Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best of AM - The Auto Train

Today, I return to one of my first blog posts, and give it a little rework.

I went out to lunch with four work friends.  We walked past a store display, where someone was putting together a large train display.  Trains fascinate me, and fascinate many people.  There is a romance to train travel that doesn't exist for other forms of travel.  It makes me think of the subways that were an everyday part of my life growing up in New York City - the good parts of subway travel, that is.
In 2006, it had been 30 years since I last set foot in Florida.

I can remember a lot about what is now called "old Florida" from three visits between 1966 and 1972 and two years of living in Florida from 1974 to 1976. 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.  The Tampa skyline definitely was not what it was back in 1976. But absolutely nothing prepared me for what was to come.

But first - .how to get to Florida?  As my friends know, I have not been on a plane since 1996, and I don't know if I will ever get myself on one again.

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.  Now, once again, I felt as one with the land we were passing through. The rocking, the train sounds, the whistle blowing, once so familiar to me. 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 to light, 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 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 last been 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. We eventually made our way to Tampa, and other adventures.

This turned out to be the last vacation I would take with my son, who is now living on his own.  I wonder if we will ever travel again together.

Do you enjoy train travel?

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