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I part the curtains this morning to see rain and ominous clouds racing along with the train. Not the best way to glide into Washington DC, but there are so many things to do in this place, it doesn't bother me.
I step off the Silver Meteor and head out with my umbrella, first to the National Art Gallery, then to the National Archives. As long as I'm in town, I might as well proofread the Constitution. One never knows. There could be typos.
Karen Harris and parents, Helen and Jack Will, are off on a 10-day, cross-country adventure beginning on the Silver Meteor.
A soggy day doesn't diminish the experience, and so it's with satisfaction that I return to Union Station later that afternoon to board the Capitol Limited once again.
The Sightseer Car is filled with passengers chatting excitedly as we pick up speed, rushing past the dazzling monuments sprinkled throughout the capitol city. Sitting beside me is Karen, who is traveling America by rail with her husband and parents, Jack and Helen. They're at the starting line of a 10-day round trip to Chicago, Reno, Sacramento and Las Vegas, then back to DC.
"Before this, we rode our motorcycles to every state," she says. "Now we're riding the train for the first time," and she smiles like a kid who's been given a pony.
For John and Arlene, the adventure is just as exciting, even though it's not their first train trip. On an Amtrak pass, my dinner companions this night are headed for the west coast via Chicago to Emeryville, with a side tour to San Francisco. From there they'll journey to Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, then head back to San Francisco again. I find their itinerary dazzling (and sort of exhausting) but I also envy them. What's even more impressive is the whole trip was spur-of-the-moment.
"Some friends invited us along and so we were impetuous and just decided, 'why not?'"
Sitting beside me, Anthony, a young man from Seattle on his first Amtrak adventure, is just as awed by their schedule. He loves his trip so far, heading to Chicago for a friend's wedding.
"I can't believe the leg room I have in coach," he says. "I fell asleep earlier and I was just so comfortable."
After dinner, the crowd in the Sightseer Car is hushed as we glide through Cumberland. In the fading light, I can still make out a hand-painted sign on an ancient building — "Shoe Hospital." Is it possible there is an actual cobbler in this small town? It feels like we've gone back in time.
Raindrops race each other down the glass while outside there's a distant thunderclap. The reward for all this precipitation is thick emerald foliage edging the tracks, so refreshing to see after the barren landscape I left behind at home. Beyond the tracks, the Youghiogheny River rushes along, now familiar, though I still can't pronounce its name.
And just like that, darkness descends. I find myself nodding off and check my watch. 9:00 pm. I haven't gone to bed this early since the third grade. I guess we really have gone back in time.
Loving her first Amtrak trip, Dilini Wijeweera is excited to explore Chicago's architecture once she arrives.
The day blooms bright and I'm happy to be seated in the diner with a good cup of coffee, a hot breakfast and a new friend. Dilini is a young woman from Sri Lanka who is journeying back to the University of Washington from a conference in DC. She's a Fulbright Fellow studying Public Policy, who prior to returning to school, had spent ten years as a very successful architect. Then in 2004, the tsunami hit.
With tears in her eyes she tells me, "I realized then what I was doing had no meaning. That's when I gave it up and went back to school."
In two months she'll graduate, then Dilini will work as a Knowledge Management Specialist in Public Policy. She'll return to Sri Lanka to advise the government on maintaining cost-efficient communication systems for the working poor. In a country where the infrastructure is both crumbling and nearly non-existent, cell phones are too often the only means of public notification in the event of catastrophe. I was truly inspired by this young woman, who had taken a horrible tragedy and used it as a catalyst to affect change.
It seems now this entire journey has been about change. And really, if there was ever a metaphor for change, it's the train. It's very evolution was the drive for significant transformation across the country. As we glide into the Chicago's backyard, returning to where my journey began, I find myself hoping the experience that is the train — leisurely, comfortable travel, glorious scenery, delicious food (and cheesecake) and the opportunity to make new friends — always remains the same.
I check the weather in Minneapolis on this 8th of May. It's a balmy 53 degrees. Ah, yes. Spring in the Midwest. Some things never change.