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Planes, Trains and Craigslist

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image Steerage class (Amtrak calls it coach class) in the Auto Train. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Part One of an Observer News Feature Story

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The last place I expected to be was on the Auto Train just outside of Washington, D.C. Sitting on the train, the thought occurred to me that there might be something wrong with me. Over the past decade, I’ve bought three different old cars and a sailboat over the Internet; all sight unseen and all with nothing more than the blind faith that those cars and that boat would get me home. And now I’ve just added to the list.

Porsche made all three cars. They were all at least 25-years-old and were all relatively inexpensive (certainly no more expensive than any other cheap used car). My wife and I still have one, but two have since been sold during fits of utilitarianism, practicality and economy. After driving a pickup truck with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, I decided I needed a little more pep (and a backup vehicle) in my life. As my wife drove off each morning in our 1986 Porsche 944, I fired up Craigslist on my web browser in search of one that I, too, could drive off in.

After a month of searching, I found a lot of…junk. A Porsche 944 is a remarkably reliable and economical car if it is taken care of properly. The car my wife drives had 140,000 miles on it when I bought it in 2005 for $3,500 from a guy in New Hampshire. Today it has nearly 250,000 miles on it and it has required only minimal maintenance. But that maintenance can’t be put off and it has required that I not be afraid to get my hands greasy now and again. In comparison, in 2003,
I purchased a brand new Saturn Vue for nearly $20,000. It barely made it over the 100,000-mile mark before the repairs it needed exceeded its remaining value. From a dollar standpoint, the Saturn was far more extravagant than the Porsche. That’s some twisted irony in my opinion. Heck, the Porsche even got better gas mileage.

But as the years have passed, the model of car I wanted has become harder to find. People who did not consider the little things the cars need, like a new timing belt every 30,000 miles, bought them on the cheap and paid a price for the neglect. Where five years ago I would see 50 of them for sale on eBay, today there are routinely fewer than 20 — and many of those are offered at premium prices or are project cars in various states of disassembly.

And then, almost magically, the exact car I was looking for appeared in an ad near Washington, D.C. My wife fired off an email to the seller expressing our interest. The emails turned into telephone calls and by 11 p.m. on a recent Thursday night, a deal was struck. By 11:15 p.m., I had a one-way ticket to Washington that was scheduled to depart just seven hours later.  For those few hours, I slept fitfully wondering what airport security could have in store for a guy who purchased a last minute, one-way ticket to Washington, D.C. and had no luggage.

The next morning (entirely unmolested by airport security) I arrived to a brisk, cold wind blowing through the nation’s capitol. Shivering, I watched as a white Porsche slipped through the traffic outside Washington-Dulles International Airport. The seller greeted me with a smile and a handshake and held open the driver’s door. My test drive would be from the airport to the bank near his home in Arlington. The car was everything I had hoped for, but the abrupt shift from Ruskin to Washington and the associated lack of sleep left me in no position to assess the situation adequately. The seller, a 30-year employee at the Pentagon, thought I was crazy.

I decided to forego the madness on Interstate 95 and started making my way home via I-81, through the Appalachian Mountains. It was a beautiful day for driving, but the cold wind from the morning was foretelling an approaching snowstorm. I needed to get out of the north as quickly as possible. Like a fool overflowing with the optimism only a fool can have, I had only packed for a single overnight. Indeed, 200 miles into the trip home, a single overnight seemed possible. But then, a little voice inside my head started nagging at me. I had checked the engine oil, but had failed to check other small, but important, details.

It almost came as no surprise that the headlights didn’t work. I pulled into an auto parts store, spent a small fortune on tools, an electrical meter and wire, and spent the next few hours under the car in the parking lot diagnosing the problem only to conclude:  the headlights did not work. I was nearly 900 miles from home on an unplanned, unscheduled trip, a snowstorm was approaching and the headlights on the car did not work.

That was a problem, but what really bothered me was that I had done this three times before and never with any of those cars did I NOT have to crawl underneath each of them for something during the maiden trip home. One that I purchased in Boston left a trail of broken alternator belts until I finally managed to correct the problem a thousand miles down the road. Another, picked up in Virginia, had the heat stuck on — an unattractive feature for a car purchased in late July. A sailboat purchased on Cape Cod had enough stuff go wrong for eleven parts of a newspaper series. For reasons that remain unclear, I didn’t prepare for anything in buying this car. I had packed only a nice jacket and a decent change of clothes and soon the realization sunk in that I was not only crazy but also, quite possibly, a moron.

With hours of good driving remaining, the sunset ended any further progress I would make that day. I quickly calculated that the weekend simply wasn’t long enough to get home during daylight hours alone, and there was the little matter of an approaching snowstorm. Michelle offered well-meaning but impractical suggestions (“How about I meet you in South Carolina and you just drive really, really close behind me?”) and I began to feel as though fate had finally caught up with me. I began to feel as though I would be stuck in that motel near an auto parts store in Virginia for the rest of my life with just one change of underwear and a car that had no headlights.

Then, with a spark of optimism, I remembered the Auto Train. Last year, Michelle and I took our first trip on the Auto Train and it was a wonderful experience. Departing just south of Washington and running non-stop to Sanford, Florida, it was an adventure unto itself. And now, it had the potential to get me home before the weekend ran out.

A quick, late night call to Amtrak secured a ticket in coach class and a place for my car — it was the last remaining seat on the train. Last year, Michelle and I had our own miniature room (known as a “roomette”) on the train; this time I would be in a coach seat for the 17-hour trip. I asked the representative about having a window or aisle seat and was told the porter would help with that. I decided it didn’t matter — I had a way to get home.

A sign at a motel says it all.  Mitch Traphagen PhotoBut it turns out it does matter. It matters a lot. As a solo traveler, being assigned to the wrong side of the window or aisle seat debate on the Auto Train is the difference between the God-given freedom we have come to expect in this country and a miserable steerage-class, prison-like misery from which there is, seemingly, no escape while your seat-mate rests her feet on the provided footrest and keeps her yogurt containers on her fold-down tray.

Oh yes, it does matter. Suddenly, the thought of spending the rest of my life in a motel near an auto parts store in Virginia looked pretty darn good. Before the train even started moving, I could feel my mind slipping away into madness. Within the first minute of arriving at my seat, I had to disturb my seatmate twice — and she did make it known it was a disturbance. The first disturbance was simply to get into my seat. The second was to put my backpack away in an overhead shelf when it immediately became obvious I didn’t have room for it by my seat. As she reassembled her tray table and footrest, it was clear that there would be no more excursions for me.

And then, just before insanity completely engulfed me, a miracle happened:  my seatmate got up to throw away one of her containers of yogurt. It was then I made my escape with thoughts of fleeing the train. As I ran and ducked past my seatmate in the aisle, the train lurched forward. We were underway.  I was a long 17 hours from Florida and effectively homeless on the Auto Train.  But...I was free.

All aboard!  In next week’s Observer News, come along for the ride as we make the trip home to Florida.  As things somehow tend to do, it all turned out OK.

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