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Our conversation flows as we glide through Ashland and Richmond, places rich with the history of the railroad as well as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We cross a section of the 349-mile long James River, one of the largest rivers in the US flowing entirely within a single state. It's a stunning landscape painted bright with brilliant blues, emerald greens, and sandy earth tones.
A section of the 349-mile long James River, one of the largest rivers in the US flowing entirely within a single state.
We linger over dinner, enjoying the postcard-pretty slideshow beyond our window. Eventually, Marie retires to her room and John and I move into the lounge where we meet Elaine.
New Yorker Elaine Vosburg has been riding the train for five years. She's engaging and funny and doesn't look anywhere near the 81-years-young she claims to be.
We talk travel, art, and Monet, (she's just returned from France) and eventually garden perennials. We even try to sing a little Tony Bennett, but give up after flubbing the words, recognizing we'll never be on American Idol.
Meanwhile, we slide through Petersburg, Virginia, the midway point between New York and Florida.
Later, I descend to the kitchen and meet with the chefs—Irv Edelen, Sally Wood, Jim Rosser and chef-in-training, Vernon Dove. Irv has been with Amtrak for fifteen years, the last five as chef. Previously he worked as an engineer, conductor and sleeper attendant.
Talented chefs Irv Edelen, Sally Wood and chef-in-training, Vernon Dove, prepare made-to-order meals for as many as 500 people.
"I was the 'Sleeper King'," he says in an FM-radio-DJ kind of voice. "But every job on this train is about taking pride in what you do."
Sally is plating cheesecake and big fudgy brownies as we talk, placing them on trays into a dumbwaiter. Remembering my earlier mouth-watering dessert, I contemplate climbing in there with them.
"I love this," Sally says of the frenetic pace. "I spent over thirty years in restaurant service. Compared to that, this is low stress."
I return to the Dining Car where Pompano Beach-bound Bob and Stephanie Landry are finishing dinner.
Sunrise over a fairytale landscape.
"We drove down from Boston. This is our first time on the Auto Train," Bob says. "When we arrived in Lorton, the check-in went like clockwork. No stress, no long lines. And the staff has been really accommodating."
Night's curtain has been drawn outside and with it my ability to view the ever-changing panorama as we sway through Selma, North Carolina. It's one of the richest agricultural sections of the country, and I imagine it's rather Eden-like. Still the idea that we're traveling through such historically significant regions—former battlefields, birthplaces of political movements, locations visited by Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson—is exciting.
New Yorker Elaine Vosburg has been riding the Auto Train route for the past five years.
Irv joins John, Elaine and me in the lounge and we pepper him with questions. He satisfies our curiosity, telling us stories about his years on the train. The evening ends with a toast—"to new friends"—and we say goodnight.
The passageway is empty as I wander to my room. Outside, we pass tiny towns tucked in for the night, soothed by the train's clacking lullaby, while it rocks its contented passengers to sleep.
The next morning I wake to a view of swaying palms, climbing kudzu, and a mist hovering over a fairytale landscape. The train seems to race along these last miles, as if hurrying home.
We arrive early in Sanford. Irv introduces me to Fred Nardelli, District Superintendent at the station. Fred promises to give me a tour later, but first he generously sends me into town with the crew to a local hotel, where we can relax, eat and clean up during the layover.
I take some time to explore Sanford, a town lovely enough to be any traveler's destination. Sanford snuggles up to Lake Monroe and a harbor filled with bobbing boats. The cobblestone-covered main street is small-town quaint and liberally sprinkled with art galleries, small shops, and sidewalk cafes.
Sanford is a lovely destination.
Unfortunately, the Florida sun is blazing, and the town feels like a steam room. I seek refuge in Wolfy's, a nearby restaurant that is a preferable alternative to a dip in the bay while wearing clogs and Capri pants. I cool off, eat lunch, and am ready to head back to the depot by 2:00 pm.
When we arrive, Fred, a thirty-two-year Amtrak veteran, gives me the grand tour, while I relate my experience with the phenomenal crew.
"Each of the five rotating crews is hand-picked for the Auto Train," he explains. "That way, passengers experience the best of the best."
We tour the spacious coach cars. The reclining seats are wide and comfortable, and I'm reminded of my grandfather's railroad adventure. As a boy, he and his ten siblings (along with their chickens) shared stiff, cane-backed seats while they chugged through the sweltering summer heat of the North Dakota prairie. Obviously, the standards for passenger comfort have improved significantly since then.
Deb is serving wine again and the Lounge Car is packed, the passengers drawn here like hummingbirds to honeysuckle. There's not a single vacant spot.
I feel sleepy anyway and decide to take a short nap before dinner. Bumping into Cliff on my way to my room, I tell him I'm going to check out for a while.
And then he says something that no one under the age of 25 has ever said to me before—
"You rest now. I'll come back and make sure you're awake in time for dinner."
And so to those who despair that today's youth lack manners, social graces or the ability to preface a sentence with anything other than the word "dude", I say come ride the Auto Train. Here you will find evidence to the contrary…in abundance.
An hour later I wake. Still a little groggy, I make my way to the lounge where I encounter Crew Chief Danny Stanga, a thirty-year Amtrak veteran. He brings me a cup of coffee.
"I took a nap," I say lamely, explaining my dishevelment and dim-witted demeanor. He nods, understanding. Like all the crew, Danny is solicitous and kind. He explains what makes the Auto Train different. [continued...]