Sunday, August 11, 2013

One-way ticket on the midnight train

When I planned my trip out to Colorado to deliver the car to my brother, I had another goal in mind for this trip as well – to finally meet in-person one of my co-bloggers on the vegan blog and Facebook page we run together, Vegan Vagabonds.

While Evelyn and I had met up a few times last year, I had yet to meet Tessa in-person.  So, when Evelyn told me Tessa was planning a visit to Colorado near the same time I’d be there, I knew I just had to make a slight detour to surprise her (and a good excuse to finally see Evelyn’s home town of Manitou Springs as well!).

I recently did a blog post about that reunion on the Vegan Vagabonds site, so I won’t repeat that all again here, but the post did elude to some travel near-catastrophes and delays as I started my one-way trip back to Chicago.

When originally making my travel plans, my first thought was to book a flight on Southwest out of Denver, as they always seem to have the best prices, particularly on one-way tickets.   Looking at transportation options to get to DIA from Colorado Springs, there also seemed to be a few good shuttle bus companies to choose from with a number of daily luxury buses to choose from.

But, to get home at a reasonable hour, I would have had to leave Colorado Springs very early in the morning, and I hated to impose on my hosts to wake up so early to drive me to the bus.   So, that’s when I got the bright idea to take the train back to Chicago instead!

Rather than leave at the crack of dawn, I could leave late afternoon the day before and make it home about the same time as the jam-packed airline travel day.  Yes, I’d have to cut my visit a few hours shorter, but most of that time would have been sleeping anyway.  Besides, I’d never taken an overnight train before, so this would be a new “adventure” for me….and, indeed, it was!

I started to feel a tinge of regret the minute Evelyn dropped me off at the bus station in downtown Colorado Springs.  This was not the nice, small, gathering of yuppies waiting for their airport shuttle bus…this was Greyhound in all it’s seedy, miserable glory!  Would it live up to it’s reputation?

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I scuttled my bags up the stairs past a homeless guy (check!), made my way up to the counter to the young clerk in training who seemed to have never seen an Amtrak-issued bus ticket before (check!) and had to ask the older, jaded clerk to help him (check!).   Finally, after the 2 clerks punched all the right keys to generate a new Greyhound ticket (to cover the Amtrak ticket) and got my bag checked in and tagged, the older clerk said “don’t forget to tell her about the delay”.  Say what????

“Oh yeah,” the trainee clerk said, “your bus is running about an hour and a half late.” (JACKPOT! We have a winner!!!)

It didn’t really hit me until I sat down and started calculating this new information.  Knowing that there was road construction between here and Denver, I knew the trip would likely take longer than normal, and “normal” was now supposedly getting me there just 5 minutes before my train was to leave!

Seeing that this was not a bus just dedicated to shuttling passengers to Amtrak, but a regular Greyhound bus route, I thought I’d better check if the train station would be the first stop once we left.  So, back up to the counter I went to play another round of “customer service roulette” with the nitwit and his mean mentor.  Of course, the nitwit clerk said “that’s a good question” and did not know the answer, and equally expected, the mean old mentor said, curtly, “anyone’s guess…it’s up to the driver to determine the stops.” 

Feeling increasingly like I’d be dropped off to a deserted train station in the middle of a deserted downtown Denver after dark, I next thought I’d better call Amtrak to see what they would do about this.

Hold music, “your call is important to us”, more hold music!!! 

Finally, a customer service rep answered  “Good question, let me ask my supervisor”.  “Well, no ma’am.  If the bus is late, and you miss your train, that will be up to Greyhound to determine if they will cover your overnight accommodations.”  But my tickets were purchased totally from Amtrak!! 

And thus, I now realized how stupid it was to ever book a travel itinerary with 2 different transportation providers, (even if only one of them was ticketing the whole trip)!  Ok, lesson learned…now it was time to get desperate and “phone a friend” (Evelyn & Tessa)!

So, as my previous post explained, my Vagabond friends immediately jumped to my rescue and did their very best to get me to Denver on-time to catch that train…only to also fall short due to the world’s worst traffic jam in Denver that night.  But fotunately, a stroke of luck shown down upon us….the train was running 3 hours late!

After a nice, leisurely dinner together in Denver, the gals dropped me off at the Denver Amtrak station about an hour before my train was to arrive.  Perfect!  I found a free plug to charge my phone and a comfy seat to sit and wait.

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and wait and wait….over an hour had passed and still no train at the station…..

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finally, around 11:00pm our train rolled in (now, just 4 hours behind schedule!).

All aboard!
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When I booked my train ticket, I had thought about getting a sleeper car berth, but it was almost $300 more than coach, and I figured for just a 17-hour train trip and one night, I could make due.  So, I found my way to my assigned aisle seat in Coach next to a pleasant young chap from Wales who was touring the U.S.

By the time we got out of Denver, it was nearly Midnight, so I pulled my trusty travel pillow and a lightweight blanket out of my backpack, and reclined my seat for a night of “cat napping.”  Thank goodness I also had put a baseball hat into my pack too.  Those blue “night lights” were still pretty bright!

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As dawn broke, it was finally becoming a calm and pleasant journey.  I walked back to the club car to watch the sunrise over the cornfields of Nebraska looking out the big panorama windows.

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The train was continuing to fall further and further behind schedule.  It was now running 6 hours behind. 

Apparently, both of the 2 Amtrak locomotives had run into mechanical issues as the train went through the Rockies.  At one point, they were stalled on the tracks for almost 2 hours until a freight train locomotive (loaned out by Union Pacific) arrived to start “towing” the train cross-country.  It could certainly handle the load, but unfortunately, it’s top speed was about 10 mph slower than the Amtrak locomotives.  So, the conductors cautioned us that the trip would continue to fall behind, but they promised to shorten each stop to try and minimize the delay.

Stretching our legs in Lincoln, Nebraska and inspecting our “tow truck” locomotive--

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After a pleasant morning and lunch, I was just starting to doze off for a nap when the female conductor came through and said sternly “This is not a question.  At the next stop, I need you to move back 3 rows, and I’ll need your seat mate to move up 5 rows.”   Huh?  I thought we had assigned seats?

Well, there would be a family of 12 boarding in Ottumwa, Iowa and they would need seats together.  Why the preferential treatment?  Because they were Amish and were all riding on the train for the very first time coming home from their grandfather’s funeral.

My new seat was across and right behind them.  Very nice and pleasant folks with one small exception.  They had been waiting on the platform in the hot afternoon sun for the delayed train to finally arrive.  Once they got seated around me, I learned one important new fact about the Amish…they don’t wear under-arm deodorant! Surprised smile

Club car to the rescue!!!

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I enjoyed the late afternoon sunlight views as we crossed the Mississippi river from Burlington, Iowa over into Illinois--

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The poor train, however, continued to be plagued by delays.  We suddenly stopped 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere because one of the air hoses between the cars had become disconnected

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And later, another 20 minute delay when we learned a track ahead that we were on was broken, so the train had to go in reverse a few miles to pick up a parallel track that actually worked.

Finally, as the clock crept closer to midnight (well,10:30pm, actually), I was finally delivered to my destination…

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A mere 8 hours behind schedule, but my little yellow Tracker (that I had dropped off at the station before I had left) was still patiently waiting to reliably transport me home!

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Who’s to say if flying home from Denver might not have suffered a similar delay, but one thing’s for sure… it would never have been quite the cast of characters, nor as memorable as my “midnight” train!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Weekend in Vail

Besides selling the cars and meeting Karen’s kids (my brother’s girlfriend), the other main goals for my trip to Vail were to bring Randy a few boxes of childhood mementos from our mom’s house, and also to fulfill my mom’s wish to have her remaining ashes scattered atop one of the pretty mountains surrounding Vail.  We also managed to plug in a trip to the farmer’s market, attend some ballet performances, and enjoy a few really nice meals out as well.

First stop was to the Minturn Farmer’s Market.  Minturn is a cute little old mining town between Vail and Edwards.  Their market was in full swing when we arrived:

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This town has a great sense of humor—even their garden club takes themselves lightly!
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I skipped on the artwork, but did a few bags of fresh Colorado peaches for my hosts.

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Later in the afternoon, Randy and I went to watch Karen’s daughter, Lauren, dance in downtown Vail at the dance-a-thon, a charity event by the Vail International Dance Festival to support the local kids’ dance organizations throughout the area.  Lauren was absolutely thrilled to meet her ballet idol, Tiler Peck and Tiler’s fiance’, Robert Fairchild, the exciting principal dancers of the New York City Ballet.

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The next night, we got to see them perform on opening night of the 25th Vail International Dance Festival at the gorgeous outdoor Ford Amphitheatre:

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The Pacific Northwest Ballet also performed a wonderful rendition of Balanchine’s “Serenade”—so pretty.
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Vail village is always a delight to walk around.  My brother gets to walk it daily to the ski shop he manages at the base of the mountain.

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On Sunday, we headed up to the Gore range (showing high above the street above), to Piney Lake.  My mom always enjoyed going there, so we thought it would be a fitting place for her to scatter.  It had rained off and on most of the morning, and as luck would have it, when we went to hike out to the lone pine tree at the end of the lake to spread her ashes, it was absolutely pouring rain and obscured the highest peaks surrounding the lake.  It sure didn’t stop the fly fishermen from fishing though!
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Karen snapped a pic of my brother and me in front of “Mom’s Tree.”  Thank goodness for Gore-Tex raincoats!
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Back at the Lodge, we had lunch and I took a pic of Randy and Karen getting dried off in front of the fireplace.

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As we left, the rains paused and clouds parted enough to get a slightly better view of the Gore range behind the lake.

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Mom’s tree is lone tree about at my eye-level in the center of the photo below.  Not too shabby a place to return to the earth.

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The road coming back down the mountain was pretty muddy, so Randy will have quite a clean-up to do on his old Subaru.  Thank goodness he had a newer, cleaner one waiting in the garage!

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