Lake Shore Limited – Westbound to Chicago
January 5, 2010
Scheduled Rochester departure: 11:00 p.m.
Actual Rochester departure: 11:50 p.m. (Not too bad.)
A busy day led to the late night departure. Bill and I worked through the final editing on his two articles under deadline for the Spring issue of Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine (wild turkey and opening day of trout fishing), passing drafts across the kitchen table, reading silently and aloud, changing sentences and words here and there, burning CDs, and printing contact sheets with the accompanying images. After hasty showers and last minute packing, we headed over to Holly’s Red Rooster for an unhurried meal together before I departed on an eight-day adventure with Lin to visit Conrad and Dawn in Kalispell, Montana, via Amtrak. During dinner, the snow was accumulating quickly on the cars parked across Maiden Lane. We knew we had a slow drive ahead over icy roads to pick up Lin in Naples and get to the train station in Rochester.
We arrived at the terminal before 10:00 p.m. Lin and I claimed our tickets and checked our bags through to Whitefish. The Lake Shore Limited has been jokingly, but aptly, nicknamed the Late Shore Limited, but we got a promising report that the train was en route, already in Syracuse, and only twenty minutes behind schedule. We assured Bill it was okay to leave us behind and head back to Penn Yan.
By 11:50 p.m., we were boarding. We each carried what we thought would be our essentials for what was supposed to be a 46-hour train ride ahead. Up the narrow steps to coach class, I wrestled a small, wheeled suitcase, a spacious canvas tote – holding a well-stocked cooler, my blanket and neck roll, and my “healthy back bag”- doubling as a purse, cosmetic case, and mobile office. Lin was much more streamlined with only one wheeled duffle and an inconspicuous purse over her shoulder.
All aboard and not particularly sleepy, Lin twisted the cap off our first split of wine for a toast to our trip. We settled in for the night. Over the next six hours, I drifted comfortably in and out of sleep whenever the train stopped to let passengers on and off or freight lines pass, catching glimpses of wintery night sights along the route.
At Buffalo, I remember a mysterious ruin of a massive warehouse or factory at the edge of the track. The city’s night lights glowed through the falling snow, illuminating its eerie silhouette, outlined through broken window panes and crumbling walls. Maybe it had been a public market or livestock exchange. My read for the trip was City of Light, by Lauren Belfer, which is steeped in Buffalo’s industrial and architectural history at the turn of the last century. I was well enough into it to feed my curiosity. When I discover the old building’s history, I’ll let you know.
About 4:00 a.m., the train pulled to a stop at the Cleveland station in the shadow of the Dawg Pound at Cleveland Browns Stadium. A wind generator was working overhead. I pitied the passengers waiting to board in the bitter cold at this hour of the night. Cleveland city center, surrounding the Cuyahoga River and still in holiday lights, looked more inviting than I thought Cleveland could.
By 5:00 a.m. in Sandusky, Ohio, I woke long enough to see the unmistakable constellation of brightly lit coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park in the distance to the north. That momentary image still strikes me ironic: a classic symbol of summertime now glowing with frosty white lights and lake effect snow along the desolate, wintry shoreline of Lake Erie.
People watching was a constant amusement. Boris and Natasha in the seats next to me, right out of the Orient Express, spoke broken English heavily accented with a Russian flair. She, dark-haired and fashionable, and he, foreign and well-dressed, passed the time reading a bi-lingual edition of a movie-star magazine headlining Marilyn Monroe. What’s that about? Were they typecasting Americans as much I was typecasting them? I imagined stories of their identity, but was left only with my unasked, unanswered questions. Further along in the trip, I concluded many bolder Amtrak passengers could easily strike up a conversation with a stranger to satisfy any curiosity; however, in the end, I suspected they were more motivated to paint their own colorful self-portraits than to understand another’s.
We slept well enough. Lin delivered hot coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened, which I savored. I managed a serial breakfast, one course at a time – unwrapping a juice box, squeezing cream cheese from a foil pouch onto my bagel, peeling an orange. We had a clumsy time with meal preparations, splattering portions of yogurt, half & half, and juice, joking we’d be smelling like the baby by the time we arrived in Montana. With enough time for an adequate camp-style grooming in the car’s lavatory, the Lake Shore Limited delivered us into Chicago’s Union Station on schedule at 10:00 a.m.
The four-hour layover before boarding the westbound Empire Builder was easy going. We snapped shots of the station’s great room, surprisingly vacant except for its grand holiday décor. I expected a bustling retail haven like the stations in New York and Washington, DC. Lin was a good guide, leading us expertly to the one-and-only pub-style dining establishment at the station. We had a salad, a bowl of chili, and a bottle of wine for lunch. The departures board directed us to Gate 19. The Empire Builder was on schedule, but we learned it hadn’t run in two days. (We assumed winter weather was to blame.) Among the first to board the train by taking full advantage of Lin’s new senior citizen status, we were in much better spirits than the crowds of weary passengers, back-logged and perhaps two or three days behind schedule