She lived to tell the tale

In defiance of all public health advice, from Dec. 13 to Jan. 1, I traveled more than 5,000 miles by train and auto to spend time with my daughter and my brother, whom I had not seen since Christmas 2019.

It was a calculated, managed risk. Christmas 2020 (is that an oxymoron?) was to be our eighth celebration of the Feast of Seven Fishes. It seemed to me that the mental health benefits of seeing my family outweighed the physical health risks. With a lot of help from family, friends, and the fantastic employees of Amtrak, my calculation was accurate.

So many folks have asked me about this adventure that it seemed best to describe it this way, on our blog.

Go? No go?

My brother complained in August that he could not face the possibility we would not be together for Christmas in Indianapolis — a family tradition linked to Johanna’s tenure at the Eiteljorg Museum. We have gathered every Christmas since 2013 to bake cookies, prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes, play games, listen to music, and visit Johanna’s current exhibits.

Feast of Seven Fishes, 2014: Bagna cauda, crab dip, mussels in vermouth, smelt on a bed of chard, oysters, smoked white fish, salmon.

I vowed we would get there if I had to drive my 15-year old Subaru all the way and back.

And then Larry’s emails containing articles about Amtrak’s travel promotions began. Despite skepticism and worry from Johanna about my safety in trains and train stations, figuring out a route, picking the dates, and buying the tickets took 48 hours — about the same amount of time it took to ride the rails from Williston, North Dakota to Trenton, New Jersey.

My route was the Empire Builder from Williston to Chicago, the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh to Trenton.

Amtrak has imposed stringent COVID protocols for pandemic train travel. And the employees enforce them. Whether you are riding in coach, business, sleeper car, or waiting in a station, the rules apply. My trip included waits at train stations in Williston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Trenton. In every one the seating was spread out, folks wore masks, announcements to remind travelers about social distancing and masking blared periodically. The best waits were in Chicago’s glorious Union Station, and on the platform in Trenton, where the masked Amtrak manager stayed out in the cold and chatted with me (after helping schlep my suitcase) about coming renovations and our shared hope that having a “train guy” as President might mean some future TLC for our railroad infrastructure and rolling stock.

Chicago’s beautiful Union Station.
And the snazzy Metropolitan Lounge where sleeper car passengers awaited their connections, comfortable, socially distanced, and masked.

Train travel options vary. On the long distance routes, like the Empire Builder, Superliner cars have the rooms and services on the top, and you move through the train on the upper level. My choice was for a “roomette,” basically a closet with two seats that merge into a bed. A roomier option is the “bedroom,” which has a bathroom and shower, but it costs more. The roomette choice includes all meals, four bathrooms (one up, three down), a shower (down), access to the dining car and the observation car, and your personal attendant. Attendants turn down the bed and fold it up again in the morning, bring your meals if you choose, keep you supplied with plenty of water, towels, and help you with anything you need. They scan tickets, make announcements, remind you to keep your mask on unless your roomette door is closed, clean the bathrooms, and pretty much rule their Superliner cars. (The attendant on my first leg threw a guy off the train for smoking. Yes. She did.)

Bed in sleeping configuration.
Seats in traveling configuration.

To be clear, I love trains. I grew up in a historic little industrial town where two rivers and five rail companies flowed together. My childhood dreams were punctuated by the THUMP of rail cars coupling in the yard across the river. My uncle took us down to the round house to talk with the railroad workers and we even got to climb up into the engine one time. We took the train to New York City to see the Christmas Pageant, the circus, and once a big trade show about fur, because my dad worked in a fur factory. Many years later, while living in Washington, D.C., I chose the train as my mode of travel, whether personal or business. Even after moving to South Dakota and flying east several times a year, I figured out how to select my airport in order to do ground transportation by rail.

All that by way of saying this train trip was meant to be.

Clickety clack

The stresses of 2020, trying to work and be productive while it seemed everything was crashing down around us, the confinement — even though Ed and I spent a lot of time getting into the outdoors and wild places of West River — the quiet alone time in my roomette was exactly what I needed to get ready and restored for celebration with my brother and my daughter.

I read a couple books, did some embroidery, and watched the gold and silver northern plains transition to Minnesota forests and lakes. Watched eagles fishing at open holes in the ice, and ospreys fishing aerially. When it was impossible for me to connect to a business virtual meeting because there was no wifi service on the Empire Builder, I heaved a sigh of relief.

Highly recommend.

Land of 10000 Lakes

Amtrak has figured out how to market train travel during this time when flying still seems unwise. Especially from South Dakota, where your chances of being stuck in a horribly crowded airport are way higher than 50-50. They have two-for-the-price-of-one deals, they have figured out how to safeguard their passengers, they are working on expanding connections to feeder rail lines. I’m already figuring out how Ed and I might visit friends and family on the west coast later this year, by taking the Empire Builder westward to Seattle and Portland.

I know it wasn’t Amtrak that arranged it, but here’s a benefit you cannot get in a plane or automobile. We departed Williston on Sunday night, December 13. My roomette was on the north side of the train, which hurtled eastward across snowy North Dakota at 80 miles an hour. Aside from an occasional barn light on an isolated ranch, it was dark. The sky glittered with stars, not a wisp of moisture or air pollution. And the Geminid meteor showers commenced. A glorious light show! It went on for hours, and each time my eyes got heavy and I almost dozed off, another burst would explode across the sky and keep me wakeful for the next round.

My adventure would not have been possible without help from family and friends: Ed supported my decision to travel, even though I agonized over whether I was being selfish and stupid and super-spreading. (I DO live in South Dakota, after all.) Larry pitched in for the roomette. Friend Carol sent me an N-95 mask from California. Everyone I talked to advised, encouraged, and chided me to observe the strictest measures: no contact before departure, taking my temperature, masking, all the stuff. Granddaughter Caroline drove me to Williston, picked me up and drove us back to Rapid City upon my return — an addition of 700+ miles to the 1800 rail miles and 1200 round-trip road miles from Easton to Indianapolis.

Feast Fish #2: Scallops with white bean ragu.

Best of all, Larry and Johanna made me laugh, prepped for our cooking, picked good music, and kept the cocktails flowing.

Joy to the world.

My Sweetest and Only Pea, Johanna Fennel Hands.
Brewing up a bourbon renewal.

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