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Planes, Trains and Craigslist

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image Dining in steerage on the Auto Train. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Part two in an Observer News feature series

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The beginning of my descent into madness took all of five minutes. Apparently, just five minutes separates me from the world of normal people who bath regularly and converse intelligently and the world of a blathering idiot on the verge of spewing obscenity-laced tirades about the evils of captivity. Even as a man descending into madness, that struck me as an awfully small margin.

But then again, considering that I had purchased a one-way ticket to fly to Washington, D.C. to buy an old car I had never seen with the expectation of driving 1,000 miles home in the following 48 hours, perhaps my sanity was questionable long before. That this was the fourth time I had done such a thing only provided further evidence. The car had problems; the Auto Train to Florida appeared to be my salvation.

But then, I found myself trapped in a window seat on the train. Yes, it was a comfortable and spacious seat, but it was one of captivity. My seatmate had her tray table down and her footrest up, effectively blocking my ability to come and go as I wished. Even a basic restroom trip would require her complete cooperation. Suddenly, I found myself thinking that driving a thousand miles with non-functioning headlights in a 27-year-old car that I had just bought was an acceptable option. I began envisioning myself as a David Hasselhoff-esque figure from the 1980s television show Knight Rider, with my car, Kit, already revving the engine ready to blast us both off the train.

Just before I was fully engulfed in madness, a miracle happened. My seatmate got up to discard an empty yogurt container. I bolted (and might have laughed maniacally as I passed her in the aisle). The train lurched forward as I exited the doors of the car, nearly causing me to topple into a porter. The next stop was 900 miles down the tracks in Sanford, Florida.

“You wouldn’t know, uh, if there’s an, uh, aisle seat available somewhere?” I asked the porter. Clearly, she was familiar with the look of insanity on my face because she smiled and said, “You’ll find a seat. We want you to be comfortable.”

Although I believed her sentiment, I didn’t share her faith. Last night I had been told the train was sold out. I decided to make my way towards the lounge car. On the way there, I saw several seats that were physically unoccupied but all contained the unmistakable signs of occupation — luggage, pillows and blankets were this train’s version of “Do Not Disturb” signs. And then, almost like a mirage glowing in the late afternoon Virginia sunlight, there were two seats completely devoid of people or their detritus. They were manna from heaven to a starving man, a refuge from madness, but were they really available?

Gingerly, I sat down in the aisle seat. Every time I saw someone walking down the aisle, I prepared to be rousted. The lounge car was doing a brisk business, which meant that many people began their trip with libations. I was expecting to be called out as an interloper by a mildly intoxicated fellow passenger.

Before boarding the train, I asked about the possibility of getting a roomette. I was told the sleeper cars were sold out, but I could be placed on a stand-by list. The ticket agent told me it would cost an additional $258 if I were lucky enough to get one. I hesitated, thinking that for $258 I could take anything for a mere 18 hours until the train stopped in Florida. Obviously, I couldn’t. I nearly lost my mind in the first five minutes of boarding, and now I was fidgeting in a seat that apparently belonged to someone else.

After some time had passed, I noticed a man across the aisle spreading out across two seats of his own. I asked him if he knew if anyone had been sitting in the seats I found.

“I think they are yours,” he said with an understanding smile. “I was on the standby list for a roomette, too.”

The packed train station in Lorton, Virginia, emptied quickly when the call was made to begin boarding. Those of us on the standby list were told to wait on the chance that someone with reservations for a sleeper car would fail to show. While a handful of desperate-looking people remained in the now eerily quiet station, I argued with myself about the needlessness of squandering $258. I needn’t have worried — the ticket agent approached me and said, “Go ahead and board now.”  There were no cancellations.

Last year my wife and I made our first trip on the Auto Train and it was a wonderful experience. We booked a roomette and enjoyed the many amenities of first class travel on Amtrak. The train ride itself was as much of an adventure as was visiting nearby Washington, D.C. We were both sad when the train rolled to a stop in Florida and the trip was over.

Disembarking from the Auto Train. Mitch Traphagen PhotoBut now, I had learned much. The first and foremost lesson was that if you travel single on the Auto Train, do not, under any circumstances, end up with a window seat on a full train. Sitting next to a stranger will doom you to a nice, wide, comfortable seat that rapidly becomes a prison. Of course, the aisle seat has limitations, too. The electrical outlets for plugging in a computer or a cell phone are right next to the window. Thus, the aisle seat passenger would have to run cords over the already tormented and trapped window-seat passenger. Or, they could just let their electronics die — a small tradeoff, I guess, to being trapped for nearly a thousand miles.

Now free, I wandered the train at will. During my travels, I noticed a young man, wide-awake, sitting in a window seat. His seatmate, an elderly man, was sleeping in the aisle seat. The young man’s eyes were wide open and I detected hints of insanity in them. He was trapped. I noticed that some people in the lounge car never seemed to leave — I had no doubt they were window seat passengers with no intention of returning to their wide, comfortable prisons. One man appeared to be making preparations to sleep in the glass-enclosed smoking section on the lower level of the car.

The porter’s wish that I be comfortable had come true. Although dinner in coach lacked the linen tablecloths and the splendor of first class, it was excellent and the table was adorned with a complimentary carafe of wine. As a single traveler, I was assigned to a table with a party of three: a man, woman and their grandchild traveling to Florida during the child’s spring break. We all shared good conversation and the grandfather and I shared the wine.

After dinner, I returned to the seats that I felt comfortable were now mine and sat in the window seat to watch the eastern seaboard roll past. Through the countryside, small towns and big cities, I saw anew from that window the beauty of this nation. From that window, I saw potential in decaying downtowns and life in its most normal state in passing neighborhoods. As the sky darkened, the lights on the train were dimmed and people settled in to watch movies on their computers or in the lounge car, or simply to fade off to sleep in their seats.  By that time, several passengers, both young and old, were padding the aisles in their jammies.

At 5:15 a.m., I made my way to the lounge car for coffee and noticed several people sleeping in the booths. The man I had seen earlier had indeed slept in the glassed-off smoking section.

 By 6 a.m., the doors between the cars began to shush open as a steady stream of passengers made their way to the lounge car for coffee. Next to the coffee machines were large bowls piled high with apples, bananas and oranges.

By 6:30 a.m., families with children were making their way down the aisle, the children wobbling against the motion of the train like small human bumper cars. A continental breakfast was available in the dining cars.

By 7 a.m., it was a veritable exodus with people lining up to pass each other in the aisle. It was time to wake up, even for the deepest sleepers.

Coach class isn’t uncomfortable (assuming you don’t get trapped in a window seat with a snoozing stranger in the aisle seat). There is plenty of legroom, even when the passengers ahead fully recline their seats. There is certainly more legroom in Amtrak coach class than would be found in first class on most airlines. But while it isn’t uncomfortable, it also lacks a certain romance. Having your own place on the train does much to make travel an adventure rather than mere transportation. On my previous trip, I wasn’t ready for it to end. On this trip, I was happy when the train pulled into the station in Sanford.

Snowstorms, lying in parking lots attempting to diagnose car problems, and motels next to auto parts stores felt a world away when I emerged into the Florida sunshine to join the crowd waiting for our vehicles to be driven off the enormous car carriers. I felt more than a little shallow and weak for nearly losing my mind in the first few minutes of the trip. As I watched my car being driven down the ramp, I saw the young man I had noticed earlier in the window seat. The wild look in his eyes was dimmed only by the bags under them. He was clearly overjoyed to be free of the seat-prison created by his sleeping seatmate.

My car coming off the Auto Train in Sanford. Mitch Traphagen PhotoI was in Florida all the same and was $258 richer than if I had been in a roomette. Although I’m convinced my adventures in buying old, used cars over the Internet in faraway places have come to an end, I’ll happily take the Auto Train again at the first opportunity. The $258 I just saved will pay for a roomette.

Writer’s note:  For snowbirds considering the Auto Train as a means to return to homes in the north, the time to book your tickets is now. Tickets for the northbound trains are already heavily booked up for the next few months, and, of course, the sleeper cars are the first to go. Visit Amtrak at www.amtrak.com. 

As for my car, shortly after arriving home from the Auto Train, I plugged in a $3 switch I had previously picked up at a junkyard. The headlights fired right up.

Click here for Part One.

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