Here is my mom's full account about the experience:
The Backyard of America
New adventures bring excitement and mystique to life and give us cause to ponder the joys of our world. Conversely, sameness will erode the spirit and allow us to become bitter and discouraged. With this mindset, I abandoned flying and boarded an Amtrak train bound for New Orleans to visit for two weeks. If first impressions are to be trusted, mine were certainly in the negative column from the early start on travel day.
When my family and I arrived at Brookwood Station before seven o’clock as ordered by the reservation, we found the door locked. After parking across the street, walking half- block dragging four heavy bags, we stood waiting patiently, tongue in cheek, while watching workers inside checking things out.
"You would think they could at least have a bench where early arrivals could sit to wait," my daughter, Kim, remarked.
"Mom, tell Robyn to buy you a plane ticket next time," Vicki added Notably agitated, I replied, "I wanted to travel by train, but perhaps next time I need to reconsider." For weeks, preparations for this trip dominated my days, as I rushed to complete tasks promised. Vacation Bible School, a sewing project, and a craft project with deadlines, and I have a due date of Oct 1 on my new book. However, the time flew as it does in the sunset of life, and July 15 arrived. So I washed the glitter and glue from my hands and packed three bags under 50 pounds, two carry-ons and a combo purse-computer bag. All measured, tagged, and weighed just as the reservations required. Vicki, Ryan, Kim, and Bob agreed to drive me to the city, a chore every driver hates, and we all set our clocks for four AM to make the one-hour trip to mid-town.
Here we are; on time, locked out. Bob said, "Let’s stay calm and happy to start a vacation." I thought about the situation and decided it was a bit late to rethink the trip. Surely, the situation could not deteriorate further, nevertheless, it did. They unlocked the door and we found the ticket counter. A very professional young man asked for my ID, explained my ticket, and directed me to another agent who stood by with scales to weigh my baggage. I expected to be questioned about the number of carry-ons, instead, he said, "it’s okay." He directed us to a corner roped off as the disabilities section. I hobbled over with my cane, entourage of caregivers, and took a seat. No security. Great. No hassle – just wait.
As we settled in the corner, we noted the time, 7:10. The train scheduled to leave at 8:38 AM had not arrived. After a few more minutes, people began to arrive, checking in and gathering in the waiting room. A steady stream of passengers considered on time right up until the moment we boarded. Why did I have instructions to arrive 90 minutes ahead? Does anyone have the answer? It took five minutes to check in. Meanwhile, the disabilities area became crowded with regular passengers. The agents came to the area with instructions, although hearing them was impossible in the noisy crowd. My family decided they should leave because they were occupying seats needed for the disabled passengers.
"Where is my lunch and water?" I asked, remembering that someone took it away from me at Kim’s when they were loading the baggage.
"You don’t have it?" Vicki asked.
"No, I will be fine; surely they have snacks on the train." I replied. Kim quizzed me about having my medicine and the ticket. Someone said certainly I would not forget these things.
"Well, she forgot to bring her lunch," Kim answered sharply. I felt that urge to argue; I did not leave it behind-someone took it from me. However, it seemed there were more important hills to climb this morning. I said goodbye to my family and watched them walk away leaving me alone with three carry-on bags and a cane to steer me to the ramp below. I spoke with an elderly woman who rode the train to New Orleans regularly. She always reserved a compartment. Very pricy, I thought, but she described attractive amenities. "You should be riding a compartment also," she added, "coach is difficult."
At last, boarding time arrived and they called for those who needed assistance. I did not quite know what to do as they could see I could walk. Other passengers quickly observed the situation and decided I should have help. They retrieved a wheelchair while they advised the agents I was alone and should have assistance. They pushed me near the door, and left me with my carry-on cart. By this time, agents, via the elevator, had already removed others in wheelchairs and disappeared to other chores. A stairway equal to a three-story building remained the only way to the ramp for the regular passengers. I really did
not know what to do now. Amtrak agents were nowhere in sight and detraining passengers were storming through the
door in front of me. At last, someone rescued me just as an agent came to inquire about the problem. Obviously, I could not move to the train alone.
An agent took me down to the train level by elevator and parked me by the door. The same young agent who worked the ticket counter stood at the elevator door and agreed to drive me to the coach entrance. With my usual clumsy, slow agility, I moved from the wheelchair and climbed aboard the shuttle. They threw my carry-on up into the shuttle also. I worried about the rough treatment of my bags for two seconds until the shuttle jerked forward, and we flew down the ramp riding on the ledge just inches from a two-foot drop off into the rail bed. We stopped at the far end where the sleeper cars were located. After we were there, the young agent asked me for my compartment number. "I’m riding the coach," I said. He turned the shuttle around so quickly that my carry-on bags rolled to the edge almost diving into the rail bed. I screamed. He stopped with another jerk while I retrieved the bags as best I could. Rather abruptly, I thought, he moved the bags to the front. At that point, he shattered my last nerve. "Do you think we can find my seat now?" I asked. He understood my tone, backed up slowly to the car entrance, and called to the conductor to help me aboard. They asked if I needed the lift to board. I said, "No, right now I prefer to walk on my own two feet. Just give me a hand." I could tell they were glad to help me to a seat as quickly as possible. Especially since the train was, finally, ready to depart.
The conductor seated me in an aisle seat "near the restroom," he said, in spite of the fact that many window seats were available. He had the nerve to say "because of my age." I wanted to backhand him across the mouth, but I sat down peacefully as the train slowly moved out of the station. My adventure had begun.
The young woman sitting next to me shifted restlessly as we disturbed her. She said she boarded in North Carolina at four that morning. She was tired, had the curtain pulled, and promptly went back to sleep. The porter placed one of my bags overhead, and I hassled with the other under my feet. I felt the pangs of hunger roll through my tummy, as I remembered the milk and Rice Krispy Bar that accompanied my morning meds. Just then, they announced the dining car closed for breakfast. Oh well, someone said, "there’s a snack bar five cars forward." Five cars! At that moment I could not have walked five more feet, I could not see out the
windows (everyone seemed to be sleeping with the curtains drawn), and I wished I could stop this cattle car and find the Atlanta Airport.
For at least an hour, I sat in the dimly lit car feeling depressed and dreading the motion sickness the rocking rails managed to awaken in me. In addition, the temperature dropped to freezing; my teeth chattered. I looked unsuccessfully for the source of the cold air, and finding a porter to ask about the temperature proved equally useless. The cell phone rang and I struggled to retrieve the strains of "Born Free" that always meant my youngest, Robyn, was attempting to reach me. The sleeping passengers shifted around again as if the music intruded more than the rumble of the rails and the rocking of the cattle car.
"Hi Mom, how’s the train ride?" I tried to remember she bought the ticket for me, and I should be grateful. "I’m on my way." Trying to sound upbeat, I added, "It’s like an airplane ride only four times longer."
"You mean you aren’t comfortable?" I heard the disappointment in her voice as she continued, "I’m sorry."
"It’s not your fault," I said. "It is so cold and I left my lunch in the car."
"Don’t they have pillows and blankets?"
"Not that I can see, and no one has been by to ask. I wondered why so many people in the waiting room packed bedrolls, blankets and pillows. They have ridden the cattle car before. I’m fine, Robyn, it will be okay. Call me later."
By this time I was so cold I could think of nothing else. Others were waking and digging through their baggage for sweaters and wrapping up in blankets. Another hour passed. I’m so cold, I’m so cold, the rails kept time with my mind as I repeated the phrase over and over. The young woman next to me roused for a moment to shout at the porter who rushed by "Why is it so cold in here? Can’t you adjust the temperature?"
"The air is adjusted on the outside at the compressor," he remarked so innocently.
"Outside!" Did not sound reasonable to anyone within the sound of his voice.
"We are freezing," I said as patiently as I could muster considering how disturbed I felt in the last few hours. The porter continued on his way to the next car, although he did return in a few minutes with some pillows and a blanket for me.
"I got this from the sleeping car last night for someone else," he said. I grabbed the blanket gladly and offered to share it with the young woman next to me. She declined. However, I did not care who used it the night before; I was near death from exposure anyway with a stiff neck creeping upon me. I wrapped up in the blanket and felt grateful to the porter, although the cold had subdued the motion sickness, overcome the hunger, and froze my feet. Still two hours from Birmingham per our schedule, the train slowed to stop somewhere. I did not hear the announcement – neither did anyone else.
We were boarding passengers and this train was supposed to be express stopping only once at Birmingham. Nothing surprised me since passengers in the Atlanta Station implied the train made numerous stops before New Orleans. As we moved slowly out of the unknown station, we asked about lunch. A nice lady volunteer for a group called Trails and Rails stopped by to hand me a brochure about the sites along the Amtrak route. It was nice, but she said they were all on the other side of the train and probably not easy for me to see. I agreed. I really did not understand why all the sites were on one side of the tracks.
"Lunch will be announced after twelve." She said.
At this time, we were running late about an hour. They said weather between New York and Atlanta caused delays. However, we left Atlanta only about 30 minutes late. By this time, I really did not expect anything to add up. Finally, close to one o’clock, the conductor called, "Birmingham Station just ahead." The young woman next to me prepared to detrain. I seized the window seat and opened the curtain. As we moved slowly out of Birmingham, I heard the announcement, "Dining Room is closed for lunch." What, they did not announce it opened.
Never mind! I could stand being hungry. I claimed the window seat successfully; I had a pillow and blanket. It was warmer near the window; I could kick back the seat and raise my feet, and I managed to retrieve my computer so I could play a game or whatever. I visited the restroom. To my surprise, it proved to be very spacious when compared to an airplane. Things were looking up. I thought.
The porter approached my seat with another passenger and reached across to talk with me. If he asks me to move back to the aisle seat, I will jab him in the stomach and hit him over the head with my computer. I am not moving back to the suicide seat. However, he asked if I minded if the woman with him sat there. I quickly moved my things and graciously told her, "It’s the coldest seat in the car. If you are healthy and brave, you may survive the afternoon." She sat down and we quickly became friends. A lovely middle-aged, retired schoolteacher, with an engaging smile and quick wit, we shared some of the events of our lives and traded philosophies as casual acquaintances often do. She knew the Amtrak route and the towns along the way intimately as she often traveled the train from Hattiesburg, MS, to visit her son in Birmingham. As we stopped in the towns, she shared history, told stories of the restoration of the rail stations and other interesting facts about the relatively unknown towns that are actually the backbone of American life. I studied the main streets, the back yards, and the Sunday afternoon quiet of Alabama and Mississippi.
Thanks to a lovely, knowledgeable lady, who served as the principal of a public school for ten years, I began to appreciate the experience of riding through the backdoor of America and observing its special people, those who live and die in places never championed as outstanding in anything. The information signs on the interstate highways exclude many of these towns. They do exist with backyards mowed and trimmed, pets trotting along the fences, children playing peacefully, parks trimmed proudly by the township, a grocery store, a post office, a two lane road with one or two signal lights or maybe not even a stop sign. They do exist and I am impressed with the back yards of America.
My new friend from Hattiesburg, whom I shall probably never see again, brought pleasure to an otherwise boring and unpleasant event. She also opened my eyes to the awesome privilege afforded me to make this trip, a new experience, in which I have learned to be more patient with service people, to appreciate slowing down to view life with positive terms no matter how cold, hungry, and crowded it may be.
Meanwhile, the temperature dropped lower as we literally flew across Alabama trying to make up time. My friend agreed my original seat had to the worst in the car. She begged for a blanket and fifteen minutes before her departure, they found one for her. While she watched my belongings, I walked the five cars to the snack bar - a turkey sandwich, potato chips, and a Pepsi,
$10.00 even. I gave him $20.00 and he gave me back a five and five ones, obviously expecting a tip of at least one of those dollars. I ignored the little box of tips on the counter, picked up my expensive lunch, and carefully walked back through the cars. People were everywhere, wrapped in blankets, eating snacks, playing with babies and little children. Trying to get through the afternoon of swing and sway on the rails of the Alabama Amtrak route. At Hattiesburg, my seat partner departed complaining about this being the worst trip of her train-riding career. She planned to report the cold car incident.
On this exhausting evening, the New Orleans bound train flew over the rails until the rocking smoothed out and the sleek silver streak seamlessly took wings and glided over the stormy countryside. I thought, I can do this again, sure I can. It’s awesome, it’s great. Until – we stopped – dead still – in the deep dark forest. Thirty minutes later, we had not moved an inch. What happened? They said we were waiting for traffic to pass, however, a freight train passed by, and we stood still for another fifteen minutes. Finally, without warning, we started moving again. No explanation, At least we were in Louisiana and the lake was coming up fast.
The view from the coach window brought many memories and thoughts to mind. The dense woods brought questions as to who may have lived and walked among the trees and along the creeks. As the lake came into view, the train glided slowly over the rails. With water all around, it hung as though upon nothing as it moved quietly, almost reverently, across the face of the lake, affording me an awesome moment to remember.
The many stops thinned out the crowd and only the New Orleans passengers remained. As though spellbound, a hush lulled the passengers into a mystique of silence as they viewed the city of New Orleans from the slowly moving train approaching the Station. At last, we arrived, 55 minutes late at 8:25 PM, and a voice told us to remain seated while the train backed into the terminal in preparation for the morning trip to New York. This silver streak is indeed a faithful servant of the crescent city.
Ending with those words at that moment would have been great, unfortunately, the saga continued. With a few lessons in customer service, Amtrak could make the trip the most wonderful experience of one’s travel life. If they communicated facts that are consistent and correct to prospective passengers, kept rules simple and do not bend them, enforced the carry-on
rules already in place, and improved communications between crew and passenger, the Amtrak experience would deliver a positive message, passenger load would be increased, and perhaps they could avoid government subsidy.
My final thoughts are simple. I am disabled, although not severely and rather than ask for help, I often try to do things I should avoid. When the train stopped, I asked a crewmember to help with my carry-on stored overhead. He seemed somewhat annoyed that I interrupted his ‘end of the trip’ procedures of gathering pillows and trash However, he did set the bag down for me and went on his way. I could not find a porter when departure time arrived. I dragged the carry-on cart into the aisle and struggled to the door two cars forward. I double-struggled to move the cart over the metal connecters between the cars. When I finally reached the platform, dragging the cart and carrying the computer bag while I walked with the cane, I was too exhausted to speak for a moment.
The crewmember at the door graciously helped me down the steps. He lifted my bags to the ground, while remarking, he could see why I was so exhausted. Nevertheless, he proceeded to hand them back to me. Seeing I could not transport the bags to the terminal doors, he reconsidered, took my carry- on bags, and left me alone to walk the distance of a football field.
As I dragged my weary bones slowly down the ramp, Robyn observed my plight from the terminal door. I tried to motion to her that the crewmember ahead of me had my bags. Breaking the rules, she ran down the ramp to help me to the terminal and a seat. I sat exhausted, while she spoke to the crewmember about how to avoid this lack of passenger care on the return trip.
Meanwhile, passenger anxiety erupted in the terminal because the baggage appeared in the wrong place.. As we prepared to leave, a lady, who boarded in Atlanta and helped me there when agents were too busy, came by to speak with me. She rode in a compartment she had described to me with a private restroom, nice warm blanket and a pillow. However, she complained rather vigorously about the loss of air conditioning in her compartment car two hours before arrival, and they failed to serve the evening meal included with the very high-priced fare. Although not happy about the current trip, she explained how she loved the Southern Crescent and would ride again in the near future. Looking back over the day, I smiled and thought I just
may choose it over an airplane in the future also. Airlines experience unpredictable events as well. Besides, there must be something contagious about that swing and sway of the rails and the silver streak gliding across the countryside.
On July 31, I again boarded Amtrak for the return trip to Atlanta. We arrived a bit late and created a problem with boarding luggage. However, the New Orleans agents were very accommodating and made special effort to see that my bags were loaded. They escorted me to the shuttle, agents helped me board and seated me in the disability section. With a private window seat and the restroom was only a few steps away, I enjoyed the day.
Of course, I,m now an experienced passenger who knew to bring a pillow, blanket, two-meal lunch, and be prepared for a cold trip. Although I did prepare, the coach was much more comfortable than the southbound ride.
With a more pleasant trip, I wrote a poem about the magic of traveling at high speed over the countryside. My overall opinion of Amtrak travel is "everyone should have the experience, It’s really quite exciting."