Bat on a Train

Trains Gather at Fort Worth

Trains Gather at Fort Worth

Trains that wind across North America take days … and nights.  But  they are “sociable”, and many tall tales are told in the dining cars and lounges.   Some have a ring of authenticity.

On the Texas Eagle, this guy came to lunch carrying a baseball bat.

“What’s with the bat?” I asked.

“Never leaves me on this trip,” he replied.  “They don’t like you taking bats on a plane.”

“So why not check it?”

“It’s worth too much.  Personally signed after a home run in Yankee Stadium.  Check the signature.”

There it was … Babe Ruth. I had to ask: “Is it real?”

“Sure is. 1927.  Got all the papers.   A guy in Chicago bought it for one-and-a-half million bucks.  I’m just the delivery guy, bringing it up from Little Rock, Arkansas.”

Actual Babe Ruth Bat

Actual Babe Ruth Bat

I asked tentatively, “Can I hold it?”

“Sure can,” and I did, in some awe.

Now Elaine is a tennis fan, and I have picked up some clues about that game.  But my spectator sport of choice is baseball, and in return, Elaine has learned the rules and now appreciates some of the nuances of the game.   “Can I hold it too?” she asked.   She was so allowed, and also impressed.

Then a lady from New York, whose accent resembled Edith Bunker’s also held it … and then dropped it.   For a few moments, only the train was audible.   “Don’t worry about it, lady,” said the guy, “if Babe Ruth couldn’t break it, nor can you.”

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

In Chicago I ran into the guy, and the bat, again.  This time outside Union Station, which is not perhaps the safest place in town.  “Hey, just the man,” he said, “hold the bat for a moment while I wave my ride over.”

One-and-a-half million dollars. “What do I do if someone tries to steal it?” I asked.

“Hit ‘em with the bat!   I’ll be right back.”

And, unfortunately, he was.

Then to Midway Airport and the whole security caper brought us back to the realities of flying.  Unpractised I tried to put on my shoes on before my belt.  My trousers descended and added an amusing note to the otherwise grim business.

The plane was an hour or so late, and we worried about getting into Toronto Island before they turn the lights out at 11 p.m.    But this was Porter Airlines, and the gate attendants joined the cabin crew to clean the plane in record time.   Then it was a fast climb, a high-speed cruise and a rapid descent with three minutes to spare.   Porter really goes the extra mile, and tries hard to overcome the now-familiar airport hassles.   The shuttle to the Royal York Hotel also helped, and we are now home for Christmas.

Which reminds me … from Elaine and myself:

Merry Christmas … and a Happy New Year

John

 

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Sand and Snow

Topsail Park Beach

Topsail Park Beach

There is a major difference between sand and snow.  It is not just the texture, but more the psychological effects that each induces.  As I write this, the snow is falling lightly but steadily on Fergus, and it has been cloudy and below freezing for over a week.  But we are still dreaming of the idyllic few weeks we spent in the South.

Lake at Grayton Beach Park

Lake at Grayton Beach Park

The Florida Panhandle is warm in October and November, and only in December does it start to show signs of winter.  By then we were actually in Alabama’s Gulf Shores, after three perfect weeks of sun in Florida’s State Parks.  The shells were sparse, but the sand and surf in this whole area run for miles, backed by dunes, small lakes and woods.

Grayton Park Beach

Grayton Park Beach

This area is very different from the Disney-like unreality of Orlando, and the endless concrete commerce of Clearwater and points south.  We did not see any alligators, bears or cougars, but there were rumours of all three.  We did see a couple of 8-foot sharks browsing in the shallows, but the water was too cool for swimming and no incidents made the TV news.

We did not!

We did not!

Besides the rural attractions of this area, there are still many tourist temptations, and we enjoyed some fresh seafood, with the “Happy Hour” oysters at $6 per dozen in Seaside.

We drove through the bottom of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and into Texas, were we park our truck and trailer in the little town of Taylor.

Taylor was properous - once

Not a Busy Station

Not a Busy Station

In earlier times it was cotton and railroads that made it prosperous, but the downtown has now fallen on hard times, and only the malls in the suburbs thrive.   Our friend James drove us to the two picnic tables that masquerade as a station and around the bend came the Texas Eagle, bound for Chicago.   The engineer obligingly stopped so that our sleeping car was opposite the tiny platform, and the Amtrak attendant asked: “John and Elaine?”    The very same, and we stepped into our private bedroom.  Later we contrasted this with the flight from Chicago to Toronto. While it takes a day-and-a-half for the rail part of our journey home, and the plane is faster, many of you will be familiar with the absence of fun at airports.

Let me tell you about the baseball bat.   On second thoughts, this is in the next posting, coming shortly.

John … and the ever-trusty editor, Elaine.

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Bad News, Good News – Chapter 3

First the Bad News.

Wales West is an unlikely name for a campground, especially in a rural area just north of Gulf Shores, Alabama.  The name made some sort of sense later.

Elaine pointed out that troubles come in threes, and this time it was a neighbour who pointed out that we had a problem.  The trailer had one soft tire, and another with a tread separation down to the metal.

Halloween at Wales West RV Park

Halloween at Wales West RV Park

More digging around and we finally found a tire place about 15 miles down the road that had the right tires.  We refused to let this spoil our enjoyment of the stay, and when we left this park we trundled down the back roads …  at 25 mph with the 4-way flashers going and an impressive following of angry locals.   In the end we settled for a deal for four new tires for $500, and sadly contemplated our bank balance yet again.

Spider on the railroad tracks

Spider on the railroad tracks

This is especially bad news, since I have so far failed to mention that this is the final time that Elaine and I are “on the road”.   We are getting a bit old to keep trundling over five tons of machinery over thousands of miles.  So, in the Spring, we plan to sell the truck and trailer, and join the more conventional “resort, cruise and hotel crowd”.    To put this in perspective, we are unlikely to see any extra dollars from new toilets, two new truck spark-plugs (six yet to blow out!), and new trailer tires.  Elaine says that the nice tires might “help the sale.”   She always was an optimist.

The Good News.

Station Entrance at Wales West

Station Entrance at Wales West

 Ken, the owner of this piece of rural land a long way from anywhere called Wales West is a railway enthusiast.  Some years ago, he applied to the bank for a loan to build a narrow gauge railway as a tourist attraction.  The bank manager had a good laugh, and said that if he were building an RV park or something, he might consider a loan, but a “garden railway” did not qualify.  Nothing daunted, Ken got the loan for a campground, and built an excellent facility.  He also built his railway around the extensive property.  This is a 2-foot gauge operation, similar to one in Wales, as well as a smaller gauge one that is diesel powered.

Train ready to leave

Train ready to leave

Being an ambitious chap he imported a real coal-fired steam locomotive which is a replica of the “Hunslet” model, used on mining operations in Wales and Cornwall.   Many of these were built in Leeds, not far from my dad’s and Elaine’s dad’s businesses there.

Coal fired - check the pollution!

Coal fired – check the pollution!

While the main objective was to allow Ken to drive trains around, he was clever enough to set the whole place out as a recreation facility for children of all ages and charge them for the fun.  We were there for Halloween, and there was a spectacular show.  Highlight was the mile-long journey through the woods on the train, stopping at a haunted house where the kids could decorate pumpkins and get thoroughly scared.  Even Elaine squeaked when the gorilla crept up behind her on the train.

"Dame Ann" ready to roll

“Dame Ann” ready to roll

These characters were played with enthusiasm by extrovert staff members, and I am always impressed when entertainment like this is produced and executed to well.  I am only sorry that I cannot include the inimitable smell of coal and hot steam that older folk may remember.   Apart from the scents, the steam whistles invoke much more nostalgia than those diesels.

If you want to see more of the Wales West railway, link to:

http://www.waleswest.com/railways.htm

A fun couple of days, and definitely different from the average run of RV parks.  We hope to be finished with the bad news for a while, and since Florida sun, beaches and oysters do not make for interesting reading, it may be a while before we add to the blog.   Maybe the train back to Chicago and/or the snowstorm of the century will add some excitement and motivate Chapter 4 of  “Bad News, Good News”

John, with Elaine approving without any edits!!

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Bad News, Good News — Chapter 2

First the Bad News.

We were looking at three days of peace, no driving, and perfect weather.  Bliss … but not to be.

On Day 2, Elaine heard a hissing noise in the bathroom, and made her own ominous, and not unfamiliar noise: “We have a problem, John.”

I sighed, and contemplated a thin jet of water emerging from the back of the toilet bowl.  Fortunately the input end, and not the output.  As an eternal optimist, I like to see if I can fix such problems, but this one was not in my skill set. We turned off the water, mopped up the flood and contemplated the future. No wi-fi, but our trusty “Trailer Life Directory” had a listing for an RV repair place in Tupelo.  The cell phone worked if you stood on the picnic table.

Hide your gun in Mississippi washrooms

Hide your gun in Mississippi washrooms

This meant hitching up, and driving 10 miles for a professional examination.  “Oh dear,” said the friendly repair guy, “this is not on the connector, so it cannot be fixed.   You will need a whole new toilet.”

Trace State Park is just beautiful.

Trace State Park is just beautiful.

A couple of hours, another $250 or so, and we trundled it all back to our park.  There is a strange synchronicity about this event.  Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley, who, you may recall, died at a relatively young age on a toilet.    Our toilet died in Tupelo.

After a quiet and restful day we drove the truck to the hiking trail terminus, and had a nice walk in the woods.   Looking forward to a fine dinner and glass of wine we climbed in the truck and turned the key.  Dead as a dodo.

Is this truck dead?

Is this truck dead?

Maybe a flat battery?   Our jumper cables were a mile away in the trailer.   But a friendly guy nearby had cables and a truck and we tried the age-old remedy.   Zero.   Back to the trailer courtesy of our new-found friend, and a call to our wonderful “Good Sam” emergency road service in Colorado.  “What time is it where you are?” he asked.     Of course it was just after 5.p.m. and a Friday evening, but just after dark the tow machinery arrived with huge lights and two tough-looking characters.   One maneuvered the tow truck and the other tried to start our truck … just in case.  For him, it started perfectly, and then several times, for me.

Lakes and Woods - an unbeatable combination.

Lakes and Woods – an unbeatable combination.

We could have followed through on the 10-mile tow, but I could imagine the hassle, and the dialog with the repair mechanic the next day.  “Nothing wrong, but we could change the starter, relays, cables and a few other pieces.  That could fix it.”   Indeed it is always hard to find a problem you cannot see.   So the tow truck guy was paid for a non-tow, and no charge to me since it was on the road service tab. It did nothing to help the day’s enjoyment.

Good News.

 

View from our camp site at Trace Park

View from our camp site at Trace Park

With the plumbing intact we settled down to enjoy the remaining time by the lake, always aware we could be spending many more days there if the truck did not want to start on a Sunday.   Picture perfect with warm sun and stunning scenery, and after the weekend the old truck rumbled to life and took us trouble free through Mobile, Alabama and down to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico as planned.

Almost in Florida, and now really warm and pleasant.  Our campground there was fascinating, though not without yet another problem.  But that’s for the next chapter in this eventful (and expensive) journey.  Stay tuned.

John – with input from Elaine

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Bad News, Good News – Chapter 1

Bad news is usually more interesting than good.  The rant probably does me good, while you can secretly rejoice because it did not happen to you.

Bad News:

Not much on the first part of our journey to revisit the Florida Panhandle, if you don’t count the dreary freeway drive which is the inevitable first part of a trip south.

We demolished the Canadian Thanksgiving turkey, said goodbye and left that week.   Pinery Provincial Park for the first stop saved us from having a morning rush.  Maybe we could take a couple of days to enjoy the Fall colours and a walk on the wonderful Lake Huron beach.

It rained, so we hustled south the next day.

This first part of the journey is always tiresome.  Largely on freeways infested with trucks, Michigan roads that always need work, and it rained.  With stops in Indiana and Kentucky the sun came out and we felt invincible  As we passed through Jackson, Tennessee, I observed that this was a good place for another spark plug to blow out, since we knew a good mechanic there who fixed one last Spring.

But we breezed through Tennessee and pulled off the ramp to the Mississippi “Welcome Center” in Corinth.   A huge explosion we had come to recognize, and indeed another plug had blown out.  Chugged the last few yards to the rest stop and contemplated our next move.

Good News:

After the devil had blown out the plug, an angel took over.  The Mississippi welcome lady directed us to an arena just over the road and established we could stay in their RV area.

Corinth arena - Nice view in one direction

Corinth arena – Nice view in one direction

We had this to ourselves, and it was only a big patch of gravel, with a view of the woods on one side and the back of the arena on the other.  But it had a 30-amp plug-in and water tap, and we could stay the night.  Zero security, but we are natural optimists.

Corinth - Rough gravel and bad view to the west

Corinth – Rough gravel and bad view to the west

The marvelous welcome lady’s husband was a mechanic, just half a mile away, and he had the kit to re-thread the cylinder head and put in a new plug and coil.   Reasonably priced and by lunchtime next day, a little poorer, we were on our way south to the Trace State Park near Tupelo.

Trace Park - quiet and restful

Trace Park – quiet and restful

Three quiet and warm days with a wonderful spot right on a lake, and the weather warm enough for us to sit out and enjoy the passing herons and other wildlife.

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This is not our trailer!!

This is not our trailer!!

We knew we were in the South when we saw the neighbour’s flags, but we were wise enough not to engage in any political discussion.   “Which side were you on?” they ask.   The diplomatic answer is: “We are Canadians and did not join in.”  This is not strictly true, since some Canadians helped out on both sides, driven by a mixture of political conviction and financial interest.  But one avoids long discussions on these matters … even more so on the Revolutionary War!!

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More bad news and good news coming next.

John, with the usual help from Elaine.

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Trace Park is exceptionally beautiful

Trace Park is exceptionally beautiful

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Florida versus Texas

This is “old news”, but I had a lack of pictures, and was distracted by summer pursuits.  Essentially it was written in the early part of 2013, and included in the interests of continuity.   The general plan is to assemble a “history” of our many years on the road … in chronological order … editing out the boring bits and general rubbish.  Like all projects it may not come to fruition, but it all starts with ambition.

I have started to chronicle some of our wanderings in this Fall of 2013, and will post these as soon as I can.  As always we are plagued with a lack of high speed internet, and an old and cranky notebook.

OK – Florida vs. Texas.

De Soto Park Woods

De Soto Park Woods

We have discovered on our travels that we are “in a minority”.   Not “right” or “wrong”, and not even “odd”, though this is arguable!   Likely it is our background: we are basically urbanites, who have always welcomed the opportunity to visit wide-open spaces, rather than other cities.   Fortunately both of us have this preference, and in fact our excursions prior to our marriage were in some pretty rugged rural landscapes.   Another point of “difference” is that we are not avid TV watchers.  This is likely related to my being in the TV racket for many years, where watching was paid work, and became a mite tedious.

Egmont Key Beach

Egmont Key Beach

Ah yes, but what about the beaches?  Definitely a plus for Florida, and we have been fortunate to visit some of the very best of these.  But a beach is a beach, and if you look out to sea on Padre Island, Texas, the feeling, view, and saltwater tang is the same as on the outer beaches of Florida.   But if you like crisp, dry, desert air, you won’t find this anywhere in Florida, and you will notice a great lack of hills.  In Texas there is a lot of desert and some pretty impressive mountains.

Non-energetic Florida

Non-energetic Florida

I was coerced into a couple of months in Florida for the 2013 winter, though Elaine says this is too strong a word.  OK … I agree to being out-voted, or maybe my love for the grandchildren persuaded me to come this way.  I said I would do so “with an open mind”.   And I think I have.   In fact we have had an interesting and enjoyable visit, in spite of some persistent coughs which may or may not be related to the high humidity.

Hard exercise on the beach

Hard exercise on the beach

Unlike the usual entry via I-75, we tiptoed in from Texas via the Florida “Panhandle”.  Pensacola, Destin, Panama City and round the corner into the southern part of the State.    Scenic, and surprisingly rural in places, with excellent State Parks and spectacular and quiet beaches.  This part of Florida can be cool in February, but we hit a warm patch and it was just fine.   The St. Joseph Peninsula was magical … until the fog and rain arrived to see us on our way!   Some of the little towns on that coast have charm, but the one we really liked proved enormously expensive.  Such is life!

Alex and Keldan at Universal Studios

Alex and K. at Universal Studios

Orlando is big and busy, but mandatory for the “Harry Potter” events which were the priority for the family.   Maybe it was the Potter wand, but we lucked out with a city park just ten minutes from Universal Studios.  Quiet, pleasant and inexpensive.  Who would have believed it?  Louise, Alexandra and K. had a great time, and, after all, this is the most important thing of all.

On the downside is the driving and traffic.   Not quite as bad as Toronto, but close.   Orlando to Clearwater is similar to a drive on the 401 on a holiday weekend.    We spent two weeks in Clearwater at “The Closest RV Resort to the Beach”.  Excellent facilities, but to reach the ocean there are over seven miles of traffic lights.  This is similar to taking Eglinton Avenue from Etibicoke to Scarborough.  In fairness, when you finally reach Clearwater Beach, it is somewhat more scenic than Scarborough.

Alex with Tarpon Springs Sponge

Alex with Tarpon Springs Sponge

As always, you have to seek out the better spots.  Louise “found” Tarpon Springs with its lively Greek community (and food), and some persistent searching of the net found Fort De Soto, where we spent a week camping close to one of the best beaches in the U.S.A. (this according to “Trip Advisor”, and I would agree).  One most enjoyable day was to Honeymoon Island State Park, and then the ferry to Caladesi Island.

Gopher Tortoise on Honeymoon Island

Gopher Tortoise on Honeymoon Island

Ponderous gopher tortoises were fairly common on the outer islands, and were obliging for photographs.

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Ospreys on Honeymoon Island

Ospreys on Honeymoon Island

Numerous ospreys and other birds roosted in the trees,  and then the highlight as the ferry captain diverted to frolic with the dophins.  (These are difficult to photograph!)

We had a few cool days, but this was because we decided to forego travel further south to Port Charlotte or even down to Key West.  One can travel only so far on a tank of gas!

The Blue Jays lost one of the Spring Training games we saw, but we did beat the local Tampa Bay Rays in the other, and cheered mightily for our home runs.   Meaningless games perhaps, but the intimacy of a small stadium and excellent seats without paying a ransom made for a couple of fun afternoons.

Gulf of Mexico fun

Gulf of Mexico fun

Flowers, beaches, food and fun are Florida staples, and this was a good mixture.   But endless strip malls, subdivisions and intersections made us yearn for the open roads of Texas, with mountains beckoning in the distance.   Many continuous days of sunshine and dry weather are also on the Texas plus side, at least in the west.   Did I mention the cost?  Texas is further, but cheaper when you get there, but wherever we go, the usual rule applies:  if we cannot afford it, we will stay home!

Next year (later this year) … who knows?   So long as we escape the snow and cold for a while, we are thankful we are still holding together, and that our buckets of bolts disguised as a truck and trailer do likewise.

John, with the usual edits by Elaine.

Some of the pictures are courtesy of the Simos family, who have a better camera than ours.

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North American Trains

We traveled to Canada and back to Texas and had a good holiday season.  Our truck and trailer were OK when we returned to the southern warmth, and we are now journeying through bits of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, on our way to Florida.   No more details, since I am resolved to minimize the “travelogue” stuff –unless something dramatic or funny happens.

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Taylor,TX - not a huge station

Taylor,TX – not a huge station

We went to Canada and back by train, and that’s what this posting is about.   If you don’t like trains, or are  bored by them, don’t read any further.

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Texas Eagle arriving at Taylor, TX

Texas Eagle arriving at Taylor, TX

Why did I write it?

–some folk did not know that the USA and Canada still have some long-distance passenger trains.  Even my well-travelled cousin Robert expressed surprise.

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Texas Eagle at Taylor,TX - Ready to roll to Chicago

Texas Eagle at Taylor,TX – Ready to roll to Chicago

–an amazing number of people in North America have never travelled on a train, except perhaps an urban “underground”;

–a lot of people really like trains, and can be illogical about them.

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Texas Eagle at Fort Worth,TX

Texas Eagle at Fort Worth,TX

OK — cars are convenient.  But driven for thousands of miles, cars  turn into prisons … ones without any toilet facilities.   All driving is hazardous and irksome, and exceptionally so in winter, when mountains can pose an impassable barrier.  Busy people fly, enduring endless security checks and line-ups. Then they sit in yoga-like positions trapped in a cigar tube.  Winter flying is just like driving.  “Whadya mean, Chicago is closed?”   This is all before your luggage goes elsewhere.  Even in the  “good old days”, they still lost the bags!

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Dallas-Fort Worth Commuter Train

Dallas-Fort Worth Commuter Train

Buses are not part of my “cultural heritage”.  They are my transportation of last resort, and I still think nasty thoughts about school buses.

Dallas has "light rail" local trains

Dallas has “light rail” local trains

Most travel is little or no fun, but increasingly I look at the “hassle-factor”, and when friends ask, incredulously, why we take the  Amtrak train to come home from Texas, I point out that we start ten minutes from Taylor, Texas, and travel to Fergus, Ontario, twenty minutes from home.

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We take the Bluewater between Chicago and the Canadian border

We take the Bluewater between Chicago and the Canadian border

If we fly, the beginning and end of the journey needs expensive and tedious taxis or mini-buses.   In fact we would need to wake up at 3.a.m. and arrive home after midnight.  Two plane changes and three pat-downs for Elaine –because the metal in her knees always excites the security alarms.

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Crew change in Battle Creek, MI

Crew change in Battle Creek, MI

The key to acceptable long-distance train travel is a “sleeper”, and we spring for the private cabin rather than the cheaper bunks along the corridors.  Not always appreciated is that Amtrak sleeper fare includes all meals, and use of the executive lounge at large stations like Chicago.   I am not going to detail what facilities you get, since Amtrak (and Via Rail in Canada) have web-sites that show you all the details.

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Union Pacific freight at Taylor,TX

Union Pacific freight at Taylor,TX

North American trains travel relatively slowly, usually on single tracks shared with enormous freight trains.  Lots of stops in sidings to deal with “meets” when something comes the other way.  But what does it matter?  The sleeper cabins have a sofa for a snooze, the observation lounge has a view and a bar, and you share tables with often-interesting characters in the dining car.  Having nothing to do for a couple of days has its points.  I appreciate that we can get to the station just a few minutes before departure and then relax.

Museum Piece in Temple, TX

Museum Piece in Temple, TX

As an editorial comment, the Canadian trans-continental train has better food and accommodation, but most of the Amtrak trains are two-story “super-liners”, and are OK.  The US East Coast has different trains, which often go faster, but we have not been on these as yet.

The Bluewater is a single level "regular train"

The Bluewater is a single level “regular train”

Regrettably the direct Chicago-Toronto train has ceased, so there is a minor hassle getting over the border and into the other country’s train.  It all needs a bit of planning, but it has worked well for us.  You still have to plan when you travel by air or road, but such plans go awry more often.

Coming into St. Louis over the Mississippi

Coming into St. Louis over the Mississippi

People ask “how much does it cost?”.    The key here is to factor in all the charges and taxes, plus the ground transportation at both ends, not forgetting hotels and meals if needed.  We find the train comparable, but the real question is how much is it worth to extend your life?  Start by removing some of the anger and frustration when you travel.

Texas Eagle at Fort Worth,TX

Texas Eagle at Fort Worth,TX

One final point:  we do get to see the country as we pass through it.  It varies from beautiful to ugly, but even the ugly bits are sometimes interesting.  Then, as night falls in Texarkana, Texas, we enjoy our steak dinner, and settle down to sleep through Arkansas.  When we awake, the dawn brightens over the Mississippi as we coast into St. Louis, Missouri … and a good breakfast!   The other way we go to dinner and sleep after St. Louis, and wake up in Texas.

Maybe my next entry in this blog will be of more general interest … I will try!

Minimal input from Elaine this time, who is not as interested in trains, but sure hates those airport pat-downs!

John

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