Taking the Auto Train

auto train signIt is oh so cold and we are in sore need of some warm weather. It is only January and I’m wondering how I can ever survive the rest of the winter. Fortunately, we have neighbors who are snowbirds and who have a lovely place in Florida (land of the forever warm) who graciously invited us down to visit this cold snowy winter. If ever there was a reason to stay in good with your neighbors, it is winter in Maryland. So just about three weeks ago, we loaded up the Scooterbug (aka our car) and headed to Lorton, Virginia to the Amtrak AutoTrain station.

This would be our first trip to Florida on the auto train so we were a bit skeptical and I, for one, was a bit excited. It should be fun – an adventure – but it takes a long time and costs a pretty penny and I’m wondering about the size of those little roomettes that do not look so roomy in the diagrams on the website.  We had compared prices with the airlines and rental car agencies and the train came out pretty good considering the prices for flights and rental cars these days.  It would be good to have our own car and be able to pack summer clothes and binoculars and backpacks and cameras for birding in the car and not have to lug it all along with our winter coats on a plane. Besides, even if the roomettes are small, you can sleep anywhere for one night, right?

lorton stationWe arrived at the station early or so we thought.  The waiting area was already full to busting with folks just like us who couldn’t wait to get out of this cold miserable weather and down to sweet sunny Florida. But the sooner you get there to check in, the sooner you get your dinner time slot. You see, I didn’t know all these nuances to traveling by auto train before. There are things to consider that the old-timers know about that will make your trip smoother.  Seems there are three dinner times on the train – 5:00 PM, 7:00 PM, and 9:00 PM – and it seems like everyone wants the 7:00 PM time slot. We didn’t get there in time for that but we did manage to get a 5:00 PM reservation so at least we wouldn’t be eating so late as to miss the free movie in the lounge car…..that is, if we could find the lounge car and find an available seat in time to actually see the movie.

But getting to the station earlier means you have to spend more time in the waiting room because the train absolutely does not leave before 4:00 PM.  You can do the math – if you get there before noon, you’ve got about 4 hours to spend wandering around the waiting area watching the automobiles being loaded onto the vehicle carriers or sitting on those nice cold metal waiting room chairs pretending to read or trying to nap.  But all too soon we were on the train and the locomotive was headed out of the station pulling some 43 train cars, about 200 people and maybe 100 or so automobiles including motorcycles.

One last bit of information about the auto train. If you pay extra to get a roomette or one of the other sleepers, you get the pleasure of eating in the dining car with cloth linens and glass wine glasses and real breakable plates. I wouldn’t go so far as to say china or stemware but they were train quality plates and cups and glasses.  A more experienced rider told me that the people who opted to go “coach” and sit up all night in the regular train seats had a separate dining car where it was all paper plates and plastic cups.  I’m just telling you this so you will know what all that extra value was when you pay extra to sleep in a closet on a two inch pad in a tiny berth with no headroom the pursers affectionately call “the coffin”.

frozen potomacSoon we were chugging along enjoying the scenery along the Potomac River flowing down through southern Virginia. And soon, I was thinking about more things than the size of the roomette (which was very small) and whether or not we’d be able to get any sleep at all in the little berths (which turned out to be okay but, no, we didn’t get much sleep that night).   I found myself wondering about those old rusted cars and trucks you see in the woods down by the railroad track. There doesn’t seem to be any roads to those areas or even hiking trails but there always seems to be an old rusted abandoned vehicle or two down by the tracks somewhere. How do they (whoever dumps them) get them down there? And, why do people feel the need to abandon cars down by the railroad track as opposed to, say, dumping them off the Interstate? You don’t suppose one just bounced right out of the back of an auto train and ended up in the woods where no tow truck could get to it, now do you?  Nah, probably not but it still leaves me wondering.

frozen riverBut the railroad tracks seem to be the ideal place to dump things – the place to abandon broken and dead things that no longer fit in the modern world.  As we moved along, we mostly got to see the back side of each town down by the tracks…..not the pretty parts you see in tourist guides and on post cards.

factoryold factoryIn the early days when the country was settled, people first built their towns by the rivers and canals since the rivers brought boats and goods and commerce to the outlying areas. Then, the railroads came through and they were faster and better and the land down by the tracks (sometimes right alongside the rivers) became the very best place to build your towns and main streets. Then, finally, automobiles and trucks became the way to go and interstate highways bypassed the towns with their narrow streets and crowded storefronts.  The railroad stations and the businesses and homes down by the tracks sort of got bypassed too.  What was left became mostly industrial – factories and huge warehouses – and the underpinnings of the town and its commerce were all abandoned down by the tracks.

graffitiBut the trains still run day and night still moving people and goods but no one pays them much attention unless they have tires to dump or a pressing need to fill the walls and trestles with graffiti.  Have you ever noticed that it always seems to be tires and mattresses and old cars that seem to get dumped the most? The main streets that used to bustle with stores and cafes and people buying and selling and lingering over coffee now seemed to be boarded up and deserted. But the train whistle still blows and the crossing guard’s lights still flash red and the few cars that go through town still slow down and stop to watch the train slowly rumble on by.

And there are tracks snaking off in different directions. Some are tidy and obviously still in use heading out to parts unknown connecting towns and cities to the main line. But other tracks are weedy and overgrown, their destinations long gone and forgotten.  What happened to all the people who needed to take the train to the next town down the line? They all bought automobiles and drive the Interstate now, I suppose.

James RiverBut it was not all so provocative or sad. There are forests and wetlands and farms and lakes and rivers and houses.  And where there is water and there are forests, there are birds.  In Virginia, the ponds were frozen and the rivers wore an edging of frosting around a skim of glassy ice.  Where there was open water, the Canada Geese and American Coots and Double-Crested Cormorants seemed to congregate. The Cormorants and Coots had gathered by the hundreds in the cooling ponds at the Possum Point Power Plant.  And overhead there were hawks and eagles. We found ourselves trying to quickly count the birds as the train passed through each area.  We counted three bald eagles soaring over one stretch of river near Quantico Marine Base.

quantico 2As we passed further south, farms dotted the landscape with hay and grass adding gold to the evening view as the sun began its slow descent somewhere over in West Virginia.  I realized that for all the debris there, a whole lot of America lives and works down by those tracks. And there is a whole lot of beauty down there too.

house by the tracksAs evening turned into night, the views became more lonely and isolated with golden globe street lights casting a feeble beam down on to empty parking lots in seemingly deserted towns.   Since I found it difficult to sleep, I found myself watching these towns wondering about the people who still lived there.  I lay in the dark watching all these un-named towns flash by.  We passed one larger city with a good sized rail yard and I noticed a sole pick-up truck snaking through the yard between the trains. I was reminded that this country has a massive infrastructure that is supported by thousands of workers on a 24×7 basis who are up at all hours of the night making sure everything keeps humming along while the rest of us sleep unaware of what it takes to keep the country going. As the train rumbled on and the truck’s headlights faded into the darkness, I had another thought……..maybe, just maybe, that old truck was being driven by some ne’er do well come down by the tracks at 3:00 AM to dump another load of tires or, maybe something worse. All sorts of creepy ideas flashed through my mind at that point.

rr yardIn the morning, we wedged ourselves, sore and stiff, out of the tiny cots in the roomette.  Did I mention that I have closets at home bigger than these roomettes?

sleepetteBut even tinier than our room was the bathroom down the way which I calculated to be about the size of a high school locker.  I think it might have even been smaller than an airplane bathroom if that is even possible.  I do not think I need to say more about that situation.

The scenery was now all sunshine and sand. We were just south of Jacksonville, Florida and the terrain is all scrub-lands and pine trees with a few palms here and there.  This was the uncivilized Florida with cattle ranches bordered by swampy looking areas that might be filled with alligators and panthers and snakes…..nothing at all like the manicured golf courses and groomed parks where the civilized people go when they come to Florida that you see in travel brochures and on web-sites. Out here by the tracks, it is still old Florida and the birds are strange and tropical and wonderful – White Ibis’s and Snowy Egrets and Coots….hey, wait a minute, weren’t there Coots back up there where it was cold and everything was frozen?  Yep, the same……those guys seem to be all over the place this winter.

Sanford bridgeBut it was warm and we were nearing our destination at Sanford and, oh my, I could hardly wait to get out of this train and into the sunshine.  Okay, a cold front passed through and the first part of our stay turned out to be colder than we had imagined but that’s a whole ‘nother blog for tomorrow or the next.  For now, we had made it to Florida and the temperature was 80 degrees when we got off that train.  It took about an hour to get the car unloaded and then we were on our way. We were looking for some great birding and we were not going to be disappointed.