pondered and then asked if I wanted an upgrade – but it meant moving my luggage along four or five cars and we were close to departure time. I decided to stay – since it seemed the only real benefit would be a slightly bigger seat and being closer to the Club Car. He was nice enough to come by a couple of times, to check out whether I was still happy and with my water bottle, Stacey Malcolm’s Gourmet Shortbread Cookies (http://www.themalcolmtradition.com) and half a snack bar, I figured I was fine until I got to Burlington around 6:00pm.
It also transpired that while there is power for mobile users on the train, there is no Wi-Fi except any hot spots you might find along the way – so booking my Miami accommodation, updating the website and answering emails will not be happening on this train trip. Another little hiccup along the way that didn’t bother me too much but it was not what was expected. No Skype, Facebook or Twitter, either. Of course, local travellers with mobile phones can use them as their gateway to the net for browsing or providing access for a notebook, depending on their local carrier. No such luxury for me – given that I am travelling untethered. In any event, a scan of any networks along the way (even the secured ones) showed very low signal strength so an unsecured network connection was likely to be of little value anyway. It’s a fact that city dwellers rarely have the opportunity or occasion to see what it is like for those outside major population areas to live and work without good internet access for computing and communications.
With a suggestion by the conductor that I be prepared to wrap up my “work station” around 3:00pm to be ready for a “quick exit” at Burlington, I knew that it was going to be an interesting start to the next couple of days in Burlington, NC, with my friend Alona. He was kind enough to come back, pack me up and move me forward three carriages before he left in a change of crew. He said he was glad I hadn’t gone on up to First Class, because he didn’t often get to walk down the coaches with such “class luggage”. He was really nice and I was sorry I didn’t get to thank him properly before I got off the train. I didn’t realise that the crew is changed so often. He is a classic example of the people I have met on this trip – all helpful and friendly.