Originally published in The Beachside Resident, February 2008 by Vern Hobbs
"Waddaya wanna do? We've got four days off. Wanna go somewhere?"
That's how it all started — a nibble of wanderlust tempered by the realities of being a working stiff. Four days was great, but hardly enough time for a real adventure.
"Some friends of mine took the train to Savannah and had a great time. Said it was fun," our friend Marianne mentioned over beers at happy hour.
The seed was sown. I've loved trains since I was a little boy. Some of my fondest memories are from trains: lunch with Mom in the dining car, me in jacket and tie, her in white gloves and hat. Years later, rolling through a castle-lined valley toward Prague. Another: running down a Paris station platform to catch the Orient Express! I didn't imagine riding Amtrak to Savannah would compare, but I couldn't wait to go.
First stop: the Internet. Amtrak.com was pleasantly informative and easy to use. I learned that Train No. 98, "The Silver Meteor," departed Winter Park at 1:16 pm, and arrived in Savannah at 6:53 pm, early enough for dinner on River Street. The fare was only $40.00 each way.
We checked in at the Winter Park station and collected our boarding passes, experiencing no glitches with our Internet booked reservation and ticket purchases. It was exciting to be standing on the platform waiting to hear the distant wail of the whistle, or perhaps feel the ground faintly tremble as the behemoth locomotive approached. It brought back a flood of memories, some reaching back into childhood. Suddenly, I found myself humming tunes to train songs: "Chattanooga Choo Choo,""The Orange Blossom Special," and one that simply goes: "Ride the train, oooh, ride the train..."
The Northbound Silver Meteor left right on time, and we felt refreshingly liberated to not have been electronically scanned or patted down for liquids and gels exceeding three ounces. There was no safety demo explaining the complexities of a seatbelt or what to do should an oxygen mask appear before our eyes.
We found the train more crowded than expected — a fact that I hope bodes well for the future of American rail travel in light of threatened cuts to Amtrak's budget. We were shown to our reserved, coach-class seats by a courteous but very business-like conductor. The seats were spacious and comfortable, able to be reclined to an angle that would allow comfortable slumber. I learned from Amtrak.com that some trains now offer in-seat entertainment featuring popular cable TV channels, games, and music. The Silver Meteor, for now, lacks this feature, but I couldn't help wonder why I would need it. A much better show was playing right outside our window as the woodlands, lakes, rivers, and small towns of North Florida drifted by at a relaxed pace.
"Dinner in the diner, nothin' could be finer…" Another of those long forgotten but suddenly remembered songs came to mind. We selected lunch from a menu featuring salads, hot and cold sandwiches, pizza, and a main entree of chicken-fried steak. Sparse, compared to European trains, where dining car ambiance and menu choices rival that of a fine restaurant, but the burger was good, the waiter friendly, and the atmosphere pleasant and bright.
We returned to our seats and passed another 50 miles in easy conversation finding that the "rhythm of the rails," and the unhurried pace made time seem less relevant. Later we ventured to the lounge car for afternoon coffees where we met a few fellow rail travellers. Some, like the couple from Pennsylvania, were old hands who simply don't care for the airline experience and always travel by train. Others, like the young man from Miami, were riding the rails for the first time, reserving judgement until completion of the trip. Most were pleased with the overall experience and said they would do it again.
The late autumn sunset flickered through the reddening sweet-gum trees while we finished our coffees. Night settled over the Silver Meteor. As we made our way back to our seats, another lyric filled my head: "Nightime on the City of New Orleans… Changin' cars in Memphis, Tennessee… Halfway home and we'll be there by mornin'… Through the Mississippi darkness rollin' down to the sea…"
I struggled to recall the rest of that classic Arlo Guthrie ballad, but by the time I dredged up another line the conductor was announcing our arrival in Savannah. We disembarked at a utilitarian station wondering what had become of the magnificent depot a grand city such as Savannah surely once boasted.
Savannah, an old friend, welcomed us like the gracious, Southern lady she is. We strolled along Bay and River Streets that evening, and lolled away the next day in her genteel parks beneath centuries old live-oaks. In the window of an antique shop on Bull Street I spotted a faded photo of the grandiose Savannah rail depot that I was certain once existed. It was a palace! A palace befitting the discerning travellers and storied trains that it served, among them, the original Silver Meteor of the Atlantic Coast Line, an impeccably maintained string of gleaming sleepers, coaches, and diners that called at the Savannah depot each evening on her run from Miami to New York.
Today's Amtrak Silver Meteor falls short of the oppulence of her namesake, but I am ever so grateful she still runs, and that I had the chance to travel with her. It occured to me that most Americans under the age of 50 have never taken a railway journey. That is a pity. The good news: The Silver Meteor, and a few of her sisters are still rolling down the rails, so go, ride the train.
"Ride the train, oooh, ride the train… Anywhere I'm going I ride trains.