Do you know what I’ve discovered? There is a terrorist group that has yet to be detected in our midst. It was fantastic that we got Osama bin Laden and that al-Qa’ida is reportedly collapsing, but somebody better start paying attention to the next up-and-coming terrorist unit growing right here in the good ol’ US of A: 75 million Baby Boomers with driver’s licenses twenty to thirty years from now! By 2030, 40 million Baby Boomers will be 80 years old and counting. I know this because my husband and I are members of that group and we have inside intelligence about them — Be afraid; be very afraid!
First of all, as a baby-boomer driver, I am personally physically shrinking. I’ve never been taller than five feet tall, but the last time I went to the doctor, I was 4’9”. He said it is part of the aging process which is really sad. I’ve barely been able to see over the steering wheel of a car most of my driving life as it is. Shortly (no pun intended) I’ll be looking through the steering wheel. To add insult to injury, where I grew up, there was no such thing as a driver’s education course, because few of us owned cars. And if you didn’t have parents to teach you how to drive (which I didn’t), you simply got behind the wheel of your first car, said “How hard could this shit be?” and took off. If you didn’t run over your neighbors or their dogs during the first six months, you were good to go. There are still some things I’m just learning about driving and it’s been forty-four years. My husband (WW) did take driver’s education and is an excellent driver, but he drives like a bat out of Hell. But he hasn’t been able to read the newspaper without bifocals for years, and his eyesight is getting worse. Can you imagine the two of us driving at ninety years old — the blind leading the short?
I believe that our government has about 10 years to come up with a solution for the aging boomer drivers if we want to maintain some type of dignity and independence before our kids are forced to take away our car keys. So I decided to experiment with a system for road trips while WW and I were still in control and could choose how we wanted to roll: eco-friendly, stress-relieving, picturesque trains.
WW was not thrilled with my idea because he says he’s never going to get too old to drive on road trips and our kids better keep their paws off his keys.
“Besides, I am an international adventurer and a man of action,” explained my husband. “I need to get from
point A to point B via the shortest route possible and by the fastest method possible. The thought of moseying across the country on a train at the speed of a tortoise makes me physically ill. I’ll never be that old!”
I, on the other hand, am a born romantic and a voracious reader and when I thought about train travel, I saw the Orient Express meandering along scenic waterways, sparkling waterfalls, and winding trails
through forests and quaint towns. I saw a bygone era of luxury travel whose time needed to be reclaimed.
I knew if I was going to sell this train thing as a lifetime alternative to my husband, I’d have to do a near-perfect sample trip. I’d have to pick an ideal time and occasion and make it a trip to remember. The journey was supposed to take only six hours and the destination was a renovated ultra-luxurious
resort that WW was looking forward to experiencing for his birthday. Everything had to be perfect. Instead of the regular seats where rude cell phone chatterers monopolized the air, children ran the aisles, and only one bathroom serviced the entire car, I paid for a full sleeper car so that we could have our own compartment with an attending porter and a private bathroom. I packed a bottle of champagne, a magnetic backgammon set, a couple of good books, and a portable DVD player replete with the movie: Murder on the Orient Express.
Well, guess what? Amtrak trains are no Orient Express! Pictures of the Orient Express feature immaculate cherry-wood paneling with gold fixtures and crystal chandeliers, expensive upholstered couches with
a baby-grand piano in the bar, and a dining room that looks like a five-star restaurant. I have been told that the Orient Express is spotless and the service is impeccable. Our train, on the other hand, was made of molded plastic and grayish worn material, was old and outdated, and looked and sounded as if it were in need of not a few repairs. Our “deluxe” compartment had grimy dust in the corners a quarter-inch thick, a bathroom door with a broken latch, no toilet paper, a pungent smell (combination of urine and disinfectant), and an attendant who could have cared less. The train seemed to stop every other minute to allow the one-hundred-car-freight-trains to pass, because apparently they own the tracks and have first “right of way.”
The second clue that I wasn’t getting the “ideal” but would have to deal with the “real” was when I had to go to the bathroom and the door wouldn’t stay shut. IMP. NOTE: I don’t sit down on public toilets because they are just plain nasty (I squat), and I don’t go to the bathroom in front of my husband even though we’ve been married 32 years. (There are some things that are private and should always remain private.) So I asked WW to hold the door closed with his foot while I tried to pee standing up in a coffin-sized bathroom/shower (yep — one and the same).
Imagine WW’s surprise when the train screeched to a sudden violent stop, knocking him against the wall and his foot off the door. Imagine my surprise when I came flying out of the bathroom, pants down, “hoo-hoo” exposed as I slammed against the window when the train crawled past a group of people along our route, and the startled people tried to figure out just what in the hell they were looking at. Fortunately, WW quickly realized what was happening and closed the curtains. As I pulled up my pants, I started reciting my favorite mantra that I use to gain back my sense of composure when in I’m in one of my Bridget Jones moments: “These people don’t know me, they don’t know my name; they don’t know where I live, and I’ll never see them again as long as I live. These people don’t know me. . . .”
After calming me down, WW suggested we watch the movie I’d brought so that “we can at least pretend
our train ride is luxurious.” I was on the verge of tears when we snuggled together on the hard-as-a-rock day bed/couch and sipped champagne watching Hercule Poirot work his magic. This was nothing like the idyllic train ride on the Orient Express that I had imagined, and it was going to get worse.
At the exact moment in the movie when the Orient Express comes to a sudden stop due to an impassable mountain of snow on the tracks, our train came to a screeching halt as well. As the passengers rushed to the dining room to find out the scoop, we were told that a cargo train had jumped the tracks ahead of us as it was ascending the mountain on ice-covered tracks, and it could take hours before the cargo train in front of us might be set aright. The waiters became overly conciliatory and announced that they would love to serve us dinner while we waited — but — it would have to be packaged sandwiches (mostly ham) and chips instead of the 3-course hot meal we paid for because all the water had leaked out through an undetected hole in the pipes. The ham sandwiches were not a solution for the celiac-diseased person — me — and the Jews on board who had ordered kosher meals. Interestingly, the gluten-free and kosher meals had turned out to be one and the same on the menu.
Three hours later after the sun had gone down and the outside temperature dipped to around thirty degrees, several hundred people were instructed to get off the train and walk down a steep slope with their entire luggage into a one-horse town that had nothing open but a gluten-filled sleazy diner and a gas station. Our
fellow passengers ranged from a famous movie critic who kept saying, “Are we there yet?” (which was funny the first ten times but grounds for murder after the fiftieth time), to an elderly lady who had just had open-heart surgery and couldn’t walk very far (she thought the train would be easier on her than going by plane), to a former homeless woman carrying everything she owned in eight shopping bags (I guess some habits die hard), to an elderly man with an oxygen tank in a wheel chair.
The passengers behaved in a fabulous manner and rose to the occasion. Several men helped the porters
carry the heart patient, several women helped the bag lady with all her stuff with gentleness and grace, and several people took turns pushing the man in the wheel chair to the town square where they stayed with him until his family drove in to rescue him. After a lot of “who’s on first, what’s on second” Keystone cops shenanigans amongst the Amtrak staff and their central headquarters, coupled with a growing sense of mob rule in the absence of strong staff leadership, a bigger-than-life Amtrak conductor came strolling out of the mist like a god rising from the earth. The conductor was tall, in his sixties, slightly graying at the temples, and he carried himself with a stateliness and calmness that settled on the passengers like a favorite blanket and our most lovable teddy bear. He was Colin Powell in the skin of a white man! He had come to us from the train that was stopped on the other side of the wreck that couldn’t come down the mountain and he had brought busses with him — lots and lots of buses, carrying the passengers from his train. He switched our groups and transported my group up through the mountain and around the wreck to his train. Then the conductor ordered that we be served a hot meal and turned his train toward our destination, while my original train turned back down the mountain with the swapped passengers who were as relieved as we were.
All in all, a train ride that should have taken six hours took fourteen hours (we could have driven it in five hours and flown it in one hour). We lost a full night’s reservation at a five-star resort, and I got “glutened” from the food on the first train and had diarrhea for 24 hours. I twisted both ankles and they swelled up to four times their normal size. The heels on my new leather boots were destroyed from disembarking from the train on a gravelly hill and traversing cobblestone streets to the buses. Not to mention the fact that Amtrak had the nerve to delete my 4,000 hard-earned “frequent rider points” from my account a week later due to “lack of ridership.” But WW and I had the time of our lives (we’re still laughing about my “hoo-hoo” plastered against the train window), and we met some really nice, interesting people.
Unfortunately, except for short commuter runs from DC to New York City WW has sworn off trains for life! I
guess the fallout could have been worse: The Orient Express movie by Agatha Christie featured a murder during its journey. I may have had the “real” rather than the “ideal,” but at least I didn’t kill anybody —
although I came awfully close to doing so with the famous film critic.
I’ve been thinking about that train ride a lot lately and what it was supposed to accomplish and didn’t. I’ve discovered that everything in life has an “ideal” – especially if you’re a dreamer like I am. And living in the “real” can be awfully wearing on the soul because few things ever match up to the “ideal.” But I don’t think
we’re supposed to stop reaching for the “ideal” in life because it gives us hope, it stretches us beyond our natural limitations, and every once in a while it makes us heroes (Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”), Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, Wangari Muta Maathai, Ryan White, firefighters around the world, and American soldiers who fight in less than ideal places for very real causes like freedom and liberty – just to name a few).
“Let me have too deep a sense of humor to ever be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act
absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your
consideration. Amen.” Daniel A. Lord, SJ (1888 – 1955)
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by Eleanor and John Tomczyk © 2011
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