Smile Side of Life Laughter & Happiness Club

Smile Side of Life Laughter & Happiness Club
This way to the Smile Side of Life

Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Iowa and Back to New Jersey - Conclusion - Updated

Last night I arrived back in New Jersey. The Lakeshore Limited arrived on time at Penn Station and after getting back my huge suitcase, I waited for my Jersey Transit Train to take me home. Of course it was my luck that the appropriate train arrived at a track that was accessible only by going down 2 flights of steps. I stood at the top of the first flight, adjusting my grip on my two bags and beginning to haul them slowly down. A voice called out — "Can I help you with that?" A lovely woman turned around. I thanked her profusely and handed her the small bag. That gave me two hands to wrestle the big one. As we approached the second set of steps, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a tall gentleman offered to do the wrestling for me. Thank you, Jersey-bound travelers for restoring my faith in humanity! 

Once home, I took a little peek at my online trip diary here. I can see how the unreliable internet has played tricks with spacing and fonts, and typos point to my hurried typing. When I have a chance, I'll go back and fix that all up. 

Today I am back to reality. It was tough morning. After sleeping at home in my comfy bed with the Love of My Life (LOML) near, it was a restful night, but my body wanted more. My elbow and knee complained about being abused by the fall on the Amtrak platform. My back insisted it needed more rest after sleeping in the coach seat on the train. My stomach reminded me that it had been working double duty on lots of high carb foods, and my blood was sluggishly trying to get rid of the extra sugar and fat. "Stay in bed!" my body said. "Get to the office!" said the alarm. It was quite a battle. Eventually I got myself to work.

When I left for vacation, there was still talk of Jersey Shore time and warm sun. While I was gone, it rained almost constantly, and now that I am back, my Facebook feed is full of back-to-school photos. Summer is not over yet, and October holds the possibility of warm, sunny days. However, autumn will arrive, and with it, the strong yearly urge to reinvent, reconsider, reassess and redirect my life. I am not sure what my brain will come up with, but as the leaves turn it will be working overtime.

So, I won't be traveling on a train, but I'll be going places just the same — with the goal of living on the Smile Side of Life.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey – Dispatch #3

 This morning I feel like Goldilocks. I’ve ridden in a train car that was too cold, one that was too painful, but this one was just right! I got better sleep last night thanks to a much better temperature in the car. When I did wake up to change positions I was treated to a beautiful clear view of the moon, almost full, shining down on the train outside my window. As the train pulled into Erie, PA, the sun and clouds treated me to a picturesque sunrise. 
Right now we are near Rochester, NY with the next stop in Syracuse. Just the mention of Syracuse brings backs the memories of my writer trip there, and my adventures centered around the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. I remember fondly my friend Carol, who also connected with that story and the idea of finding a better place “Over the Rainbow.” Here’s a salute to your memory Carol, may we meet again in Oz!

I have been wrapped up in my trip and my own escape from stress and bad news, but my thoughts had turned often to the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the current Hurricane Irma. My own experiences with Hurricanes Floyd, Irene and Sandy taught me that the protection of life is more important than any property.  And while I still see division and intolerance being perpetuated, my hope is that gets put aside for the sake of all who will need assistance in the months (and maybe years ahead.)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey – Dispatch #2

The train pulled into Chicago Union Station around 4:15, just about 1.5 hours late.  I am beginning to think this might be a pattern. “Luckily,” the train I am taking for my second leg of the trip does not leave until 9:30 PM. So I have a few hours here. 

After my calamity last time at Union Station, I decided to pay the $20 fee for coach passengers to use the Legacy Club, a recently created lounge for business class, sleeper passengers and coach passengers who ante up the fee. The seating in here is much more comfortable than the polished pews out in the great hall. Amenities include free soft drinks and coffee, snacks, private bathrooms, dedicated Wi-Fi and cable TV. The atmosphere is quiet and subdued.
I am beginning to wonder, however, how anyone who travels a lot and wishes to work online can tolerate the really terrible Wi-Fi. Even here, in a “private” area with a 5-G connection, the signal drops. The coffee is quite good; it is made, per cup by a machine featuring 3 Starbucks varieties. It is happy hour, so there is beer — I will pass on that. However, the snacks are just bagged chips, jawbreaker granola bars (you know the brand) and probably the best of the lot, almonds. Luckily I have a juicy Iowa peach and an apple in my bag.

My idea to buy a blanket in the train station has been foiled, as there are only food places here — unlike Penn Station in NYC or Union Station in DC which have stores selling things you don't even know you need.

But all that is really secondary, because what I am really here for is the priority boarding. I have no intention of getting trampled on the platform again. Today, I was able to observe that many areas of the yellow bumpy safety edging had holes in them and pieces ripped off. Perfect to catch a small swivel suitcase wheel and cause the bag and the owner to be pitched face-first to the platform. Those bruises and abrasions are not healed, 6 days out. I don’t need any more.

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey - Dispatch #1

Today’s train was due to depart at 9:54 AM from Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Text messages began dinging me early, letting me know the train was delayed, and delayed and delayed. It finally arrived at the station at 12:10 PM. The fortunate thing is that Mount Pleasant is a tiny town, my son’s house was about 5 minutes away, and I got to spend the morning with my family. I was able to see the older one off  to here first day of pre-school, and then pick her up and bring her to the train station to hang out for a while as I waited.
The Mount Pleasant train station is a simple one room building. Once there was an active ticket window but no more. The waiting area was full of uncomfortable wooden benches with severe armrests that prevented even a thought of stretching out or slumping. Tough stock, these Iowans.
Luckily, right next to the train station was the coffee depot with a large, comfortable living-room area with a soft couch and armchairs, other tables and chairs for eating, restrooms and snacks and other food. The chocolate chip muffin was a hit with my granddaughter. Eventually, even the delay notices stopped, and it was time to bid farewell to my son and his daughter. We didn’t wait until the train arrived; remembering his daughter sobbing and clinging to me at the airport on my previous visit. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would not be the one sobbing and clinging. I know that other mothers endure children living at all ends of the earth, and sometimes go very long periods of time without seeing them. I know that sometimes it is because of horrible circumstances in the world. So, in that I am lucky that it has only been a year, that we can employ the miracle of video chat often, and other social media outlets keep us connected. Yet, there is nothing that makes up for the touch, the sound, the smell and the comfort of being in close proximity to family. At least, for me.

The California Zephyr is now sweeping me away; we are within 2 hours of Chicago. I spent some time in the wonderful Observation car, feeling sunlight on me, taking snapshots as we crossed the Mississippi River, watching the farmlands go by, and enjoying the fried chicken I had brought with me. Evidently, after comparing train travel notes with my daughter-in-law’s grandmother, I found out that bringing fried chicken was considered mandatory for train trips for several generations.This train car is pretty chilly, something I wouldn’t ordinarily mind, however the air is blowing out of the under window vent at blizzard speed and there is pretty much no way to block or redirect it. It is blowing directly on my shoulder and the side of my head. I am glad this is not the train I will be sleeping on because that would be just miserable. I am realizing that, for whatever cost saving reasons, these long distance trains suffer from age. They are clean and mostly comfortable, but each car seems to have its own environmental quirks. I’ve noticed quite a few people wear hooded sweatshirts that end up being cinched up around their faces, and there are plenty of big, bed-sized blankets in tow. I am seriously thinking of going shopping in Union Station for another blanket for myself, as the towel-sized one that comes in the “comfort kit” just wasn’t enough. I’ve been thinking wistfully about all the blankets I’ve crocheted and how I wish I had one right now! I am also not sure of when I will get to post this, as there isn’t even a hint of wi-fi on this train right now.

The next leg of my trip, back on the Lakeshore Limited doesn’t start until 9:30 PM with an anticipated arrival time in NYC at 6:30 PM. Considering that this train ran 2 hours late coming out here, I am anticipating not getting to Penn Station until more like 8:30 PM. So, I may not be seeing Jamesburg until more like 10:30 pm. But I am looking at that possible delay as just more quiet time for me. The purpose of this train trip was twofold – first it was much less expensive than the never-discounted airfare to Iowa, and second, a chance for me spend some reflective, restful time, away from all the daily obligations, catastrophes, worries and drama we all deal with. And that part has been very successful.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa – All Aboard the California Zephyr! Dispatch #5

After filling out the accident form and sitting for a while with ice on my knee and my elbow, I felt well enough to explore the California Zephyr. My seat was on the top level, which meant climbing up a very narrow set of stairs that curved around tightly. However, the upper level of the car was just as roomy as the Lakeshore Limited, the controls for the seat back and the footrest were different, but I figured them out. 
I walked back to the Observation Car, and it was awash in bright sunlight. The walls and ceiling of the car were all window. Down a set of those same kind of stairs was a snack car, and I indulged in a coffee and a bag of trail mix. I took it back up to the observation car and settled down at a table. My trip was going to be short in relation to the route of the train, and I thought that once the train got further west it might be a little more difficult to find a seat in the car. But this early in the trip I had plenty of room to enjoy my snack and the sunlight.

It was obvious that the Zephyr has not been updated in quite some time, and, as in the Lakeshore Limited, the place where it shows is in the bathrooms. All bathrooms are on the lower level, and, at least on the car I was on, they are clustered in the front of the car, along a passageway that was barely wide enough to open the door. Inside, they were tinier than an airplane bathroom. Part of the welcoming announcement when I first boarded was a rather lengthy reminder to everyone to be considerate of others and keep the bathrooms clean. They probably get dirty a lot faster than the ones on the Lakeshore Limited since they are so small.
It was only a few hours later we crossed the Mississippi into Iowa, and shortly thereafter arrived at my destination, Mount Pleasant. The train station there was an old fashioned one-room structure with wooden bench seating.But I never had to sit down because family was waiting for me, and that is what the train ride was really all about. 
Next week, I get to do it all again, in reverse.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the California Zephyr - Dispatch #4

The Lakeshore Limited arrived 2 hours late to Chicago (all that stopping in the middle of the night), but luckily my layover was long enough to not create a rush. I got my 43-pound checked bag back, as there is no checked baggage for the short trip to Mount Pleasant. This is something important to remember, as it means you have to wrangle your suitcase through the train station and onto the train. I spent my layover time wandering around Union Station and taking photos of the classic, historic architecture.
Much of it had recently been repaired after an unfortunate incident in 2016 when a train passenger was hit in the head by falling concrete that fractured her skull.
Depending on what train you are leaving on, waiting passengers are asked to sit on specified areas, i.e., A, B, C, D, etc. My train was in the C group, and 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, we were called to line up, just like you do in the airport.  However, after lining up, we had to walk all the way across to the other side of the station — something I expected that mature people with tickets for guaranteed seats would do in an orderly fashion. This, unfortunately, did not happen. 
As we approached the platform area, people began walking faster and faster. Some people began passing others who were ahead of them in the line. Once our tickets were scanned and the line proceeded to the platform things became even more disorderly.
The train stretched out for quite some distance, and the conductors instructed that all coach passengers (which we all were, since sleepers and business class get boarded first) had to proceed waaaay down the platform. (Describing the platform is also important to the rest of the story.) The platform is concrete, with tracks on both sides. Huge concrete pillars run down the center of the platform. From each trackside edge to about halfway across to the pillars is a bright yellow, bumpy covering of some type, presumably to caution people from walking there. However, if you are going to your train with one very large suitcase, and one small suitcase, it is pretty impossible to stay on the smooth concrete. In addition, at this point, anything resembling an orderly line breaks down. People rush past on the left side, on the right side, around the columns. Some are running. If someone stops to ask a conductor a question it creates a bottleneck with people careening to a stop, or bolting past.  
I was ridiculously trying to maintain my place in line as the crowd just surged around me. One of the wheels of my big suitcase got caught in the yellow plating material; it fell over and pulled me and my other suitcase down with it.  I fell flat on my face — actually my elbow and knee  —and slid a little bit on that skin-ripping surface. Not a single person stopped to help me, and I pulled myself back onto my feet as quickly as I could, despite the pain, because I really thought I was going to be trampled. This was probably one of the most disappointing moments of my life. (I rarely pull rank, but damn, I AM 62 years old) No one even bothered to tell a conductor, hey, a lady fell down back there, I’m in too much of a hurry to help her, but maybe you should.
When I finally limped down to the coach car assigned to my destination, it was really empty. I just don’t know where all those people were rushing to, whether it was for window seats or some other preference. However, this train is double decker, with great views from a regular seat, and then the famous sightseeing car with glass walls and ceiling, swivel armchairs, and tables with seating.
After I climbed up the steps and took a seat — a window seat — I stopped a passing Amtrak employee, showed him my bloody knee and asked for both first aid materials and an incident report. An ice pack would be especially nice, I told him. He found some Band-Aids and some alcohol wipes (OUCHIE!) for me, and told me the conductor for my car would return shortly to assist me.
The conductor was a lovely woman, and she was very concerned, even offering to get me off the train for medical care. I assured her that I didn’t need that, but in light of the fact that things always hurt worse the next day, I really wanted some ice and a report form. She supplied me with both. I was surprised that the first aid materials were so sparse on the train. She had to bring me a plastic cup with ice in it, and eventually got me a plastic trash bag to put the ice in. It was a bit leaky, but the quick application of ice did provide pain relief and kept down the swelling. I put the footrest up at my seat, took some acetaminophen, cleaned out the abrasions, and tried to relax.  It was going to be a 5 hour trip to Mount Pleasant and I didn’t want to be a bloody, limping mess when I got off the train and greeted my family.
More in the next dispatch.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lakeshore Limited - Dispatch #3

Good morning Ohio! It was an interesting night aboard the Lake Shore Limited. I had a reservation for dinner at 8:15 and arrived at the dining car to find there were no seats available. Those of us who had reservations were asked to stand in the “vestibule” of the train to wait for seating. The “vestibule” is a fancy word for that no man’s land between train cars. Feeling uncomfortable and usafe, we decided to wait in the car immediately in front of the dining car instead. We heard someone say that the dining car closed at 9, and I said, half-jokingly “I hope we don’t stand here until 9 and then get told it’s closed.” This infuriated someone behind me in line so much that she went back into the dining car and complained enough that she was given immediate seating. That didn’t sit well with those of us left out in the vestibule who were ahead of her in the line.

Eventually I was seated, joining a dad and his son at a table where they were already eating. The fun discussion with young Nick about his trip to New York City was thoroughly delightful. We talked about the statue of Balto in Central Park, dinosaurs, animal rescue and dogs. It was the highlight of the evening.

I then returned to my seat to settle in for the night. I had purchased a comfort kit for $10, which included a blanket, blow up neck pillow, earplugs and an eye mask. I noticed that more experienced travelers had brought full size pillows and blankets with them. Good thing to remember next time around.

The seat has plenty of leg room, and there is a foot rest that comes up. Too bad there are not instructions at the seat to show you how to operate it. Eventually, I stopped fooling around with the stick-shift-looking knob and just pulled it up by hand.

The car was quiet, but for those who need complete dark to sleep, I highly recommend the eye mask, as the center row of light on the ceiling stay on. Bringing your own blanket is a good idea also, as the Amtrak blanket is way too small, and the car gets really chilly. I was glad to have an empty seat next to me so I could eventually curl up across the two seats. For some reason, my legs were just restless and I had a hard time getting comfortable. 

I apologize to my fellow passengers who were serenaded to “Baby Shark” at 7:15 am. I forgot to turn off my workday wake up alarm. I turned it off pretty quickly. A few minutes later, though, everyone forgot about my alarm when a the “Dining Car Open for Breakfast” announcement blasted over the PA system. Apparently there are only two settings on that system — earsplitting and unintelligible.

The train seemed to stop on the tracks several times during the night —and this morning we were crawling along at a snail’s pace for quite some time. We are finally zipping past foggy fields of corn and other crops as the sun tries to break through. I’ve got my coffee and a protein bar and the internet came up and allowed me to post my first two dispatches. 
Even with some of the glitches, this has been a fun experience. Good thing, because I have to do it again for my return trip.