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As a "recovering" middle school teacher with a unique outlook on life, I stopped active teaching in 2010 and moved into another career path... writing! Here goes! In addition, I am a travel buff, forever baseball addict, movie fan, music fan, foodie extraordinaire, NCIS devotee, gardener, and more.

Just love writing for kids, travel writing and basic journalism. Pretty unusual, since I taught Home Economics! But there's a story here too - a non-fiction one or more...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Planes, Trains OR Automobiles?

Rule #13 – Push the limits of your comfort zone.

To fly or not to fly, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis better to suffer the gropes and wandings from the TSA for convenience sake,
Or to drive, perchance to train to your destination, thus seeing more of the landscape, yet taking more time from the ultimate destination…
     Many apologies Mr. Shakespeare. But those who fly regularly know exactly of what I speak. Just the thought of stuffing yourself in an aluminum tube cattle car with 300 of your closest “friends”, flinging yourself to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, praying that God doesn’t call the pilot’s number, and then making first contact with earth on the wings of a few Goodyears… flying is now a true act of faith. That’s after you get on the plane and after you get through security checkpoints.
     This past March, I decided to check another item off the Bucket List. I went to Sarasota specifically for spring training games. I also got to visit former neighbors and friends down there, but the starting reason was to see the baby O’s hatching in their spring nest. Planning the trip was interesting, since I was constantly questioned “Why are you driving? Why not fly and rent a car?” Well, I could have but… who knows if my flight would be on time; who knows if my luggage will be diverted to Havana; who knows if I’ll get sick again, like I have on every other flight. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with TSA on this trip.
So many games and teams - only so much time
      So I planned to drive down. First thing I did was call AAA travel desk. They were incredibly helpful with one glitch – the lady I talked to was in Northeast Philly’s office. When I said I was heading to spring training in Sarasota, she reminded me that the Phillies train in Clearwater. A quick conversation about where I grew up, where she was located, and where I am now located, and we were busy booking travel and hotels. She made sure I had a TripTik and maps for the entire I-95 route. Since I had my own car, I could pack, unpack, over pack, and repack as I wanted.

Welcome to Georgia
Welcome to Florida (You mean the state might be closed?)
      The drive down was pretty stress free. I bypassed Washington DC by taking Rte. 301 south. Once into Virginia, I stayed on 301 through Ft. A.P. Hill, and then picked up I-95 in Carmel Church. Once past Richmond, traffic wasn’t bad at all. I made it as far as Florence SC in one day. Found myself a MicroTel, got some dinner, then it was take it easy and get some rest. Day 2 had me hitting some serious traffic around Jacksonville FL. Someone told me that was a normal thing. But I got past it, got onto 301 south again, and got as far as Bushnell FL before it was time to stop. Another MicroTel in another town, and a place to put my tired head down… I found some nice digs for a night. All the way down, scenery was great. You know, we really do live in a beautiful country and each area is unique. You just have to slow down and look at things.
In the land where palm trees sway
Oh, yeah! I'm in Florida!
      The third day I drove directly to Ed Smith Stadium. I watched the Phillies win over the O’s (yeah, fans, the Phillies won). My AAA agent got me a room at the Hampton Inn and Suites right where University Blvd. meets I-75 in Bradenton. I enjoyed some temporary luxury while I bopped around Sarasota.
My spring time home
Facebook Feetie pic - proof I was there
Hampton Inn and Suites King Suite - a place for snacks...
...and a place to hang out with friends
     Now it took me 2-plus days to make an easy drive to Sarasota. I was not much for another 2-plus days going home. So, I had my AAA agent book me a seat on Amtrak’s Auto Train. It took me two and a half hours to get from Sarasota to Sanford in FL, where the Auto Train station is located. By the way, Orlando has DC beat on the insane traffic meter by a bunch!
Amtrak Auto Train Terminal - Sanford FL
      Here was a portion of the trip that was pure rookie experience. I pulled into the checkpoint and showed the attendant my ticket. She then handed me some small folders, one to leave with the car, and one to keep with me as I checked in inside the terminal. My beautiful blue Ford got a number put on its side. I pulled up to the terminal, got out what I needed for the night, then headed into the reservation check in while a valet took the car and put it on the car carrier. At the check in desk, I got my train car and seat number plus my meal times. Then there was some chill time until we got the call “All aboard”.
Conscious coupling of car carriers
      We got to our car and were greeted by an attendant, just as if we were flying. She helped everyone get settled in their seats and explained just how the cars were being connected and the process for dining and entertainment. While she spoke, the Amtrak crew was busy getting every car connected in its proper order. Then exactly at 4 pm, we pulled out. I saw great scenery and I didn’t have to worry about keeping my eyes on the road.
Somewhere in Florida from the train
      We had a real dinner with real food in the dining car. Not many airlines feed you fresh food anymore. I sat with three other people I never met before. During dinner and drinks we discussed our Florida trips, where we were from, and what we did, among other things.
My beef tips, garlic mashed potatoes, and seasoned green beans
     I wandered to the lounge car later in the evening. When I walked in, I felt like I stepped back into the 1940’s. The layout and décor was art deco. The only nod to the present was the 8 video screens and DVD player. We watched “Gravity” from any seat in the lounge car. Some people preferred playing cards. Others actually had a business meeting. Beverages of any proof were served. Coffee and tea were available for free. It was a great place to hang out. Some of the funnier moments were listening to those “seasoned travelers” who did a lot of kvetching about small stuff. Some people are never satisfied.
Lounge car bar, from my perch right near the bar
Lounge car lower level
     I booked a coach seat on the train, which meant I had 2 side-by-side seats plus the leg lifts all to myself. When it was time to sack out, I tried to get comfortable and get some sleep. I can’t say that I slept well that night. But, I got enough sleep in two and three hour increments to be able to drive safely in the morning.
Enough physical space
      The train started coming alive around 5:45 the next day. My breakfast time was at 6 am and I got to the dining car to find a really enjoyable continental breakfast set up for us all. Again, I sat with three strangers, who were not as talkative as the dinner friends (the hour of the day maybe?). But the selection of foods and the amount served was delicious. Fresh fruits, cereals, yogurts, bagels, coffee and juices were all served with a smile.
      At exactly 9 am we pulled into Lorton VA station. The cars were all consciously uncoupled (sorry, couldn’t resist) and we all moved into the terminal to wait for our cars to be unloaded. From the time we arrived until I got my car and got on the road, it was about one hour and fifteen minutes. Not bad, considering the train was really full. From the station, it was an easy jump to I-95 and the trip home.
Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton VA - just off I-95
      The train trip really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Really, I think it just stretched my comfort zone. I will definitely use the Auto Train again. Next time I may pay extra for a berth or compartment, so I can stretch out through the night. But, considering everything, it was a fun way to end a great trip.
      I never mind driving, and now I look forward to train travel. I have to fly to Milwaukee soon…. Let’s see how that goes.

All photos are the property of Marge McGugan. All rights reserved.
Portions of this post are also used in the Arden-on-the-Severn Newsbuoy "A View from the Passenger Seat" by Marge McGugan

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