I was super ready to go to Florida on a road trip to deliver my kid to college.

Until the day came we actually had to slide in behind the wheel and calculate the distance to the first break, two hours down highway 66.

I was no longer ready to go.

Not for the reasons you think.

I had just driven from Virginia to L.A. so I was tired of driving.

I’d flown back to Virginia to deliver the youngest to his school 1,000 miles south.

This kid, who we’ll call “Seth,” was not eager to be stuck in the car with mom for 25 hours, although he politely didn’t put it that way.

“Why don’t we put the car on the train?” he asked.

So we did.

IMG_2253
Girls watch for their family’s car to emerge from the Amtrak Auto Train in Lorton Virginia this week.

I think my agreement surprised him because he rattled off the cost of hotels and gas as though he’d done the research in preparation for a debate.

The train cost about $600 for two passengers and the Mothership, an aging white Subaru.

I advised him he’d taken the wrong angle.

“With moms it’s all about safety,” I coached. “Statistically, taking the train for 17 hours is safer than driving for 25 … I’d pay for that.”

Assess the risk, that’s where the money is found.

Sensing the conversation turning south to insurance fraud, I commented that taking the train is far more romantic too.

I then lost my son in thought as he calculated things concerning his girlfriend, who will be at William and Mary in Virginia this fall.

 

The first time I put a car on a train I was hoping to get to Patagonia cheaper, faster and more scenically than the roads south from Santiago, Chile would take me.

I’d borrowed my uncle’s Japanese jeep, it was 1988, fall–March or April. The train car, built in 1926, meticulously preserved the very odor of the pre-depression era in its honey-colored velvet drapes. And my hopes were exceeded.

 

Today my Suburu, which I have named “Mothership,” boarded the only auto train in the United States in Lorton Virginia.

The seventeen-hour trip precludes smoking anywhere anytime and when the crew changes out in Florence during a 15-minute refueling stop, no one will be permitted to disembark. We are warned.

 

As I write, six hours later, we are hurtling along at an average speed of 55 miles an hour while I listen to less-than-agile passengers wobble through the lounge car to a bar featuring drinks slightly cheaper than those on the last flight I was on.

“If this were a drunk test, I would fail,” a young woman stumbling through says.

Passing by Pembroke, North Carolina, we have been told we are on schedule. We are hoping to arrive in Orlando, Florida on time, at 9 a.m., 17 hours after departure.

An intercom voice repeats that no smoking is permitted in any section of the train and warns that this includes restrooms. I look around for the culprit.

 

If I had paid an extra $50 I would have had the privilege of being among the first 25 passengers to be reunited with their Motherships. But I am too cheap so I fear I will be the 261st, or dead last. I’m sure that would delay our arrival in Coral Gables where my youngest son is due to check into his freshman dorm between noon and 2 p.m.

I’m not too worried about a timely arrival and fortunately, neither is he.

We are enjoying the notdrivingness.

Our train, a voice over loudspeaker informed us shortly after departure, is half an hour early (how do they DO that?) Other fun facts: the train comprises 16 passenger cars carrying 550 people and 22 car cars carrying those 261 vehicles, which include eight motorcycles.

The train–and at 43 cars that means there must be 5 engines– is three-quarters of a mile long. The voice did not enumerate, just told us that the power totaled that equal to 8,000 horses.

 

We arrive, haltingly, in Florence, the halfway point, for refueling and crew swap.

A man pleads with the barkeep to be allowed to descend. He is holding an unlit cigarette and a lighter. The man in a blue suit answers with “right here” and points to the nearby exit stairs. The passenger intones that he might kill someone if he doesn’t get a cigarette. The blue suit says ‘don’t go far and be sure to reboard right here’ in a voice that indicates he is bending backward for this indulgence.

Wifi passwords, scrawled with a pencil on a scrap of cardboard and jammed into a window frame, offer no sensical derivative. But they work … slowly and best in towns.

As I get to know the routine of this lumbering yet dreamlike train ride, I realize I am a newbie and this thing, this snake of logistical practicality, is a part of people’s lives. “They used to serve wine at dinner,” a tablemate remorses. “Free.”

I inquire. Pinot Grigio, no name given, is $16.50 for a half carafe. I decline.

In operation since 1983, the train shortens the trip for ‘snowbirds,’ people who migrate seasonally from homes in the north to homes in the sun.

As people wobble back and forth through the cars, pile bagels and milk boxes from tubs laid out on the lounge car tables into cardboard trays for their seat mates, I grasp for a moment what makes the train romantic.

About to fall in any stranger’s lap, about to spill my coffee on someone’s blanket, I am humbled. The risk of embarrassment, the likelihood of encroaching into someone’s personal space … it forces us to look into each other’s eyes and smile.

It’s an intimacy.

Then moments of magic slip by. I stare out the window pretending not to hear the man across the aisle snoring unevenly. His partner, a woman his age, tries to wake him but I signal for her to let him sleep. He has been sneezing and sniffling … there’s a box of Kleenex out. I mouth the words “he needs some sleep.”

Then I turn away, “Oh yeah,” I remember, it really isn’t any of my business.

A break in the greenery slips by in the early morning southern Virginia sun revealing a glimpse of the Roanoke River. Backlit mist rising from the water takes my breath in and I hear someone else several seats back, also gasp at the splendor.

The scene passes too quickly for anyone to share it even with a seatmate.

 

We arrive in Sanford early enough that Seth must be wakened in order to get breakfast. He reports that he only just now got to sleep.

We descend the train and wait two hours for our car, one of the last to emerge from the tunnels of two-story train cars that line up at 3 stations to disembark. A team of orange-clad drivers carefully delivers the vehicles, which are announced like horses at a track, as they round the bend, by number.

IMG_2216
Passengers wait for their cars at Sanford, Florida Station.

After three days of orientation I face a lonely drive home on interstate 95. After the four hour drive from Miami I pull over after I pass the turnoff to the Sanford train station, at a rest area. I check online … tickets remain available so I look for a phone number on my old ticket folder.

I laugh when I see it: 1-877-SKIP-I-95. That sounds awfully good to me. I calculate that if I stay at a hotel tonight, the cost of driving home is about $250. And I am getting sleepy.

I splurge and spend $445 to take the train.