The Late Train to…

Toronto, July 3, 2018

Niagara Falls north to Toronto. I admit it, I was stunned at the size and beauty of this magnificent city! I had no idea.

The Toronto Blue Jays were playing that night and I passed scores of fans making their way from the train station to the stadium. I won’t bore you with the details of another fine burger, another great beer, my missing England score against Croatia, and my museum mis-haps. I did see that the Royal Ontario Museum has a fine First Nations exhibit. Oh, and Dinosaur bones, too.

 

 

I was leaving Museum #2 when I stopped and asked the information desk guy if he could point me to a bookstore. First a bit of chit-chat. Canadians are very polite and always have something to say. Something nice.

 

Then, “Yes – It’s just behind us here. When you walk out, turn to the right, go to the next street, and turn right again. It’s just behind us.”

The “just behind us part” — was three little alleys hiding within four city blocks. In the humid heat, with a heavy backpack and tired feet, once I walked into the air conditioned shop, I bought two books instead of my planned solo read – only because my backpack wasn’t quite heavy enough. Three days later, a co-passenger gave me a book that he’d just finished reading: Visit from the Goon Squad, J. Egan.

 

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After replenishment of an ice cold Pepsi from Rexall Drug, I returned to the “under-renovation” colossal Union Station. I soon enough discovered a little side room with the plug-ins to charge my phone and laptop. Their were six chair in the room that faced a large sloping walkway to the boarding area. It was about 6 pm, and I had a lot of time to kill before my scheduled 11:30 pm train would leave. And it was delayed further.

Amtrak (U.S.) and Via Rail (Canada) really need to hire some Swiss guy to come in and show them how to run a railroad. I reminded myself, more than once, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Don’t ever expect to be on time and you’ll be fine. Arriving the same day as scheduled is a good thing.

A couple of guys in suits were charging up. They took off soon enough. A bit later, a young man in jeans, black t-shirt and green ballcap walked in, reached down and plugged in his phone. Ten, twenty minutes went by.

“Do you mind if I ask you a somewhat random question?”

“No,” I turned in my chair to give him my full attention and smiled. “Go ahead, ask away.”

He went on to tell me about his girl-friend, their little boy, and their break up the night before. “She keeps saying she loves me, but she wants things to be different. What does she mean by that? It’s so confusing.”

He had a lot to get off his chest, and I was happy to lend an ear. Thirty years old, Allan’s a really nice guy, maybe a bit lost. He was headed out to the sand pits (or something like that) to work for the next six months.

 

 

A bit later, another young man comes in looking to charge up his phone. From Quebec, Pierre is 16-years old, very inquisitive, passionate and compassionate, a fine specimen of a teenager. Tall, too. He was traveling across Canada to visit a few sights in Winnipeg and beyond, before returning to Quebec City to start college. He was really excited to be going to the Museum of Human Rights, where he said his host would be picking him meet up in Winnipeg.

I leaned forward, eyeing him, wondering. “Are you a Couch-surfer?” I slyly asked.

“Yes! You are a Couch-surfer, too?!” We were so excited and totally bonded now.

Pretty soon, Lucie, a young German girl, somewhere in her 20’s I think, showed up to charge her phone. She’s been traveling since April, “woofing it,” she told me. She travels to a farm somewhere and stays there days or weeks, gets room and board and works a few hours daily at each farm. She’s been all over! She told me she’s always been interested in where food comes from and now she’s finding that out. I was impressed and pleased to be in such good company in our little side.

We were all chatting when another young guy – from Saskatoon – tall and thin, excitable and over-hyped bounced in like Tigger, from his delayed late train. We almost immediately started laughing with him. Allan thinks the guy’d had about eighteen cups of sugar.

“Oh my gosh, I missed my train! I’m a camp cook and have to be at a Camp and now my phone is broke.”

“I don’t know what to do! I wish somebody here had Skype so I could call my boss!”

“The train people say they’re getting me a private ride to where I need to be, but I can’t get ahold of anyone to let them know I’m on my way.”

“I need to call my boss!”

Hyper speed, his words tumbled out in a rushed stream, with nobody else geting in a word edgewise. And he was really funny about it all.

I considered his dilemma. Being a Summer Camp volunteer myself, I could relate. “I’ve got Skype on my laptop,” I said. “Can you login on mine?”

Oh, was he excited now! The rest of us listened in, chuckling at his conversation with his boss, and in a flash, he was out the door on the way to his private SUV connection Via Rail had arranged for him to get to Camp.

As we continued to wait to board, every so often, Lucie, Allan, Pierre or myself would go check on the boarding time to see if there was any update. Each time, we were told to be patient and stay where we were, to not come and line up ahead of time. After midnight, Pierre returned to us in a rush, reporting a whole bunch of people had already lined up! WTH?!

Here we were, waiting as we’d been asked to do – and now we were at the end of the line! How to get a window seat now? They are not assigned. It’s first come, first serve.

By this time, we HAD to get seats together to continue our mad journey across Canada. Allan, Lucie, Pierre, and me. A disheveled youngish train worker walked along the line checking tickets, looking for folks who qualified for pre-boarding. I had a senior ticket. He told me that was reason to board early.

“But we all need to stay together.” I told the ticket checker, nodding toward my pals. He looked skeptically at me, and at Allan, Lucie, and Pierre.

Pierre broke in. “We’re her kids!”

We all broke out laughing.

“Yeah, these are my kids! We need to stay together!” I echoed.

But the train guy wasn’t buying it.

After talking to “the kids,” I went to the pre-board area and waited, keeping an eye them, intending to throw a bunch of crap over four seats until the others could join me. But I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough to ward off the dirty looks I expected in the train car.

I went back to my kids. “I can’t go on without you.”

Finally, we boarded. Pierre, Lucie and I had seats together and Allan was seated in a two-seat combo in the car ahead of us. He hadn’t slept in days; he was stressed to the max, and we were glad he was going to be able to sleep. We barely saw him the next few days.

 

Pierre, Lucie and I shared window and aisle seats with a funny 84-year old guy, a nice guy. His last name is Nice. Really. Mr. Nice and I had a lot of laughs at some of the things we saw outside the windows on our world. Trucks along the side of the rails to refuel the train, and abandoned electrical grid poles. Pay attention, PG&E.

 

 

 

And I won the bet with “my kids” on what time we’d roll out. One thirty was my guess; it was actually 1:20 when we started moving. It’s ever a good sign when the first leg of a cross country train starts off two hours late.

 

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By the time Allan departed the train, he and his girl had talked and he was hoping it would work out. Yes, don’t we all.

Lucie and Pierre and I are in touch and all’s right with the world. The long strange trip continues.

 

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Winnipeg’s Provencher Bridge and Museum for Human Rights.

 

 

 

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“Bye Grandma! We’ll miss you!”

Leaving New York, after a short sweet visit with Erin, Chris, Jack, Molly and Ryan, Melissa and little Mac was a bit sad, tinged with so much happiness. I couldn’t get Erin’s first words out of my mind when I arrived a few days earlier in Port Jeff to visit. “I’m so excited to have my hippie Aunt Kathy here!”

Amtrak New York City to Niagara Falls – another beautiful segment on another hot summer day. Take time to overlook the trash, junkyards, industrial zones of American commerce and other eyesores. Doesn’t’ matter which city or country. The #281 (train talk) follows the Hudson River and other water ways much of the journey. No, I don’t know all their names. I can tell you that its incredibly easy for me to sit and watch the scenery go by all day long. Every other look up is a reason to focus my camera, noting the spot on the window that’s the cleanest, with little or no glare to mess up my shot. I try to catch the little things, the curve of the hillside, angles of a barn and a fleeting waterfowl when lucky.

As the heat index went up outside, our train car started heating up on the inside. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but the air conditioning on the trains is usually too much for this Cali girl. It’s COLD in the coach and usually colder in the snack and observation and bar cars. Layered fashionista. In a summer of sandals and flipflops, most of my time is in sneakers and socks.

The car I was seated in started heating up as a result of some malfunction or other. Some fancy piece of equipment I don’t remember the name of. As the car ahead of mine slowly emptied passengers to their destinations along the way, the conductor announced that anyone in our car who wanted to, could move ahead to the next car that was cooler. Most everyone got up – it was rush hour – grabbing their cameras, blankets, electronics and pillows. I got up and moved from a cramped aisle seat with practically no view, to a window seat AND an aisle. Warm, plenty of room to stretch out and no more “it’s too hot” whiners in the wind. 

The real fun began when I arrived in Niagara Falls. The plan was to meet up with Bob and Donna, my new, and amazing Couchsurfing friends. They live in Niagara Falls, Canada. As an aside, all my Couchsurfing friends have proven to be amazing. 

Anyway, I called Bob and told him I was at the Amtrak train station. I could hear the Falls in the distance – sounded like the roar of the ocean. “We’re right here – we don’t see you!” I was looking around and didn’t see them either. One of us eventually asked what side of the border I was on. Laughing ensued. I didn’t know there was an Amtrak feeder station in Niagara Falls CANADA (where they thought I was). I was at the main station in Niagara Falls USA.

No problem, says Bob, just catch a cab over and we’ll meet you on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Okay, I say. The last cab-van was just pulling away from the station as the sun was setting. 

I sprinted over to the cabby and asked if there was room to join in the ride. He asked where I wanted to go. Inside was family of our – two kids, 8 and 10-ish, Mom and Dad. The mom told me in her fine Australian voice to jump in. As we’re driving to the bridge, the driver asks where we’re staying. Whoops. I didn’t know the address of where I was staying and the border people always ask that. I just knew I was meeting up with Bob and Donna. 

The Mom next to me pipes up – “Grandma! You’re staying with us.” My new family and I are laughing and Dad chimes in with the Hotel name to the driver, saying to his wife, “Jumping right to Grandma is a little rough, isn’t it?” I told him that was exactly the right thing! We were all cracking up. I told them how excited I was to be spending my vacation with them and hoped they’d gotten me a suite of my own. More laughter. After crossing the border and retrieving my passport from the driver, I hopped out and waited for the driver to get my suitcase from the luggage area. The kids in the back seat yelled out, “Bye Grandma, we’ll miss you!”

The driver made out on that 5-minute ride. $25 US dollars from me and another $45 Canadian from my family on their way to the hotel. Never to be seen again.

Bob and Donna and I, through a series of brief phone calls, finally met up and were immediately best of friends. It was Sunday – Canada Day! The three of us chatted it up making our way to the Falls that were lit up in the dark night with red and blue hues  to wait for even more excitement. The roads and sidewalks and lawns of the park were packed with revelers. Noisy and wonderful. Fireworks started out on the American side of the Falls and soon enough were echoed by the Canadians.

What a fine welcome to Canada! So much more to come!

 

Da Train, Da Train!

Woke in the middle of my last night in Richmond, hours before boarding my next rail car, to the distant whistle of a train skipping through town. Now that made me smile. The #94 north to New York from Richmond has just left the station, only an hour behind schedule And this time, for the first time, I have the opportunity to enjoy the Quiet Car. And it’s quiet. Quiet enough for a nap.

The last few days have been full with Cristy and Kelly time, dear friends since the late 70’s. As Cristy likes to tell her Richmond friends, she knew me before she knew Kelly. I was also lucky enough to catch up with two of their four sons. Tom (who was born a day after my own son Russell), his wife and new baby were over for pizza and Pineapple Cake night, and Barry, his wife and their bouncy one year old were over last night for Australian Meat Pie night.

Heading into Richmond a few days ago, I chatted up a couple of Amtrak employees in the snack car. The ass’t conductor, James, introduced me to the conductor, Meredith. I told them I’m a writer, gave them my card and invited them to share stories with me anytime. A while later, I was still sitting in the snack car (where I can usually be found) when James stopped and said he had his favorite story to share with me. He sat down across the table.

“I’ve got a lot of stories, some you just wouldn’t believe. But this here’s my favorite. I was sitting at a table just like this one and a bunch of women boarded and sat across there.” He nodded across the aisle. He got quite chummy with one of them – who gave him his card. She was a “Businesswoman”. He was impressed; he didn’t think a successful businesswoman would ever be interested in HIM. After some conversation about work and life, he quipped to her, “Well, listen here young lady, when we get married, there’ll be no pre-nup!”

A week or so went by, he took that card out of his pocket, figuring, what the hell, all she could do is say no. She gave him the card. So he called her and they set up a date to meet halfway between both the towns they then lived in. “I arrived right on time at the meet place. She never showed.” He was really, really angry. Really angry. After a bit of tracking her down, he reached her on the phone. Still really angry, he says to me.

No cell phones back then. She told him she’d left a message on his message machine. And yes, indeed, she had. It so happened, it was just minutes after he walked out the door. In the message, she apologized, said she had to wait for the masonry guy who was working on her home remodel. He got over his anger. They set a new time. They started seeing each other and three years later, they were married. Twenty years ago. She’s still in business and he’s still on the train.

Cristy and Kelly and their kids lived in Richmond long ago when I did, when Howie and Russell were little tykes. Mollie was born here. It was fun to be back. Cristy and I tearfully recalled the sad, sad day I left to take my little kids out to California to live. It turned out to be a very, very good choice.

The perfect artsy-fartsy couple, Cristy and Kelly have not only created amazing works of art personally, their home is a gallery of collected pieces and work their sons have done. Cristy let me go with her to her own workshop, and she and Kelly took the time to fill me in on most of their collections. Amazing stuff.

While Kelly worked and had his meetings at VCU and other work places the past few days, Cristy and I made time to visit the Napoleon exhibit “Power and Splendor” at the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts Richmond Museum of Fine Arts – Napoleon. Napoleon and his mates and underlings (I guess they were all his underlings) were all about marketing his perceived good looks, strength and power. Struck a contemporary note as well.

We roamed around the Richmond Institute of Contemporary Art. Thought provoking (and weird) stuff in there. We had a grand time of it before a tasty, tasty lunch at Can Can Restaurant, sitting outside in the warm humidity, followed by a short shopping trip in the Love of Chocolate shop, an amazing candy shop with the nicest candy shop owner, who knows the answer to any question you can ask about candy.

 

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A journey of eleven thousand five hundred miles begins with a single step.

When I purchased my Amtrak cross country trip weeks ago, back in May, I was told I could pick up the Rail Pass and boarding tickets at my first boarding, which would be in Lamy NM. OR, I could pick up them up at the San Francisco Transbay Transit (temporary) Terminal. A new (bigger and better?) one will open soon. It seems that just about everything that opens in San Francisco is bigger and better.

Anyway, being aware of just how many things can go wrong in trips like the one I’ve planned, I decided not to wait. I’m flying from SFO to Colorado on Friday. A week later, I’ll be taking a road trip to Chimayo and Lamy NM, before boarding the Southwest Chief, my first “all aboard” of many in the next several weeks.

So yesterday morning, since I was in the City anyway after spending a fun-filled night with my good friends, I made my way to the Transit Terminal.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets.”

The young woman behind the counter smiled. “This isn’t the Amtrak counter. They’re over there.”

I looked behind me, in the direction her head nodded toward. Oh, okay, I was at the Greyhound counter. “All right. Thank you.” A minute later, I was at another counter.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets, please.” Yes, that’s right. I’m usually quite polite.

“I need your I.D.” No chit chat from the young man behind the glass who didn’t bother to look up from his computer screen.

I struggled to yank the damn license out of its plastic sleeve in my wallet before passing it through the little hole under the safety glass. I waited for the guy’s response, looking around the place. Maps on the walls, tiny lego train people and assorted toy train accessories lived on a shelf behind the glass. Racks of tourist come-on brochures and flyers sat along two walls. One or two people straggle in, look around and leave.

“This trip has been canceled.” Michael reports.

“Uh…no. It hasn’t. When I purchased the tickets the charge inadvertantly went through three times and those were canceled, but not the trip,” I said, my stomach beginning to jump up and down in a drum of nerves.

He printed out and passed over to me a bunch of paper showing me the canceled trip. I looked it over and still wasn’t buying it.

“Let me get on this other terminal,” he tells me and moves five feet to his right to another keyboard. I sidestep over to watch and wait.

“I can see what they’ve done,” he says. “They’ve also overcharged you $14.”

“They? I thought you were they. You’re all Amtrak, right?”

“Yeah, but those idiots online are always screwing things up.”

I stood there patiently, thinking back to the time of original purchase, recalling that everything seemed to go so smoothly, and that the guy on the other end of the phone really knew what he was doing. Except for the triple charging of my bank account, of course. But that was blamed on the accounting unit, not the ticket seller. Sure. Yeah. Right then, I could have cared less about the $14. I just wanted the trip to be in my hand.

Many minutes crawl by. A couple more people stroll in and out of the waiting room. I ask my hopefully, savior-to-be, what his name is. It’s Michael.

“Okay,” Michael reports out. “I think I may be able to refund the $14, and restore your trip. But if it doesn’t go through, the whole thing will definitely be canceled and we’ll have to start all over again.”

Visions of no available seats for my trip swarm through my head. “Well, what are the chances you can save it all?”

“I’d say…pretty good,” he slowly drawled out his answer.

“I’ll go with pretty good.” I am a risk-taker, after-all.

Michael did indeed save my day. He figured a way to refund me the $14, print out my Amtrak Rail Pass AND my boarding passes for the next few weeks. He then took it upon himself to happily scrounge around and find each train’s time-table brochure, along with a glossy 8 x 10 inch full color map that he handed over to me. We finished our time together in short order, both of us relieved at the happy ending.

I’ll have to go online and give him a good Yelp. He is obviously not happy about the “temporary” Transbay Terminal closing in the next couple months. He indicated to me that there would be more machines than people working the place. I hope he finds a good spot to continue helping our fellow travelers.

It was after I’d walked out to the car, my hands full of passes, papers and a map that I really don’t plan to drag along with me until mid-July, that I realized I should probably hit the bathroom before my hour and a half drive home.

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It’s paint. Your guess is as good as mine.

 

And then I headed home— to do some laundry, dust the bookshelves and re-pack.

Friday is just two sleeps and a wakey away.

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I’ve been to Hollywood. I’ve been to Redwood.

But I’ve never been to Canada.

A sweet aroma seeps in through my window with jasmine and honeysuckle blooming in the breeze. My next big adventure is just around the corner – plane, trains, buses and automobiles. I’ve got to fit a boat in there somewhere. I think I know where.

West coast to east coast and return via, mostly, Amtrak and Canada Rail.

The whole thing started with three very special reasons. One daughter. Two brothers. Looking forward (of course!) to my daughter’s BS in Nursing graduation celebration after a short plane hop to Denver, spending a bit of time with Mom’s 93-year old cousin in Gunnison CO, joining up with the famly exploring Estes Rocky Mountain National Park outside Denver, all followed by a brief road trip to the tiny town of Chimayo, New Mexico.

Then it’s “All Aboard!” from Lamy, NM to visit family and friends on the east coast. Seeing Niagara Falls and Canada for the first time. Walking through Butchart Gardens in Victoria. Getting to know new “couchsurfing.com” friends along the way. Having just helped my own family and neighbors put together a big 4th of July block party, I’ll be enjoying the 4th on a train ride in the country to the north of us.

One little easy-peasy trip led to a whole string of things to do and 5-7 weeks of visiting friends and family. Places to go. People to see. Connections to miss.

All I have to do now is make the list. Or lists.

Ten Things to do before I leave the homestead.

  1. Finish reading the last twenty pages of Romancing the Pirate, Michelle Beattie, and take it back to the library. LOL. I know. I do have a wide variety of reading materials.
  2. Upload my grandmother’s journal, written thirty years ago in the summer of 1938 when she was off on her own solo train trip from San Francisco to Alaska. I’m planning on reading it with a drink in one hand in the observation car as the rest of the world rolls by.
  3. Make a list of what I want in that traveling backpack of mine. Laptop, misc. electronics, lotions, potions, sundries and something to wear.
  4. Put a hold on the daily newspaper & provide the new nurse in the family with instructions on how-to-care-for-my-orchids (Raylan & Ava). Yes, they have names.
  5. Do my spring cleaning. It’s not summer yet, but it will be when I return. Cobwebs, be gone.
  6. Settle on my itinerary once and for all. Or not.
  7. Count my blessings.
  8. Sort out what I want in my wallet. Passport.
  9. Finish Writers Club tasks to hand off to the team.
  10. Offer up my cottage to a couple of friends and family to stay in if they wish to visit the valley and need a place to crash.

 

What did I forget? What ten things would be on your list?

 

 

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