Thursday, January 28, 2010

Endless Journey

We couldn't get back to IL for Christmas this year, so we decided to go in January. We booked Amtrak for the first time, because I didn't want to drive 8 hours in the snow. As I clicked the "purchase" button I wondered if this was a good idea, but I went ahead anyway, risk-taker that I am.

The station we were going to in IL, wasn't equipped to accept checked bags, so we had to do all carry ons. Me, Joe, 5 kids, 3 duffels, 1 pullman, 3 backpacks and 1 suitcase arrived at Union Station, at 7 a.m., in anticipation of the 7:45 train to IL. Joe was going to stay just long enough to get us onto the train, because he had a flight to California a bit later in the day. The best laid plans...

We get to Union Station and drag our bags to the waiting room, then I go to the ticket counter to get my tickets. When you make reservations on Amtrak, all you get is a bar code to print out, then you have to get the tickets the day of your trip. When I get up there, the ticket guy tells me the train isn't scheduled to depart until 9:30 a.m. ARRGGHH!

I go into the waiting room and break the news. We decide to take the kids out for breakfast and then come back. "Be back here at 8:45 or you'll miss the train," the ticket guy tells me. We have an hour and a half at this point. So we rush out to Cascone's and order breakfast. Now, when we are at home, and whether the kids eat cereal for breakfast or bacon and eggs, it always takes, like, 2 hours. I am constantly yelling at them to hurry it up. We get into Cascone's, order, and the kids are completely done by 8:00. What the??? So we stretch the time out by making them drink every last drop of the huge mugs of cocoa we ordered and then taking them all to the restroom, one by one.

We get back to Union Station by 8:45. The ticket guy says, "10:15." Ten fifteen!!!! I have an hour and a half with five very tired kids in a now, very crowded waiting room (note to self: if the train is late don't go out to breakfast or you will not get seats in the waiting room) with all that luggage. Lord, help me! Joe had to leave or he was going to miss his flight. I found a couple of seats next to each other (OK, what really happened was I made the kids squeeze in until the woman, who had PLENTY OF ROOM to do so, moved down a bit). Then I got a chair that was hiding in a corner and brought it over and sat in it. Bella made a bed out of the duffels, covered herself with jackets and took a nap. The girls took out their drawing supplies and got to work. Noah read and Charlie busied himself by studying all the other people waiting right along with us. They were SO GOOD! I was even able to play my new, hand-held Yahtzee game that I got for Christmas and thought I would never use. It was pleasant and the time went rather quickly. At 9:55, a voice came on the PA. All it said was, "10:55." I get up to see what's going on, but the grate to the ticket window is closed and the ticket guys have magically vanished into thin air.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Lord! I am with 5 children! They are tired! I cannot believe that they are not cranky! But I KNOW it's coming! Make the train come now! Pick it up and bring it here! Please!!!!!"

It is good that most people cannot see what you are thinking. So, while the above outburst is happening, privately, in my brain, I hand out bagels. Again, the children are well behaved. They sit. They eat. They throw their garbage in the can without having to be reminded.

At 10:55, and unusual thing happened. As if on cue, everyone in the waiting room got up, picked up their stuff, and formed a line that began at the door to the tracks. The kids and I dragged all our stuff and stood on line, too. Charlie started to get antsy. Poor guy. I couldn't blame him. But I was armed with lots of chewing gum and I wasn't afraid to use it. The gum calmed him down. Noah and Genevieve begin to bicker. The usual "he/she's touching me" stuff. Honestly, I can't blame them...they have been awake for over 5 hours at this point and they are tired. We stand there..and stand there. I look at my phone. 11:30. "If I drove," I think, "I would have been close to the Mississippi by now."

We wait some more. I find myself sighing a lot. Finally we see someone come into the door from the track. More people follow. There is no announcement, but all of a sudden a guy in a blue hat appears and starts taking tickets. Wahoo! We shuffle up to the door with our bags and onto the icy walk that is very long and will take you to either a very slick stairway down to the platform or an elevator. I opt for the elevator. We wait for the elevator. The elevator doesn't come. We wait some more. I panic. What if we miss the train because we are waiting for the elevator? Finally, it shows up and we get down to the platform. There is a conductor right there. We drag our bags over to him and I ask him where we need to be if we want to go to Chicago. He points toward the end of the train. "See that vary last car? That's where you want to be." Of course...of course it is. So we haul butt down there and the conductor relieves us of the heavier bags and we go up top to find a seat. Finally, at 12:10 p.m., the train departs.

The ride was really pleasant. The train wasn't crowded, so we had double seats all to ourselves. I played Yahtzee all the way through Iowa and got a high score of 416..all right! The kids drew, read and snacked. Angelina made a bed out of a sweatshirt and a jacket and napped most of the way.

When we got to the station, the door was frozen shut and the conductor had to kick it in, but other than that the landing was fine. I call my Dad and let him know we are there. He tells me he will be there in 5 minutes. It was a cold 5 minutes. He calls me again. "I can see you...can you see me?" I look all around. Can't see anyone. The place looks deserted. "Look over here!" he yells. WHERE? We keep walking and dragging the bags until I hear someone yelling. I hang up the phone and look up. He is standing right there. Whew!

Our visit was good. Didn't get to see everyone we wanted to, but the kids saw their cousins and friends and had lots of fun.

The train home was scheduled for 3:50 p.m. We picked up some fast food to bring for dinner and the train actually arrived on time... a good sign! We get on the train and the conductor tells me to get seats downstairs because the majority of the ones upstairs are full. I look around. There are 12 seats total. Six have no one in them, but one of those has a briefcase in it, like someone left it there to save their seat. "Sir," I say to the conductor, "It looks like there are not enough seats." He ROLLS HIS EYES at me. I try to be polite. "Um, I am traveling with 4 minors and an adult with autism and we really need to be together." He presses his lips together and then emits an exasperated sigh. "Those are the seats I have," he says firmly. "OK, I tell you what," I say, sweetly, "I will go find an empty seat upstairs and let the kids stay down here, but understand that there will be 4 minors and an adult with autism unsupervised for 7 hours to Kansas City." A man appears behind him and says, nervously, "You want me to start shuffling people around up there?" At this point I think the conductor is going to blow. Then Bella comes to the rescue. She asked around and the briefcase doesn't seem to belong to anyone in the car. So I give the briefcase to the exasperated conductor and we take the seats. He puts the briefcase in with the other bags and leaves. "Great," I think, "It's probably a bomb and it is about 3 feet from me and my kids...what a way to go." Then I say my usual prayers of protection for the kids, but with a bit more fervor this time.

The ride home was not as blissful as the ride there. The car was hot and the kids made about 2,487 trips to the bathroom, which was, conveniently, just outside the door. At least one of the kids wanted to get up every 26.4 seconds and I couldn't get through one Yahtzee game without being interrupted by a child doing the pee pee dance. But we survived. The train was only 9 minutes late into Union Station. By the time we pulled into the garage, it was close to midnight and everyone was so very happy to be home and sleeping in their own beds. I am sure the conductor was happy we were home, too.