Prelude - Getting There

Chicago, IL to Washington, DC to Savannah, GA

Chicago, IL

My wife dropped me off early at Chicago's Union Station, about three hours before departure. I put the panniers on my bike and rolled it into the station and down to the Amtrak ticket counter. It was like having my own personal luggage cart. The agent gave me my tickets (I reserved them online) and directed me to the basement catacombs to box up my bike. Amtrak charged $10 for a bike box plus $5 to actually ship the bike. Some Amtrak trains have roll-on service, but on the long-distance trains bikes are checked as luggage. The staff were very helpful. At the last minute I had packed a small roll of tape in case I needed it to assemble the bike box, but it turned out that the Amtrak people took care of everything. All I had to do was remove my pedals and my handlebars (if I had a shorter stem I could have simply turned the handlebars 90 degrees). I used a couple of my bungee cords to secure the handlebars to the frame and the front rack. Another bungee cord secured my helmet to the bike, as it was too bulky to pack in my panniers. They made up the box for me, and I rolled in my bike.

When we turned to the paperwork, I noticed the $500 claim limitation on the form I was signing. I asked about insurance for my $3000 bike. They said it was an extra $17.50. That was more than it cost for the box and the shipping. I looked at the guys and said, " Well, you've handled a lot of bikes. Are there ever any problems?" One guy assured me that bikes came through okay. The other said ominously, " As long as it doesn't get run over, you're fine." Run over? Yikes! Another guy came flying around the corner on a forklift. " Please don't run over my bike," I thought to myself.

After the bike was safely on its way, I still had more than two hours to kill. I went to Union Station's Great Hall to read and people-watch. From 4:30 to 6:00, wave after wave of business people poured through, headed for the Metra commuter trains. Lots of other people came and went, some old, some young, some overloaded with baggage (like I was with my four panniers) and others carrying nothing. And of course, there was the requisite crazy person shouting threats and curses to no one in particular. He kept saying things like, " Get off my @ss, b*tch!" He stretched out the last word, which reverberated off the walls of the Great Hall. I turned and looked to see him standing there alone. Eventually some security guards chased him away.

There was also a kid with a hard-luck story about how his Amtrak train was late and his friend didn't wait around to give him a ride home to Kenosha, so he needed some money to... I cut him off with a shake of my head. Maybe he really needed money for the Metra to Kenosha, but more likely he was just another scammer. It was a variation on the " I just ran out of gas and I need money to get home" story that I used to hear all the time when I worked near North Michigan Avenue, Chicago's upscale shopping district (I wanted to ask that woman why she hadn't learned her lesson yet since she seemed to run  out of gas every day). Anyway, some older women a few benches behind me were more sympathetic to the kid's story.

The Capitol Limited

At 6:10  I made my way to the Amtrak lounge. By the time our 6:40 departure time rolled around, only senior citizens had boarded. It didn't bother me too much if we were a little late since I had a three-hour layover in Washington before the Silver Star departed for Savannah. I got on the train around 6:55 and we pulled out of the station five minutes later. After a stop in the rail yard to add a few cars, the conductor announced at 7:17 that we were only four minutes late leaving the yard. It was my first experience of Amtrak time, and I  was amazed. The schedule was designed with built-in allowances for the inevitable delays, some of which were Amtrak's fault but many of which were caused by the freight lines that owned the tracks since their trains took precedence.

I alternated reading, staring out the window and wondering where the dining car was (several people asked me because the conductor never told us). A high school kid was seated by the window next to me, but he got up and left about ten minutes after the train started rolling. Chicago's south side passed quickly, except for the time we spent at a dead stop, probably waiting for another train to cross our path. Gary and Hammond were bleak and ugly, more so at night than I remembered in the daylight. The smoke of the refineries and mills was broken only by the gaudy casinos. Our track was parallel to several others, as northern Indiana is dense with highways and railroads skirting Lake Michigan. There was some " lake effect" snow, at least an inch or two, where in Chicago there had only been light flurries. Just yesterday it was 60 degrees, rather unusual for Chicago in February.

They announced that the dining car was open to all passengers (it was first opened only to those who had paid the premium for bedrooms). I walked in and sat down, but a quick scan of the menu changed my mind. None of the four choices appealed to me much, certainly not enough to pay $13-17 for the meal. No, thanks. I crept out of the dining car and went to the cafe car instead. There was an assortment of sandwiches, beverages and snacks for sale. I ate a microwaved BBQ rib sandwich and drank an orange juice, purchasing Reese's peanut butter cups to snack on later. I watched LaPorte, IN pass by while I ate.

There was a hippie musician dude in the seat ahead of me telling stories about hitchhiking in the " good old days" when all the truckers used to pick up hitchers. Inevitably, these stories involved drugs of some sort as well.

We reached our first stop in South Bend about twelve minutes late.

The woman in front of me, somewhat a kindred spirit of the hippie by coincidence (they weren't traveling together), talked about the barstool races back home in Idaho--they bolt the stools onto skis. She said it should be an Olympic event instead of curling.

The Superliner coach had two levels. All the coach seats were on the upper level, while the lower level had several closet-sized bathrooms, one decent-sized " changing room" that was for women only, a storage area for large luggage and < cough> a smoking lounge.  The coach seats were like first class airplane seats, wide and adjustable. The colors and general design of the cars were quite airplane-like, except the overhead luggage storage didn't have doors. Three of my panniers were up there. It was not fun lugging them up the stairs. I thought about checking the rear ones, but I didn't want anything to get damaged or come unzipped. I hoped they would be lighter by the time I finished my ride. If not, then I would mail some of my stuff home. The woman behind me said Amtrak was planning major service cuts on March 1st. She heard that they might do away with checked baggage. There seemed to be plenty of overhead space for everyone's luggage, but I wondered how to get my bicycle home. Maybe I'd have to ship it. My fourth pannier, which contained my laptop and reading materials, was on the floor in front of my seat.

The clientele on Amtrak was somewhere between the airlines and Greyhound. There were a few yuppies and a number of older, probably retired, people, but there were also some grisly " traveler" types, too, like the guitar player in front of me. About half of the men under 50 had body odor, probably the product of long train rides with layovers too short to leave the train stations. Chicago is the biggest east-west transfer point in the Amtrak system. Lots of trains begin or end there, but none go straight through. Consequently, most travelers going from the West Coast to the Northeast come through Chicago, and all of them have to switch trains. It's great for Chicagoans--we can catch a direct train in almost any direction except southeast, which of course was my direction. However, for everyone else in the Amtrak system, it's a hassle. Amtrak takes longer than flying, but it's great to see the country pass by. It's a nice way to travel if one has the time.

My seatmate finally returned after most people had fallen asleep. I found out that he was from Rugby, a small town in North Dakota. He had that northern plains accent like the characters in the movie Fargo (and like my relatives who used to live there). He told me that he worked at his uncle's used car lot, and that he hated the Camaro his dad gave him because he wanted a pick-up truck. I asked him what they did for fun, and he said everybody went up to Canada  because the drinking age was 18. We stayed up and talked until our coach car's dweeby self-appointed sleep policeman told us that we should be quiet. Then the same guy who told us to shut up and go to sleep started snoring, which kept me awake. I directed many evil thoughts and wishes toward him.

After sleeping for about an hour, I woke up at 2:30 when we stopped in Cleveland. I was restless in my chair but finally fell asleep again. I woke up for good at 7:00. We were in Pennsylvania, our tracks running parallel to a river. The town of Dawson had a surprising array of architecture, including Victorian houses and a huge church of dark stone. There was a big two-story home with a swimming pool right next to a house trailer, too, quite a contrast.

Every quiet country road I saw running alongside the tracks made me yearn to get out and pedal. If my bike hadn't been locked away until Savannah, I would have been tempted to start my tour from Washington, D.C.

When my NoDak neighbor awoke (I don't think I ever learned his name), we spent the rest of the trip alternately eating, looking out the window, napping and making fun of people. It seemed that cynicism and sarcasm were the best tools to communicate with him (fortunately, I was well-equipped).  He talked of the boredom of a small town, and he said he'll leave after he graduates high school. The hippie types in front of us were great material for ridicule. The woman said something about a town in Montana: " They call it Hot Springs 'cause there's a lot of hot springs there." I never would have guessed.

Then the musician dude laid out the whole sorry tale of his family life to her. At age 13 his parents forbade him to speak to his older brother after he was kicked out of the house for having a film canister full of pot. Obviously, the parents didn't teach him anything, because the hippie dude talked a lot about smoking pot and doing a multitude of other drugs. He went on to tell how his uncle was a newspaperman in Atlanta and stayed with his family during the week. On weekends he would go home to his own family in Augusta. Then he moved in with a friend during the week instead. One weekend he was home in Augusta cleaning his antique shotgun and accidentally shot himself in the chest. Somehow, the musician dude's mother blamed him because he had taken over the room vacated by his uncle. Of course, this was totally irrational since it happened on the weekend and his uncle had never stayed there on weekends, but I suppose people don't think so rationally when something like that happens.

He said he hadn't seen his mom in eight years, but he hadn't seen his dad in twenty. He was heading to Atlanta to make his peace with his dad. He said he wants his dad to see that he turned out okay. He said most guys by the age of 35 have a big gut and have been divorced, but that at 41, he was doing all right. While I'll acknowledge that he was skinny, I don't know if his dad would be too proud of the ring in his son's nose, nor the stud in his cheek (isn't 41 a little old for rebellious body piercing?). And if he told his dad all that mystical b.s. like he had been telling this woman, I doubt if that would go over very well, either.

The last stop before Washington was Rockville, Maryland, which naturally brought R.E.M.'s song to mind: " Don't go back to Rockville... and waste another year." Except in that song Michael Stipe sang about a bus, not a train. The last miles were parallel to MARC and Metro tracks. As the trains went by, my NoDak neighbor and I noted that our Amtrak train was by far the slowest. Finally, we reached Washington's Union Station--on time, to my utter amazement.

Washington, D.C.

I schlepped my panniers down the very long platform into the station and said goodbye to the NoDak. The last I saw of the Atlanta-bound hippie dude, he was wearing a huge frame backpack and carrying a guitar case in each hand. It occurred to me as the panniers' carrying straps weighed heavy on my shoulders that in some ways we were more similar than I wanted to admit. While the NoDak had thought that my trip was insane (" Why not take a pick-up truck instead?" he had asked), the hippie dude probably would have thought it was pretty cool.

I bought a couple of soft pretzels and a 44-ounce lemonade, then sat down to wait three hours for my train to Savannah. The people-watching was not as interesting as in Chicago, but there were a few memorable characters. I noticed an attractive woman who looked a lot like actress Michelle Williams. A few minutes later, she disappeared. The man who replaced her soon after looked like, oddly enough, Michelle Williams with a beard. After my 18-hour experience on the Capitol Limited, I couldn't help being jealous of the people taking the speedy new Acela Express trains to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. I still had 13 hours of riding ahead. After all that time cooped up on trains, it was going to be hard to start pedaling my bike.

I saw a guy with dyed-blond hair and mustache, and a severe, predatory look about him, shamelessly checking out the women, which was almost as entertaining to see as the women themselves. I'm sure he scared the heck out of all of them.

I got up and walked to Sbarro to get a piece of pizza to tide me over. As I was walking back to the Amtrak lounge with all my panniers, I had an odd experience. A woman was standing still in a somewhat crowded hallway staring blankly at me as I approached. I said, " Excuse me." Now, call me an idiot, but if I was standing still in a busy place blocking the path of someone who was carrying a huge load of stuff, I would simply step aside. But this woman just asked, " Why?" What?! This was the kind of person who would drive obliviously in front of my wife's police car when its lights were flashing. One of my friends used to talk about " Chicago attitude," and this woman deserved a measured dose of it: " Why are you just standing there in my way?" I retorted, not slowing down. Needless to say, she moved to let me pass. She said something else, but I was already gone.

Finally, they announced that the Silver Star was now boarding. The older woman in front of me freaked out with her rolling luggage when confronted with an escalator down to the platform. She kept stepping forward, then jumping back startled, as if the escalator had teeth. An Amtrak employee eventually stepped in to help her. I felt like I should have done something, but with 30-40 pounds of panniers hanging off each shoulder, I wasn't quick to respond. Just like my arrival in D.C., I had to walk a really long platform to get to the train. At least carrying this stuff across the U.S.A. on a bicycle wouldn't be nearly as hard as it would be to carry it on my shoulders!

The Silver Star

The Silver Star rolled out of Washington right on time. Departing at 4:20 P.M., it was scheduled to arrive in Savannah at 5:22 A.M. Yes, one could say it was a " midnight train to Georgia." Its coach cars were Viewliners instead of Superliners. The main difference was that the Viewliner had only one level. I read some time ago in a history of Amtrak that some underpasses and/or tunnels in the East didn't have enough clearance for the taller Superliners. It was nice to have fewer stairs to climb on the Viewliner, but the second floor seating of the Superliner naturally offered a better view out the windows.

The black man sitting next to me was on his cell phone all the time. I figured that the least I deserved for putting up with this disturbance was the right to eavesdrop. After hearing him talk to half a dozen women, I thought, " Wow, this guy is quite a player!" But on further reflection, I realized that all of those women had problems and were just complicating his life. He would have been much better off with one good woman instead of six goofy ones. Heck, he would have been better off with no women. No wonder he was trying to fix up a  friend with one of them. His favorite phrase was " word is bone," which I took to mean something like " that's the truth." He said it with different inflections and emphases throughout his conversations, so it was quite versatile.

I had another BBQ rib sandwich for dinner. There just wasn't much that appealed to me in the Amtrak cafe. The only thing worse than eating on Amtrak was sleeping. With five hours to go to Savannah, I had only slept six or seven hours since Chicago. Plus I felt all greasy because I hadn't showered or changed my clothes in two days. Yuck.

There were three college women seated behind me who were coming home from a big weekend in New York City. One was really excited because her mom told her (on her cell phone) that they were going to be on Good Morning America the next morning (February 27). They all got off at Raleigh (as did most of the people in my coach), but I think she said she was from Charlotte.

I was reading a book called Ishi: The Last  Yahi about an Indian in the early 20th century who was the last living member of a tribe in Northern California. The needless destruction of his tribe was terrible, but remarkably a final small band of Yahi lived on for several decades, completely eluding detection by settlers. It was interesting that the whites killed many Yahi in revenge because they had killed livestock, but that was because the Yahi didn't recognize them as domesticated animals--they thought they were hunting. Later, Ishi was embarrassed to learn that his tribe had " stolen" the animals. I had never thought how such a simple misunderstanding between cultures could have such a devastating effect.

When we stopped in Southern Pines, NC, I saw an old repair garage downtown that had found new life as the cleverly named " Universal Joint Cafe." At Hamlet, SC, we were an hour behind schedule. I got to see a woman's joyful reunion with her family. I would have to wait a couple of months for mine. After riding on the train so long, it was hard to imagine that all this was just to get to the starting point. It was an interesting experience, though. After we left Columbia, SC, the train car was nearly empty. In fact, I was able to change into my cycling shorts and jersey in my seat! Any reader who might suppose that I should have changed my clothes in the bathroom has probably never seen an Amtrak bathroom! As I suspected, the train got to Savannah about an hour late. In retrospect it was just as well. Although I had a dream of riding to the coast just in time to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic (barely possible if the train had arrived on time), it turned out that riding to Tybee Island was definitely  not something I would have wanted to do in the pre-dawn twilight. Besides, I got an extra hour of sleep on the train.

Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.