Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Auto Train as Spiritual Journey Last of Three Parts

In 2006, it had been 30 years since I last set foot in Florida.

Now it was time to go back. How much had things changed since I lived in Tampa between 1974 and 1976?

I can remember a lot about what is now called "old Florida" from three visits between 1966 and 1972. I can remember Busch Gardens in Tampa when it was a free brewery tour followed by a free trained parrot show. I can remember Disney World when it first opened (my first visit was 10 months, I believe, after its opening.) and you paid separately for rides.

I can remember riding one of those rides, It's a Small World, when it was at the NY Worlds Fair. In fact, it was part of Disneyworld when the park opened and still operates today:

So how did I prepare for this nostalgic visit? By researching it to death. I discovered various Tampa landmarks were gone-Mirabella's, Maas Brothers - and others had been bought up or had name changes - Robinson's. The Tampa skyline definitely was not what it was (or, more like it, what it was not) back in 1976. But absolutely nothing prepared me for what was to come.

And to get to Florida?

I remember seeing ads for the Auto Train in the early 1970's when I still lived in NYC. I think, back then, it was private. I had always been curious about it. So we booked it, myself, my spouse and my 16 year old son-and our 1999 Altima.

Once the train pulled out of the station in Lorton, VA, there was the amazing sense of getting ready to complete a journey that had started in 1966. Thirty years earlier, an Atlantic Coast Line train had brought me home from Tampa, FL during an airplane strike. Once again was the sense of being one with the land we were passing through. The rocking, the train sounds, the whistle blowing. In Fredericksburg, VA we passed near Civil War battlefields we had visited years ago. At Quantico, we went right through the marine base and watched helicopters in flight. We passed over a beautiful lake and had close up views of the countryside. In Richmond, VA we passed so close to a highway we could see the faces of drivers heading in the opposite direction. It was so tempting to wave!

We passed people going home for their supper hour. In one town we passed right down the middle of their main street, with driveways backing right into the path of the train.

Even after darkness fell, and the hours passed, I would peer out the window every time lights and the start of whistleblowing, announced a town. We passed through southern North Carolina as I fell into a fitful sleep. The train seemed to speed up. When a train passed in another direction sometimes it seemed as though the train would rock right off its tracks. Finally, we pulled into a well lit station - our one stop, to change crews and do maintenance only: Florence, South Carolina. We stayed there a while, and then traveled on.

At some point I woke up in time to see a huge, well lit billboard for a Crab Shack on Tybee Island and didn't know if it was part of a dream or not.

The next thing I knew, it was 6am and time for breakfast. I had no idea where I was - it turned out to be southern Georgia.

As darkness made way, my son and I gazed upon a southern greenscape. What a feeling it was to share this with my son, pointing out the southern vegetation and other landmarks as we came across them. How awesome is it to share a piece of your life with your teenage son?

The sun was already so high in the sky as we crossed over the St. Mary's river into Florida, glaring down with the promise of a boiling August Florida day. After breakfast, we slowly wound through Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville is the largest city (area wise) in the United States and the Auto Train gives a very good view, taking a good 20 minutes to pass through. To my delight I saw names I had not seen in 30 years...Kash and Karry, Winn-Dixie. They had survived the 31 years since I had been last in Jacksonville.

South of Jacksonville, we saw many shade houses, and the conductor announced these were fern growing areas. Certainly nothing you would have seen from the Interstate.

Finally we got to Sanford, and the circle started in 1966 was complete. Well, almost complete. We still needed to get to Tampa. We did end up in Tampa after visiting some other parts of Florida -some of which we knew from 30 years ago, and wanted to share with our son.

And no, we didn't visit any attractions in Orlando. I'm strictly (well, somewhat strictly) an Old Florida type of person.

But other topics call, and - well, this is a ramblin' blog. I'll write about my 2006 visit some more one day soon, I promise.

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