Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Riding the rails and seeing America

If you want to see and appreciate 'flyover country,' you have to stop flying over it.

This summer, I took a spectacular journey via Amtrak. This is what I imagine an old-school whistle-stop campaign may have been before politicians joined the jet set.

Indeed, my travels took me through two dozen states and I marveled at the scenery while I crossed time zones, regions and even mountain ranges. And I did not go it alone. Thanks to social media, this solo traveler brought friends and family into his summer adventure.

This leads me to why I am writing this blog post. The most common question that I was asked upon my return:

"How did you do it?"

It was quite simple. I purchased a USA Rail Pass from Amtrak. There are three options for travelers: 15 days (8 segments) for $459 30 days (12 segments) for $689 45 days (18 segments) for $899

As you can see, the USA Rail Pass affords travelers a chance to get around quite a few places for a fairly reasonable price. I don't know if I would be able to fly around the country in two weeks for less than $500. And it's not like I would want to, either. Part of the magic of traveling by train is that I can savor the trip as much as my destination.

But what about the segments? That is simple. Long-distance trips will require changing trains. For example, I used a USA Rail Pass to travel to Kansas City, Missouri a few years ago. My first segment took me from Jacksonville to New York. My second segment began in New York and ended in Chicago. My third segment went from Chicago to Kansas City. With the help of my Amtrak agent, I managed to schedule my segments so I could get back home within the two week window.

The next frequently asked question that I get is about sleeping accommodations. It costs extra to get a sleeping car and it is more economical to share a compartment with friend or family. It has the added benefit of including the cost of all dining car meals (except alcoholic beverages). I have traveled by sleeping car before but I do not mind riding coach. There is plenty of legroom in coach and the seats recline quite nicely, thank you very much. I don't mind catching some shut eye in the upper deck of observation car or the lounge car as there are seats that allow for such relaxation. Just remember to be considerate and wake up around dawn as it is not your personal bed chamber but a common area for your fellow travelers (Amtrak crew will gently alert you to this).

To be honest, as a teacher who has summer vacation, I do not see why I have to rush to my destinations. If time is no object for you, I highly recommend taking the train to get where you want to go.

Ten years ago, I took the Sunset Limited train to Los Angeles. This was not via the USA Rail Pass, but it inspired me to venture on as many Amtrak routes as I can. I am glad that I opted to go transcontinental when I did. That same summer, Hurricane Katrina struck and the Sunset Limited service has been suspended since then (With no apparent plans from Washington to revive this service past its truncated New Orleans to Los Angeles route).

Well, if it sounds like I am shilling for Amtrak, I probably am. [Grin] I remember when I was taking a public relations class at the University of North Florida. What did I choose as my class project? You guessed it. The National Passenger Railroad Corporation, affectionately known as Amtrak.

Over the years have gone on short trips from Jacksonville to Tampa and on longer trips to Portland, Maine. It has always been in the back of my mind that I needed to share my experiences so others would know about the fun of riding the train. Well, here are some highlights of my most recent train trip.

1. The City: I knew that I would have four hours to spend in New York while I waited for my train to Chicago. I dropped in at the Four Seasons restaurant on the Upper East Side. I recently read that the Four Seasons will be closing next year. I was not disappointed as this swank place treated this sweaty, hungry visitor like a high roller. Having read about their jacket policy, I asked for a coat to wear upon my entrance. The gentleman at the coat check smiled and said not to worry as it was a scorcher of an afternoon. Gazpacho, Maryland crab cakes, and Chardonnay were my posh lunch for the day. Thank you, Four Seasons! 2. The Emerald City: The International Youth Hostel in Seattle is a great lodging option. The college dorm-style rooms are a bargain, are safe, and they have a great deal of amenities (Free continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free group walking tours, clean bathroom facilities, etc.) I liked the fact that this hostel is within walking distance of the Seattle train station and is on a transit line that will take you into the central business district. If you opt to visit Seattle, I highly recommend purchasing a CityPass for affordable access to the Seattle Aquarium, the Space Needle, Argosy Cruises, and other attractions. 3. The passengers and crew: The train creates a sense of community when traveling long distances. I talked about philosophy and science with a seatmate who was from Bangladesh and was working for Microsoft. There was a pair of women named Linda (and one husband) who were returning from a convention for women with their name. They were amazed that I knew quite a bit about Johnny Ray and other singers from an era 'before my time.' I met Amish people from Ohio, parkour performers from San Jose, a retired art teacher, a Russian immigrant, and a woman and her grandson who were on a 30-day USA Rail Pass. On my Sacramento to Chicago segment, I liked visiting the cafe car where I talked with an engineer who moonlighted as a musician and the cafe car attendant. Our conversations ranged from James Bond to the Simpsons. I even found myself part of a bachelor party. I have never been to one, so I had no qualms with sharing my booth in the cafe car with a very boisterous gang headed to Portland. I even got a Crown and ginger ale from one of the attendees for being part of their festivities. 4. Making connections: Thanks to Facebook, I met up with a classmate from elementary school in Seattle and also had dinner with a former student and his mother. I was reminded of how small the world feels at times and how it was nice to renew old ties. It was during a layover in Sacramento, waiting for my connecting train to Chicago, that I experienced very friendly service at a local Starbucks on a Sunday morning. I was able to have breakfast, read the Sunday paper and charge my phone. I left a nice note and a tip with the baristas for allowing me to rest up there. 5. America: This was the main attraction of my trip. Through my window, I was able to see the landscape from the perspective of someone who did not have to worry about keeping his eyes on the road. My sightseeing ranged from the Hudson River north of New York to Lake Erie outside of Toledo to the Mississippi River in Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River in Washington State. I made a point of keeping my Instagram filled with as many images as I could. I am especially glad that others were able to experience vicariously what I hope they will soon see for themselves by train. 6. Guides: On selected routes, including the Empire Builder and California Zephyr that I rode this summer, there are volunteer guides who will narrate parts of your trip. In the double-desk observation car, these guides share the stories behind the sights. Our guides alerted us to Chihuly works gracing an Oregon bridge and also the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that replaced 'Galloping Gertie.' Even the terrain that we saw had its own backstory - like the area still coated in ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.

I know that this blog entry only scratches the surface of my trip and I know that I will expand upon it when the feeling strikes me. The bottom line is that I love riding the train and highly recommend it to others.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fakih and Brandy bring the Christmas!

This video clip made my morning when I first saw it on my Facebook page.  Thank you Fakih and Brandy for such a festive rendition of an great Christmas tune!  I am sharing this in the hopes that it does go viral.  The world needs this double shot of cheer.  Pass it on :-)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Walking and laughing

As with a lot of television, I find myself late to the party with The Walking Dead. I really was not interested in watching before because I was all about Mad Men and did not take a liking to the science fiction genre. I wasn't interested in Breaking Bad either.

All it took was Rosie Larsen and that story changed. Well, it was actually my increasing need for new binge watching shows when I finished watching 'The Killing.' By the time I reached the end of my run with Linden and Holder, I decided to take the advice of members of my 'Covert Crew' fans of Covert Affairs.

It was early November and I was beginning Season One of a show that many around me were bursting with potential spoilers. I watched one or two episodes after work and ran though a few more on the weekends. I was amazed to be getting through the seasons that followed the brief first season. I hoped and hoped that I would be finished with the fourth season so I could seamlessly catch the Season Five marathon and then the mid-season finale.

Did I make it? Yes. And, now, I must wait until the second half of the season. In the meantime, enjoy some memes.

I created none of these memes but I found them on the Internet and thought that they made great comic relief!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Empire building with GoFundMe

I want to take you with me on a cross country trip.

I have been enamored of rail travel ever since my first Amtrak journey to Baltimore as a child of eight years old. I was a young history buff who knew only of the heyday of passenger rail in books. That summer trip to visit family created in me a desire to take the rails wherever and whenever I could.

When I graduated from college, I finally fulfilled that childhood dream - a celebration trip to New York and I have frequented Amtrak since then.

I have been on short jaunts to nearby Winter Park in my home state of Florida. I have taken a four-day journey to Los Angeles from Jacksonville aboard the Sunset Limited.

What has tied together my various ramblings on the rails, whether it be summering in Maine or conventioneering in Kansas City, I most enjoyed using social media to share my impressions of this vast country.

It gives me a sense of joy to know that I have friends and relatives who tell me that they live vicariously through my postings on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and the like. This means a lot to me as I hope to make my trips as enjoyable for others as they are for me - albeit virtually. This, I suppose, is one of the benefits of being a teacher. My summers are a chance to relax and be an artist of sorts, with my craft being an Amtrak artist (so to speak). With a Klout score that hovers around 70, I am in the top ten percent of Internet 'influencers.' I am hoping to be a positive influence :-)

Having been to three corners of the nation via train, I have wanted to visit the Northwest. My grandmother tells tales of taking the Great Northern railroad as a child. I would like to experience that this upcoming summer. And this is where I bring you with me. I originally applied for an Amtrak residency that was established for writers who wanted to hone their railroad writing. I did not receive such an opportunity, but I wanted to create an opportunity for myself.

My aim is to document every step of my trip from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle and back via Amtrak's Empire Builder. I might even venture into Vancouver if the time is right. My goal is to raise $3,000 to cover my transportation and lodging along the way.

UPDATE: I am working on my proposed itinerary for my trip and here are my plans: With my bags, camera, tablet and smart phone packed, I depart the Jacksonville Amtrak station on the evening of June 29. I arrive in Washington, D.C. the next morning and spend the day enjoying the nation's capital until I leave in the afternoon for Chicago. I hope to return to Florida House before I leave D.C! The next morning, it's Chicago and a museum or a skyscraper (I still call it the Sears Tower - LOL) and then on the train for Seattle after lunch. The next stretch of the trip will be two days venturing into parts of the nation that I only dreamed of seeing. This is where I think that my best work will be - on the old frontier aboard the Empire Builder.

When I arrive in Seattle, my aim is to stay in a hostel and partake in a very happy Fourth of July. Thankfully, I am not tethered to finite rolls of film and will be giddy with sharing and oversharing this epic experience. I will stay in the Evergreen State until I depart Seattle on July 5 at 1:40PM. The return trip will consist of getting into Chicago on July 7th, arriving in Washington on July 8 and back to Jax on July 9. The return trip? Mostly afterglow :-)

Please donate to my GoFundMe account here. Thank you! I promise that you will be glad that you invested in my journey!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Radio Free Spirit --- Pandora finds...

For this session of Radio Free Spirit, I am sharing music that I have found on Pandora. They all three are ambient and mellow tunes that help me to relax. I hope you enjoy them!

Can you help Wendy?

It all started with a vintage suit (Pictured).

I went looking for a unique suit to wear for Easter on a rookie teacher's salary. Being a fan of vintage clothing, I happened across a store in Jacksonville's eclectic and bohemian Five Points neighborhood.

As soon as I entered Time Warp, I fell in love with the store's wares and walked away with a suit that cost no more than $50. Not only were the prices affordable, the owner was very sweet.

We talked about how film and television productions often rely on vintage clothing stores to properly capture a time from the past. Being inspired by how decades like the 1960s were half a century ago but still hold a timeless appeal, I liked the aesthetic that came to vivid life in AMC's 'Mad Men'.

I returned to the store and enjoyed conversing with Wendy about how I wore my Easter suit to my tenth high school reunion. I brought a picture of myself having a rip roaring good time at the Omni with Orange Park's Class of 1992. I bought more clothes from what became a favorite of mine.

Somewhere along the way since then, Time Warp closed.

I heard that she left the business after being attacked. I lamented the loss, but the memory of Time Warp soon faded.

I returning home from visiting family in South Carolina for Memorial Day weekend when I saw the front page of the Times-Union. It caught my attention with a front page article about a woman who suffered facial damage. I forgot about it as I was taking my parents and baby niece back home and trying to beat what looked like an approaching storm. [See article here]

I saw a reference to the Sunday front page story when I was casually looking at the news online. I clicked on the link and entered a time warp. The first few sentences of the article brought me back to the unclear and foggy story that I had previously heard of Wendy, but the entirety of the article opened my eyes to what had happened to Wendy and where she had been since then.

My heart broke.

The cheerful young woman who was a highlight of my day when I came to look for clothes for myself or brought out-of-town visitors to see Five Points. I missed Wendy, her Time Warp, and how Five Points was not the same for me after she left.

Now, I learn that Wendy is on the road to recovery but it is an uphill climb made rockier by her medical bills. Please visit Wendy's web pages and consider donating. Wendy Somerset Recovery Donations

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Can you like my friend's page? It's for a good cause!

As I am raising money to update technology in my classroom, an old classmate of mine has agreed to donate one dollar (US $) for every person who likes his law firm's Facebook page.

All you have to do is visit the below Facebook page and click 'Like' and he will do the rest. Please LIKE McGrath, Gibson, LLC today!