Smile Politely

The bus well traveled

I headed back to Champaign-Urbana for the holiday break and managed to put together a rather slapdash multi-modal itinerary. To satisfy my yearning for a long cross country train trip, I booked a one way outbound Hartford to Champaign trip on Amtrak for a reasonable $142 just days before departure. I didn’t have a fixed return date due to some personal complications so I left the return leg open to be determined once I got settled in Illinois. The trip could last three days or all week, and there was a possibility of getting a ride back. Lots of balls were in the air from a planning perspective.

Due to my continuing carfree status the first sub-leg of my journey was a five mile bike ride to Union Station in Hartford on a chilly Christmas Eve morning. The train left at an uncomfortable 6:50 a.m. and the earliest bus in from East Hartford wouldn’t get me to the station in time. I loaded up the sturdy rear newspaper rack on my three-speed Huffy (unloaded a sprightly 47 lbs) with a large duffel and a backpack secured by bungees. I locked the Huff right in front of the station at a bike rack, tucked my helmet into a plastic bag tied to the frame, and had plenty of time to figure out catching the train.

My Amtrak route was circuitous, heading to Washington D.C. and then Chicago before a final jot down to Champaign. I was impressed with the Hartford to DC leg on the Northeast Regional from a future usefulness perspective. Driving to DC is a royal pain due to the East Coast congestion and potential weather issues this time of year. The car trip is a good six hours and can be eight or more with regular amounts of traffic congestion or construction. With this in mind the six and a half hour Amtrak journey is damn competitive compared to a solitary car trip. Six and a half hours of time spent on a laptop, reading, or chatting with new acquaintances beats six to eight hours of stressful and dangerous driving.  As an added bonus the DC train station is right downtown and very convenient for visiting the Capitol.  I took advantage of that location to walk around DC and see the sights during my 3 ½ hour layover, something one can’t experience with a flight layover.

The next leg of the journey was the most imposing, seventeen hours from DC to Chicago on the Capitol Limited. What does one do on a train for seventeen solid hours, and why does it take that long? I found that the key to successful long distance train travel is to relax. I was on vacation anyway and would be spending a lot of time reading.

A train ride is just another venue for reading interspersed with relaxed gazing at rolling landscapes. One gets to know other passengers on the train, especially when traveling solo. Train travelers are a diverse and interesting bunch and more liable to chat than your standard airplane seat partner. I’m generally not a chatty traveler (a bit shy), but found myself having some educating multi-cultural discussions with my seat partner and another traveler in the lounge car. Another bonus relative to car travel is that one can “walk” the train. Tired of sitting? Take a walk. Grab a bite to eat at the cafe car. Do jumping jacks or yoga if it pleases you.

The only part that I didn’t like about the train ride was the overnight portion. Sleeping in the coach seats was marginal, sort of like a poorly designed business class seat for international air travel. I’m a champion sleeper, but still woke up several times during the night to change positions with sore spots and portions of my body tingling. This could be managed with strategic pillow placement, but I definitely haven’t mastered train sleeping. Despite the rough night I was pleasantly surprised by the post apocalyptic industrial landscape on the south side of Lake Michigan coming into Chicago. The factories, refineries, chemical plants, and power plants — some clearly abandoned and collapsing — flank the lake for miles and could be the backdrop to a Mad Max movie. I anxiously awaited the dune buggies that would hijack the train and steal all the diesel.

There was a rather long seven hour layover in Chicago before the short trip down to Urbana-Champaign. I parked my bags in a locker at the station and went for a walk. There was four inches of fresh snow on the ground and Chicago wore it well. I hiked past the Field Museum and the Planetarium and found Northerly Island, which had been an airport until 2003 when Mayor Daley had the runway destroyed in the middle of the night to protect Chicago from terrorists. From there I strolled through the gentrified neighborhoods of the South Loop. I also had some time to walk around West of the Loop. I am under the impression that Chicago developers overbuilt downtown condo buildings and hope to find a reason to move to the city and take advantage of their short sales and foreclosures.  

After arriving in C-U via the Illini I walked the two miles “home”. My Illinois visit ended up lasting the full week. On Thursday I planned my trip back to Connecticut since my potential carpool didn’t work out as hoped. What seemed to make the most sense was the short train trip up to Chicago on Sunday afternoon and a frequent flier miles trip from O’Hare to Bradley on Monday afternoon. My cousin Anne lives in Chicago and I used the intentional layover to spend some quality family time. On Monday morning after a leisurely bagel I hoped on El stop blocks away from Anne’s apartment and had a stress free trip to the airport.  

The return six hour flight back to Connecticut was an entirely different animal than the composite thirty-six hour train trip. I lucked into a First Class upgrade on the short Chicago to Detroit leg and grabbed a couple of snacks that were exclusive to the forward cabin. On the Detroit to Hartford leg my seat mate pulled me into a discussion of my reading material, Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  I got to ask her how she liked her David Sedaris book and we veered off into John Irving and J. D. Salinger.  I’m now planning to check out Salinger’s Franny and Zooey on her recommendation.

The final leg of my return trip on the CT Transit Bradley Flyer made me a little nervous. I’m never quite sure where the stops are (usually poorly marked) and having the requisite change on hand is something I don’t do well. Those concerns aside, the Bradley Flyer was the best option for getting from the airport to Hartford’s downtown Union Station where my bike was parked. I was pleasantly surprised at the ease of the trip and the size of the crowd on the bus. While living in C-U I wrote an article on the under utilized Airbus service, The Bus Less Traveled. The Bradley Flyer had fifteen passengers, many of whom were picked up along the service road lined with airport parking and hotels. I’m guessing most of the passengers were making minimum wage at these establishments and the Bradley Flyer bus route helped make ends meet.

My multi-modal trip behind me, I reflect on how many different ways there are to get from Point A to Point B. In my quest to find the “best” ways from A to B, this was a productive trip. Experiences with the Hartford to DC train and the Bradley Flyer bus are new options that have bought their way into future trip plans. The Bradley Flyer is a key enabler for my car free lifestyle. Yay for transit! Yay for bikes!

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