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"There's a camaraderie here you don't see anywhere else. We have regulars and they get to know the crews. It's like family and you're a part of the family whether you're a passenger or a crew member."
There's no better example of this than Fran Foster and her daughter. Fran and 18-year-old Kim have been riding the Auto Train several times a year since Kim was five months old. Having watched Kim grow up, the crew now feels like their extended family.
Harley rider Redden Polk relaxes in the lounge while quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson.
After Danny gets called away, I visit with Redden Polk of Clermont, Florida who's just returned from an 18-day, 5000-mile ride on his Harley. Why would a seasoned over-the-road traveler choose to ride the Auto Train?
In a gravely voice he answers, "'I am part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.' That's Alfred Lord Tennyson," he says grinning.
We notice the train slowing as we snake around a mini-horseshoe curve.
"Look," Redden laughs, pointing out the window at the train's end, "we're being followed!"
We meander into Georgia and the scenery unfolds lush before us, the ebbing sun tinting everything sepia like an antique photograph. Dinner time brings new companions—a mom with her college-bound son and a sociable businesswoman named Kim. We chat about kids, dating, and setting limits, while I gorge myself on a huge portion of delicious roasted chicken. (It could have fed the entire table.) I order the cheesecake again—truly the champagne of desserts.
Dedicated Crew Chief Danny Stanga acts as liaison between the crew, engineers, commissary, and the passengers.
We can't help but notice that the wait staff possesses some internal gyroscopic grace that allows them to navigate skinny aisles on a swaying train without spilling a drop from their laden trays. It's quite extraordinary.
After dinner, families congregate in the lounge to watch that night's movie, Shrek III. A girl with a Jack-o-lantern grin giggles just like SpongeBob, making me laugh.
Later, I stroll through a darkened Coach Car, smiling at two parents attempting to settle down their child for the night. She's determined to sleep with her Mickey Mouse ears on.
"She's really going to sleep tonight," the father says.
"I'm really going to sleep tonight," says his wife.
The large coach seats recline, (not a ½ mm, but really recline) and have extendable footrests, making them extraordinarily comfortable. People throughout the car are kicked back, some covered with blankets watching DVDs, while others read. Mysterious kid-giggles escape like bubbles from beneath makeshift "tents" scattered throughout the car. When I was four, we rode the train from Minnesota to California, and it tickled me to build a blanket mini-campsite around our seats too.
The Rappahannock River, lazy, still and lovely in the summer morning sun.
By 6 am, we're passing through Richmond's outskirts again, winding through forests, past small town roads, and welcoming neighborhoods. As the sun rises, I half expect to see Andy and Opey strolling along whistling and throwing stones on their way to the fishin' hole.
We cross the Rappahannock River and it's so still and lovely that I can see why so many southern writers feel inspired to pen tales of barefooted children and lazy summer days spent floating in swollen, muddy creeks.
Then suddenly we're back in Lorton. The crew delivers vehicles to their rightful owners. People hug, say goodbye, and depart for separate destinations. But they'll be back. Because, though it wasn't the intent, Mr. Garfield's novel idea created a family—one that grows by hundreds of people every day. And as long I don't have to have them all over for dinner (at least not all at once) I'm happy to be a part of that family now too.