Monday, February 19, 2007

amtrak: destination holland, michigan

“how 1940s of you!” mused a manhattan friend of michigan origins when i told him of my plans to travel by train to visit my parents in the wolverine state.

at 3:30 on a saturday afternoon i walked down sidewalks on 7th and 8th avenues--teaming with people out shopping in the nippy weather. not much more than an hour later--ensconced in a large seat on amtrak’s lakeshore limited with lots of leg room--frozen ponds and the hudson‘s icy floes passed by. these stretches of icy marshes and bogs along america’s first river provided a backdrop for earnest snipes and other birds oblivious to our incursion.

with its bluffs and wooded groves, the train route from new york city to albany-rensaleer is inspirational. not having been up this way since a syracuse-bound trip in october 1987, i was accompanied on this journey is doris kearns goodwin’s “team of rivals: the political genius of abraham lincoln.” its riveting documentation of partisan politics and intrigue is more than familiar to one living in 2007. if you haven’t read this wonderful 2005 book by simon & schuster already, it provides a great window upon our nation’s worst war (our civil war having a higher american death toll than that of all the wars the u.s. has fought up through the first five years of the vietnam conflict). albany--with its newly (and tastefully) renovated station--yielded a nice stretch and a cup of coffee that my rush to get to penn station didn’t allow.

at some point in the snowy expanse of upstate new york, reading eyes surrendered to sleep--interrupted in rochester when flashlight wielding green-uniformed representatives of the border patrol came on board. “that your bag there?” one asked me while shining a flashlight into my sleepy eyes. when i answered “yes,” they were on their way down the car asking the same of others. they exited a few minutes later accompanied by four spanish-speaking individuals handcuffed to each other--one of whom sought assistance in rapid voice on his cell phone as he was led off the train. [on the return trip on march 1, a chinese gentleman came under their scrutiny--being interrogated in full view of other passengers.]

the bucolic scene at erie, pa.--with flurries bombarding that station’s sign--marked exit from the empire state’s large expanse. in dark early morning hours, a bright electronic sign at the stadium home of the cleveland browns overlooked that city's lakefront station.
we stopped in toledo to welcome--and bid farewell--to the number of detroit passengers who utilize that station. white encrusted farmland in indiana followed: straw remains of last year’s crop peeking above the snow. stops in south bend and elkart followed--our train blessed with a retinue of amish citizens. here, however, things got sticky. we trailed four freight trains that “took precedence” over us. what that meant was a substantial wait--making us several hours late for our 9:45 am chicago arrival. at one point, our train had to reverse itself to allow a freight train through on these undedicated tracks.

in chicago, i walked toward the loop and marveled at the icy waterways pictured above--passing by on a michigan avenue bridge named after that city’s mayor of the gangsters, william hale “big bill” thompson. snack wraps and coffee called from a food court a few blocks from the train station where i ingested the fast food and read about the incompetence of the prickly and disobedient union general george mcclellan.

unlike new york city’s penn station, in which passengers just board amtrak’s trains, chicago’s union stations is more “airport-like,” with its calls for elderly and people with small children to board first. competing for seats with scores of young girls and their parents--in chicago for a gymnastics competition--at 5:15 p.m. i made my way down the platform to the three doubledecker cars of the pere marquette en route to grand rapids via new buffalo, st. joseph, bangor/south haven, and holland. my minor descents into dreamland were broken by the antics of young girls playing tricks on their parents. (the latter quickly had dvds going to keep their daughters mollified by movies.)

the pere marquette chugged into a snowy, well-lit holland, michigan station at nearly 10 p.m. on sunday--its parking lot filled with cars of those greeting arrivals. as i drove home with my parents in their suv, the three doubledecker cars followed behind their chugging engine into the blustery night toward their final destination of the furniture city.

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