20 June 2011

Staunton, pt. 1: friends from the road

Hello, friends! I write you from Staunton, VA, tiny mountain town and proud "Breadbasket of the Confederacy." So far, the only confederate flags I've seen have been on the tourist brochures ... but I'm sure that'll change, sooner or later.
Anyway, I have a backlog of blog-age for you, so we'll start with what I wrote on the way here, and work our way forward to the present in a post or two, yes? Yes. Here we go.


Saturday morning, I jolted out of bed at the inhospitable hour of 5AM, dressed, ate, said goodbye to my family, and had my Dad drive me to the station, for the second time in six months.

Not pictured: halo.
Funny; I was a lot more apprehensive about this trip back before it was underway. But now, sitting on the train with my luggage all packed (much by my saintly boyfriend), tickets in my wallet, Johnny Cash playing in my earbuds (again, see: saintly boyfriend) and journey well underway, my mood is more one of, “Well, here we are! Am I ready? Did I forget anything? Was this a horrible idea? Oh well! Too late to worry about it!”
I am a planner, I promise. Practically my whole existence revolves around to-do lists and contingency plans. But there’s something appreciably freeing about moving from lay-up into hang-time, and having things be simply out of your hands.

Anyway, to backtrack over what’s happened: as I said, Dad and I drove down to the station at the crack of dawn, through the pouring rain (hey, at least it wasn't a foot of snow this time). Hugs, kisses, and I was dropped off by 6:30. In theory, all I had to do was go get my tickets printed out and hop on the train to Chicago, which was scheduled to leave in half an hour.
Are you snickering yet? Because, if you’ve read anything about my past traveling adventures, you probably should be. Of course the train wasn’t on time. Heck, as far as I know, the train never even showed up.
So, the pouring rain I mentioned was more of a thunder/lightning/wrath of God sort of thing, and due (in part, at least) to that whole mess, my train was running four hours behind before I even got there.

(Maybe I should’ve called ahead. Hmm.)

At first, we were told that an Amtrak bus would come for those of us who were meant to take the Chicago train, ferry us over to Champagne, IL and deposit us at the train stop there, where we would get onto the next connection to Chicago. Okay, fine. Just so long as I don’t have to buy another ticket (I didn’t).
By the time I printed my ticket and found the pick-up point for the Champagne adventure, though, the bus had filled up and left.


When confronted with my concerns, the lady at the ticket counter was unperturbed. “Oh, don’t worry hon. We’re gonna have a bus to take y’all straight to Chicago now, just have a seat and it should be ready to depart about 8 o’clock.”
So I did. And it was. What happened to those people who went to Champagne? Well, in theory, they got to Chicago eventually. But I didn’t ask.

Somewhere in the midst of this confusion, I met Katie from Minneapolis, who had been in STL visiting her roommates from college, and hadn’t been warned, apparently, about the lovable foibles of the STL transit system (bad, roommates!). We joined forces to get ourselves and all our gear onto the right bus at the right time, though, and I learned that she was going to be a sophomore this year (aww), had just switched her major from elementary school education to physics (not sure which would be harder…), and she hadn’t gotten her coffee that morning, either.
I summarize our bond in the immortal words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come and sit next to me.”

Me on the bus. Yay front seat!
On the bus, though, I claimed the front seat (I love the front seat) and Katie opted for someplace near the middle, so I made friends with our driver, Ray, in her absence. Ray, who I believe was originally from East St. Louis (instant buddies, we), had an interesting life story. In bits, over the next seven hours I learned that before he drove charter buses, he drove schoolbuses, and before that, he was a mechanical engineer for Uncle Sam. After he did his time for the country, he worked on train lines (he explained it better, but I was very quickly lost in the technicalities), but got injured one day and quickly decided that trains could go to … y’know. He didn’t say what happened exactly, but my imagination and his hand gestures (made even more exciting at 70 mph) filled in the gaps.
He also had a friend who was a preacher and a forger and got shot dead on Canal Street in Chicago. That was unrelated, but came out when we were stuck on Canal Street for I swear half an hour, waiting for the traffic to let up long enough to let us across the intersection. (All the unflattering rumors you may have heard about Chicago drivers are true, by the way.)

'sup, Chicago. It's been sooooo long.

I said goodbye to Ray at Union Station, where Katie and I also parted ways after lunch. I had about four hours to kill before my next train … and I spent  them a) finding my gate b) getting in the right line to check in c) discovering that I was in the absolute wrong line and, for that matter, the wrong part of the station, and d) standing in the correct line for about an hour and a half.


Once that train (this train, really; I’m still on it at the time of writing this post) was full and rolling, I found myself seated next to Elias. Elias was very shy at first, I think because his English was a little spotty. After the application of a little Trail Mix and encouragement, though, he became downright chatty: he was from a small town (whose name I have forgotten, but it’s located about an hour from Mexico City) in Mexico, and travelling to Prince, WVa., to work at a camp called Ace Adventures… or something like that. His parents and two brothers were all doctors. Elias, on the other hand, was training to be a chef. He didn’t go into details of how that announcement went, but, as with Ray, the gestures were enough.

The great thing about talking to total strangers, especially across a cultural/linguistic barrier, is that half the time they’re either testing their stereotypes or practicing their English. Or both. In which case, no subject is taboo or taken for granted. I noticed this in my limited conversations in France, Italy and Prague, but never so strongly as with Elias: we talked candidly about our beliefs on God and religion, for example (Elias’s  a lapsed Catholic; I, despite the usual indicators of African-Americanness and working-class social background, am not really a Baptist) and even more so on politics (Elias thinks that, in Mexico at least, it’s just a question of whether this guy or the other one wants to steal the country, and I, despite the aforementioned usual indicators, am not really a Democrat). Books, movies and music supplied us with another hour or so’s worth of conversation, which I  (embarrassingly)  concluded by falling asleep in the middle of a thought.

Hey, it wasn’t my fault. 5AM wake-up call and no coffee, remember? It’s surprisingly easy to sleep on a train, too. You don’t have to be rich to have leg room, and if you’ve got a blanket, a pillow, and an empty seat behind you, it’s no harder than falling asleep in the recliner at home. If your recliner rolls, anyway. And whistles a lot.

Fortunately, my new friend wasn’t so much offended as amused, so we remained amicable long enough to exchange Facebook info in the morning, and for me to wave him goodbye when his stop rolled up.
And that, more or less, my friends, brings us up to the present moment, with my surprisingly-good morning coffee and I sitting here in the dining car, watching boy scouts play cards on one side, and the mountains roll by on the other. It’ll be a few hours still before my stop, and then a little while before I get the chance to upload this to the blog. But that’s the story, boys and girls: a journey of 30 hours and counting. Thanks for reading!

...and that brings us up to yesterday. Next section (complete of pictures of my new digs) will be up soon!

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