I began this letter as we worked our way across New York state this morning, on the last leg of the train portion of our trip. Although we still have a week left of our time away from home, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on our train trip across the country and back. So without further ado:

Dear Amtrak,

Having spent the last three weeks traveling from Albany to Los Angeles and back — a large portion of which was done by train — I’d like to first say that, overall it has been a pleasure. With all of my grumbling about waiting for the train to come on the first leg of our trip, someone asked me why I would ever want to do a trip like this. And, with the two day trip from L.A. to Kansas City nearly resulting in a family room meltdown, there were moments when I did wonder myself. But in looking back, I have to say that I would do it over again. I might try to arrange things a little bit differently, but, yes, I would do it again.

As our train attendant, Peggy, said yesterday, there’s nothing like true train people. They are open and friendly and warm and engaging. To my deep happiness, I’ve found that they are not overly chatty, but instead, at least in my recent experience, seem to be able to tell when one is in a conversational mood. The lounge/observation car is often the scene of these discussions, but I found that taking advantage of the 15-minute “smoking” stops at various train station platforms along the route counted for some of my most vivid memories. The town in Iowa that first night after Chicago that was 100 degrees and humid, the little town up in the Rockies where almost the entire sleeper car got out for a walkabout, and Lamar, CO, where Lucy and the 13-year-old from L.A. (“but I was born in New York, so I’m really a New Yorker”) talked about the differences between a childhood in California (“I’ve never seen snow”) and Massachusetts (with Lucy describing what Cape Cod is to a Californian who didn’t know Mass. had any beaches). I’ll also fondly remember our neighbors in the California Zephyr sleeper car — the 60-something musician couple traveling from festival to festival and the 70-something beyond sweet couple who were on a vacation to the west coast and who sang along until the train attendant came down and told us that we were making a little bit too much noise and all instruments needed to be moved to the lounge car. (I will also, however, not-so-fondly remember our original Southwest Chief neighbors who took one look at our kids and asked to be moved. I don’t think they smiled or even acknowledged our presence once in our 12 hours of shared journeying. Ironically, they and their two teenagers did manage to make more noise closing the doors of their roomettes than I thought was possible, most of that between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. when they finally detrained [to use railroad parlance]. I must admit, if James was going to pick a night to wake up at 4 a.m. and cry for an hour due to a tooth coming in, I’m glad it was that one. I’m also happy to say that the Sourpusses replacements were a lovely woman from Kansas and a couple of semi-retired college professors traveling with their 20-something daughter — real train people all around).

Another major plus is watching the scenery roll by. As I told Lucy and Will (in order to entice them away from their electronic devices): there are parts of the Rockies that can only be seen from the train. There are literally no roads, no people anywhere else for miles around. And coming up out of the New Mexico desert into the Colorado canyons (training directly through the aftermath of a forest fire no less) while eating a surprisingly good oven-baked chicken dinner is quite a memorable experience, not to mention watching the countryside change from state to state to state.

With that said, oh mighty Amtrak Powers That Be, I do have a suggestion or two that might make the entire experience just a teensy bit better for your passengers:

1) Is it really that hard to get wifi service on your trains? If busses and commuter rail have it, then why can’t the cross-country trains? You’re already using satellite service for the credit card machines in the cafe and dining cars, why not tie it into a wifi hotspot and let your passengers take advantage?

2) The second most egregious downside is the lack of cup holders; even baby stroller manufacturers have figured this out. It’s hard enough to convince travelers to choose trains over other modes of transportation. A lack of cup holders does nothing for you. And yes, I do understand that it’s probably ridiculously expensive to retrofit a fleet of trains, but having the current (i.e., newer car) cup indentations be an inch deep rather than a centimeter doesn’t even come close to cutting it. I hear that you’re ordering up a whole new set of ‘revenue cars’ (i.e., sleepers, dining, and lounge cars, a.k.a. we’ve-got-you-where-we-want-you-and-may-as-well-commit-highway-[or maybe train]-robbery-with-our-prices cars). Once you’ve got the safety and logistical things down, I’d make cup holders be the next thing on the list.

3) Along those lines, the space usage in the sleeper cars could be much improved. First of all, there is nothing but dead space underneath the cup [non] holders. Why not break through the indentation, provide a basket-type thing, and, voila, you have yourself a cup holder? Similarly, install some of those cargo-net-type things up and down the walls and sleeper passengers will have something to place their books, phones, etc. in as they drift off to sleep. The current rimless shelves are a sorry excuse. And kudos for the numerous coat hooks in the cabins, but make them just a bit heftier and they become hooks for the purses and bags that otherwise take up precious space on the floor. These are just some obvious things; a yacht or space designer — or, I’m sure, any one of the attendants who spend their days and nights living out of the rooms — could make some huge strides in making the roomettes more livable.

4) Along the lines of customer service, there’s a lot of opportunity as well, with communication being a major issue. Having the PA systems work consistently throughout the trains would be a start. Having the conductors (and lounge car and coach/sleeper attendants) use them regularly would be a close follow-up. For example, all the involved parties on our California Zephyr trip were excellent: the lounge car attendant was wonderfully welcoming and jolly, the conductor regularly informative, and the lounge car attendant reassuringly present. I found it made the trip both homey and comforting, despite the part about getting stuck in a remote area of the Rockies thanks to “track work” whereas the last leg if our trip – the east bound Lake Shore Limited – was silent and, IMHO, kind of isolating.

5) It’s great that you have a seat-assignment process on the long distance trains west of Chicago. (And maybe east — my only recent experience with coach on the east side if the country is going to NYC and that tends to be first-come-first-served.) It would be nice, however, if you mentioned it somewhere along the way. And, yes, granted, it might be in the literature somewhere (although not anywhere I came across it), but even so, maybe the people that sold us the thousands of dollars worth of tickets (or maybe the people who do the checking in part, or the conductor who takes the tickets in the station, or even the coach car attendant who sees the family of 5 that includes three young children, one of whom is an infant, waiting patiently for, oh, TWO HOURS on the floor of the Kansas City train station, in order to get four seats together on a train that’s been occupied since Los Angeles and merely tells us not to get on the train yet) could mention it. Because it sure would be a lot better to know that in advance than it was to wait for the two hours, rush us all to the train so that we maintained our place at the front of the line, find four seats together, only to find put that they’d been given to someone else. Just sayin’. (A special shout-out to 18-year veteran Southwest Chief attendant, Peggy, who, even before learning that we hadn’t in fact been two hours late to catch the train, promised us she’d get us the four seats after some people got off at the next stop.) Even better? Assign seat numbers when you sell the tickets. If my daughter’s dance recital can come with assigned seats, so can a major transportation outfit. I have faith. It would make a lot of people’s rides a lot more comfortable.

6) When you change the starting station of a massively long train trip from Boston to Albany, how about proactively telling folks rather than having them find out because they checked their itinerary online and then called to make the correction. Although we appreciate that you would have bussed us between the two stations, driving was a much better option for us for a variety of reasons. I’m glad we happened upon the information in time for us to plan accordingly.

7) And, finally, let’s talk about train stations, of which you have some beauties. The Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles Union Stations all have some spectacularly beautiful features. The great halls in Chicago and Kansas City are gorgeous, as is much of the detail throughout the buildings, and the leather art deco seats and tilework in L.A. are a surprising and welcome detail. It’s unfortunate that the more recent updates have almost entirely nullified them and rendered them almost entirely inactive. I truly do understand the need to do something about, say, the mightily unused space in K.C. once train travel became supplanted; using large portions of the station for exhibit and theater space most likely saved the building — which I think I read was the third biggest in the country at one point. It’s a shame, though, that the entire Amtrak presence is now relegated to a tiny, out-of-the-way back set of cramped, poorly used rooms. At the very least, someone could remove the no-longer-used information desk (lovely detail though it may be), and allow room for passengers exiting trains to actually exit. As it now stands, they must push their way through people waiting for baggage claim, people waiting to check-in for a train, and people waiting to board. Not a great system.

8 ) Redcap stations would also help. Cross country travelers — even those who are not us — have a lot of bags. Trying to figure out where to be is hard enough without having to also wrestle with bags. In L.A. having an 11- and 8-year old who could stay with bags while one of us returned the rental car and the other tried to figure out where our train left from ended up being key if a little bit unnerving. (With Security neither allowing us to keep the car parked in front of the station once it was unloaded, nor to linger with our bags, we didn’t have much of an option.) (Speaking of which, the Security Dept. at L.A.’s train station is On Top Of Things. Boy, do they keep you moving along!) Although there was actually a well-placed Info Desk (unlike the one in Chicago that is located deep in the bowels of the station, found only after elbowing through the crowds waiting in all the lines that you figure out before you even see the word ‘info’), redcaps were nowhere to be found. As it turns out, they patrol the station and driveways of the station on the lookout for passengers in need of assistance. It would have been nice to know this; it also would have been nice to just be able to go and find someone to help us. Instead, I ended up trekking through and around the station twice only to finally pay $4 for a minuscule luggage cart. Not until the cart was back out by the luggage did I see a redcap to flag down. And as we began loading her cart, who drives up with another redcap but Kelley, who had flagged one down on his way back from the Hertz counter. It was a waste of their time and ours.

Chicago, another big city station, was similarly frustrating. After my first trip to the Info Desk (thus my awareness of its location), I waited ten minutes for their promised paged redcap. I then went back inside and wandered around until I found two men sitting on drivable luggage carts — confusingly, they weren’t actually the people with the red shirts or caps — and decided to interrupt what appeared to be a break in order to ask if they knew where I could find someone to help us. Only after being assured that, yes, I had a lot of bags, and, yes, we were checking some and then traveling in a sleeper, did one of them indicate that he was one. I won’t even mention the guy in Kansas City who was surly and almost completely unhelpful. (On the flipside, once you find a redcap, they are usually invaluable. In Chicago, the guy actually bypassed the line and checked our bags for us. In Albany, our redcap provided a lot of valuable information about what was going to happen where. And I’m sure that tips had nothing to do with it.) Since we didn’t actually depart from or arrive in Boston’s South Station, I can’t from experience say they’re that much better. What I can say, though, is that when I have been there, they are visibly lined up and ready to assist. I will therefore take this opportunity to say that both South Station and Albany-Renssalear seem to have it figured out in terms of station use and design. Their info desks are easy to find, redcaps are visually accessible, and there is adequate sitting, waiting, and moving-around space. Plus they have easy-to-see arrival/departure boards.

Which brings me to (9), my last point: let’s just accept that the train is going to be late. It became clear that the trains are always late. In a way, it’s kind of like that Jimmy Tingle joke about the cost of stamps. To paraphrase: “For [whatever the current price of stamps is], a guy takes a letter from your house , puts it on a plane [boat, train, truck] and takes it all the way across the city/country/world and hand-delivers it to the door of the person you write to — for less than a dollar. Think about what a latte costs. A stamp is kind of hard to beat.” Similarly, Amtrak is traveling over 100-year-old lines, with a fleet of decades-old cars, with a staff of friendly and welcoming attendants/conductors/etc. And, for the most part, they get you there safely despite old tracks, old trains, mudslides, forest fires, tornadoes, and floods that they can’t switch routes mid-stream in order to drive around. Plus, they don’t actually own the tracks they run on and therefore need to often pull over to let a freight train (or two or three or four) through.

So, Amtrak, quit acting like the pre-2004 Red Sox in a constant state of defeat. Yeah, you’re gonna be late: own it. Tell people right off the bat that things run a little slower on the lines. Put some cup holders in, turn on the wifi, and just let people know what they’re in for instead of slipping it in on the B side and shirking away when they find out. After all, if they’re train people, they’ll likely just hang out in the lounge car and chat for awhile longer while watching the scenery roll — or not roll — by.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Doyle
Lake Shore Limited, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief passenger, July & August 2011

P.S. We apologize for the trail of ground up Special K and Frosted Flakes left in the carpeting of our various cars on trains across America. And for the spilled can of Sprite, LSL, Car 4820, Room 3. (But, Herb, we were never in Aisle 4.)

Or, rather, Albany. (“Albeenie” is what Will used to call it when he was too young to be able to pronounce it correctly. He is now fully capable of pronouncing it correctly, but doesn’t. I’m not sure if that’s deliberate on his part, or because we haven’t really corrected him because it’s pretty cute. I’m sorry to say that I think it’s the latter. Note to self: let him know before he, say, tries to run as a senator from New York.)

Anyway, here we are, getting on the Mass Pike — nope, make that, I-90, as we have just crossed the state line into NY, our 4th state of the day — so that we can get on the train in Albany. Why, you ask, would we take the train from Albany when we have a lovely train station all of our own in Boston? Well, because Amtrak decided to begin doing trackwork between Boston and Albany on July 9. We found this out by printing out our itinerary and noticing that the starting station had been changed to Albany. When Kelley called to say that a mistake had been made, they said, Why, no, no mistake. We changed that for you because of the trackwork. We’re going to bus you from South Station to Albany instead.

To which, of course, we said, no thanks. It’s, let’s just call it exciting, enough to take three kids, ourselves, and all of our crap to Albany in a car. Can you imagine us doing this on a bus? Can you imagine how many friends we’d make over the course of the three-hour trip? Yeah. Me too. Thus the drive to Albany on our own.

Well, actually, not quite on our own. Thanks to Wendy, of Wendy Cow House fame, (a.k.a. Kelley’s mom), we are able to drive the van to Albany and then have her drive it back to her house in the Berkshires and leave it there for the next several weeks. This will also mean that, on our return trip, we’ll be able to just get off the train in Albany rather than have to get off in Boston and then turn around and drive back to the Berkshires and upstate NY for the final week of the trip. Given that little bit of convenience, it’s kind of hard to be overly aggravated about the change of departure. However, it does remind me of the way the trains run in Italy. “Soppressato!” Or whatever the correct way of spelling it is. No matter how you spell it, though, it means the same thing: the trains run when the trains run. What are you going to do about it? Nothing. Exactly. So sit down, relax, and have a drink. (That sounds a lot better in Italian.)

Because of the travel time, today has been pretty low-key. We did manage to get out of Portland on time this morning. We even managed to get in a round of mini-golf at Pirate’s Cove in Old Orchard Beach, ME. For those of you familiar with the Pirate’s Cove on Cape Cod, it’s pretty much deja vu all over again, albeit a whole lot dinkier. I got the feeling that this was the first location they had and then they did it again, but better, on Cape Cod. The first few holes felt identical to the ones on the Cape, there’s even a lagoon in front. No pirate ship, though, and, thankfully, no “Fire at will!” (For those of you who don’t know, Will thought this was, “Fire at Will!” It took us the first four or five years of his existence to figure out why he resisted going there all the time.) It was also relegated to a back street in the town, which meant that there was no breeze to speak of. (To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of the feeling of sweat running down my back. I guess heading to, say, Arizona, isn’t the best idea, considering.) We had gotten there right at 9:15 a.m., though, so we were able to do most of it before it got too hot, and, happily, before the two camp vans showed up with 30 6-8 year olds. I would have liked to spend a little more time in Old Orchard Beach itself — I’d never really heard much about it; it has quite the kitsch-yet-cute air about it, what with its amusement park on the beach and various shore-type clam shacks, motels, etc. As it turns out, my parents spent some time there back in the day. It is just this moment occurring to me that they decided not to take us there, despite my mom saying that she kind of liked it. Hmmm. What gives, Mom? O.k., o.k. I suppose the fact that you took us to places like California and Europe makes up for it.

My one regret of the day was that we didn’t take the opportunity to dip our toes in the Atlantic, given that we very much expect to do that very thing in the Pacific in another couple of weeks. However, on our sunset cruise the other night (did I mention that? I think I did not; mea culpa), we did get far enough into Casco Bay that there was nothing between us and Portugal except the Atlantic Ocean. I think that that’s kind of cool. Check it out:

Portugal, six days ahead.

O.k. We’re coming up on the train station so I’d better sign off for now. I’m both anxious and excited for the evening ahead. It’s been a long time since I spent the night on a train — over thirty years, I guess — and I’ve never been in a roomette. My parents tell me that the service is much different than it used to be — I have romantic memories of porters and white-coat waiters. (Um, the white-coat waiter part might have been part of a dream. Or a movie. Like maybe Murder on the Orient Express. Let’s not be repeating that one!) We will soon see!

This whole blogging thing is going to be harder than I thought! Not only is it tough to find the time to write things down, it’s even harder to remember what actually happened. How, you might ask, is it that hard to remember what I did today, much less yesterday? I’m getting old. That’s the only thing I can tell you. Well, that and being bombarded by various children’s requests and requirements. It’s wearing down my brain. So before I forget…

With Kelley in a session all morning yesterday, the kids and I hung out with my parents and Jess who, as you saw from yesterday’s pictures, have joined us for the Portland, ME, part of this trip. Thanks to a suggestion of the people organizing the conference, I signed Lucy and Will up for some of LL Bean’s Discovery School classes. These are short 1.5 hour courses on various outdoorsy activities. A very nice thing is that kids as young as 8 can take part, depending on which class it is. That worked quite amazingly well for Lucy and Jess and the Archery class.

Doesn't Lucy look awesome? Thanks, Jess, for the great photo!

Sadly for all of us, it did not work out quite so well for Will. The LL Bean marketing folks and the LL Bean Discovery School folks don’t seem to be quite on the same page. I might not have even done the archery class if I hadn’t seen the flyfishing class they offered — and for kids as young as 8. Fantastic! However, once we got there it became clear that they didn’t actually do fishing — it was flycasting instead. Although it’s possible that he might have ended up having a good time, what he really wanted to do was fish. Casting wasn’t going to cut it.

I’ll spare you the details of how annoying it was to have everyone look at me like I was crazy when I expressed some confusion about the fishing vs. casting thing. (For a fisherman, yes, I realize that the difference is quite clear. But for those of us fishing-novices, when you see a class called “flyfishing,” call me crazy, but you expect fishing to be involved.) Thanks to modern-day technology, my mom was able to locate a miniature golf course 4.9 miles away from Freeport in Brunswick, ME. Hooray! Plenty of time to get out there, play a quick round, and get back in time to pick up Lucy and Jess.

Plenty of time, that is, if Brunswick were actually 4.9 miles from Freeport as opposed to around 12. And, as I have

Uninspiring mini-golf course

learned over the past few days, 12 miles in Maine is a good 20 minute ride minimum. Details, details. We got ourselves out to Brunswick and found the mini-golf that looked none-too-confidenct inspiring, but that ended up being quite lovely. (Gotta love well kept up, air conditioned offices with bathrooms on the inside, friendly people, and, to top it off, crunchy cheetos that can be purchased for 50 cents.

I do have to say how incredibly wonderful my parents are, as they were game to play 18 rounds of mini-golf in the humid, sunny, high-80s weather with Will, especially as I was out of the picture for at least the first 7 holes, thanks to needing to exchange the stroller for the baby carrier and, along the way, deal with a blow-out diaper. Always fun. I also have to say how great Jessica was, because knowing that she and Lucy were hanging out made me not stress quite as much about getting back to Freeport a full hour after she and Lucy had finished. Luckily, Lucy has her stash of cash, so she was able to buy herself lunch (and chips and ice cream and soda) while waiting. Of course, one of the first things she said was, “Why did Will get to play mini-golf and I didn’t?” which wasn’t exactly what I’d been thinking at the time. Perhaps if we were another day or so into the trip, I might have had to give her the line my parents used to give me: “Because we love him best.” (Which I of course have to say isn’t true, just in case Lucy reads this one day. [So, Lucy, if you’re reading, THAT ISN’T TRUE.) Since we are only two days in, though, I managed to just smile and calmly explain that it was because Will’s class didn’t work out for him and he couldn’t do archery. To which she then proceeded to tell me all the reasons he could have done archery, but merely chose not to. Sigh. Teenagerdom, here we come.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around Portland and, to Kelley’s dismay, visiting gift shops. We did make it to the Portland Lobster Co. (where we had attempted to have dinner the night before but couldn’t find a table) for an early dinner, where we found that the clam chowder wasn’t nearly as good as it had been at DeMillo’s the night before. They did, however, allow us to have lobster rolls at dinner time so that was a plus for Mom and me. They were also quite noisy, being open air and on the pier, and had coasters — a plus for James, not to mention all the diners who had the pleasure of our company.

We rounded out the evening with a lovely sunset cruise. We didn’t actually see the sunset quite so much thanks to the clouds, but it was really nice to be out on the water (especially on such a ridiculously hot day) and see Portland from that viewpoint. Plus Jessica got another awesome photo of one of my kids, this time Will:

Tomorrow we begin our second leg of the journey with an early start so that we can take a Pirate’s Cove detour but still make it to board our train at Albany on time, around 7 p.m. And then on to Chicago.

I’ll try to post tomorrow about today’s activities. Wish me luck — our drive to Albany is the first time I’ll get to try out the hotspot that Kelley spent hours working with various Verizon reps to activate. If it doesn’t work, you might be able to hear my screams all the way in Boston. If it does work, though, I’ll be able to bring you up to speed on today’s activities and maybe even clear out my inbox enough to begin receiving emails again. Signing off until then…

Kelley’s at a session right now (we started the trip in Portland because of a conference Kelley had to attend), my parents are enjoying a few child-free moments (they had Will as a sleepover guest in their room last night), and Lucy is sleeping in in the room she shared with Jess. I thought I’d take this opportunity to post a few pictures from yesterday.

Pit stop for diaper change (not quite out of MA yet):

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Surprisingly, Mom, Dad, and Jess beat us to Portland. Here they are, having a nice, relaxing drink before chaos descends:

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Chaos descends:

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Ms. World Traveler, the mist organized of the bunch of us:

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Holy good lord (aka what happens when there isn’t time for a reckoning of the bags before leaving the house:

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James’ first hotel stay:

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Ready for anything:

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Day Two, here we come:

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Well, it wasn’t quite as smooth a departure as we would have liked, and it was certainly a lot later than planned (11 a.m.? It was a nice thought, I suppose.) but we are off.

Of course, we’re not exactly on the road yet. Library books needed to be returned and gas needed to be gotten. We also have to get a sim card for the mifi/hotspot/whatever-you-want-to-call-it (a.k.a. the device that was responsible for taking up an hour of this morning’s precious time), as it apparently did not come with it. Kelley is now about to do battle with the Verizon folks in Coolidge Corner with the end result hopefully being that we will have a functioning hotspot for the rest of this journey.

So here we are sitting in the car, Lucy with her book, Will with his DS, James babbling away, and me posting from my phone. We have gone a whole blissful minute without any arguments or complaints, something that will mo doubt change soon.

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Happily, our first leg is only to Portland, ME, so the fact that we never did our can-we-carry-the-bags-we-need-to-carry assessment can be addressed there. We also are making a brief stop at Wendy’s Cow House — also the penultimate stop of our trip (where, incidentally, the car will be for the next three weeks), which means that any superfluous crap (as opposed to your regular run-of-the-mill crap) can be dropped off there.

Alas, our moment of content has passed. Time to calm the natives…

I am sitting outside of South Station writing this post — not posting it, mind you, as there is no wireless connection at the moI am sitting outside of South Station writing this post — not posting it, mind you, as there is no wireless connection at the moment (oh please, mifi, work when we hook you up!), but writing it nevertheless.

We had planned to do a dry run of packing last night. I’m not entirely sure why, as once you’re packed you’re packed, but still, it would have been a good way to get a sense of how many bags we have, how much each person has to carry, etc. It didn’t happen, of course — way too many other more urgent things to do — the thought was there, however.

What we should have planned was do just do a dry run overall; that way, we might not have been quite so surprised when our ‘short’ trip to pick up our train tickets (the first stop on today’s errand train, so to speak) might not have come as such a surprise. Under the guise of making lemonade out of lemons, though, I am choosing to see the (not-yet-completed) task as an excellent way of preparing for the trip in oh, so many ways.

Just a few things I have picked up so far:

* We’re all excited about different things. (Although, I must say, I’m sure Kelley will share my excitement in realizing that I put the quarters in the meter exactly 10 minutes away from being too late! If he takes too much longer at the ticket window, I might need to put another couple quarters in.) For example, I am quite excited by the little things — like going in to pick up our tickets, coming up onto the train platform, heading into South Station… That doesn’t appear to be high on anyone else’s list. (And it’s a lot lower, now that it’s taken 75 minutes and counting.)

* Everything is going to take A LOT of time. (Did you read that part about picking up the tickets taking 75 minutes and counting? Yeah.)

* And, as a follow up to that, it is never a waste to bring every possible devise/time-waster/etc. there is. Two iPhones and a laptop aren’t enough when you are hanging around waiting for the apparently billion tickets to print. Nor is a cute baby quite as cute when he decides it’s way past his naptime and he doesn’t really feel like sleeping at the Amtrak station. And those TVs all around the station? This mom’s determination is that playing Angry Birds is a lot less detrimental to one’s health than learning to spot a suicide bomber. Well, o.k., granted — not spotting a suicide bomber isn’t good for anyone’s health. However, I will pray/hope/wish desperately that that doesn’t become an issue for us at any point in the near or distant future and instead focus on keeping the kids nightmare-free for at least the train part of the trip.

* It takes approximately 7 minutes before everyone who was well fed leading up until that point is “so hungry I might actually die right! here!” And train station food is ridiculously expensive. ($2 for the same fountain drink that costs half of that in the building next store?)

* That said, it takes about 2 additional minutes for the whining to drive any adult in the vicinity out of their skull. A $3 grilled-cheese-sandwich-to-go starts to look pretty damn good. (One that comes from a place called Cheeseboy? Sold.)

* Having that library book that never got returned to the school library (sorry to all my favorite school librarians out there — the good news is that we found it in the first place) still in the back seat of the car for while we’re waiting? Priceless.

So, the first agenda item when we get back home: pack the “stuff” bag — to do stuff, to snack stuff, and, possibly, to-medicate-mommy stuff. Then we can go from there.

It’s waaaayyyy too late, even for me, but I realized I hadn’t had a chance yet to post our itinerary and wanted to make sure to do so. Before I do, however, a quick note for anyone who might have what my doctor calls “sinister” purposes: our house will be occupied for the whole time we’re away so don’t go getting any ideas!

With that out of the way, here goes:

Beginning point: Boston, MA
To Portland, ME by car
To Albany, NY by car [thanks to ‘track work’; oh, Amtrak, please don’t let this be a sign of how the trip is going to go!]
To Chicago by train
To Grand Junction, CO by train
To Four Corners (Shiprock, NM?) by car
To Kayenta, AZ by car
To Grand Canyon by car
To Williams, AZ by car
To Las Vegas by car
To Kingman, AZ by car
To Glendale, CA by train
To Carlsbad, CA by car
To Anaheim, CA by car
To Ojai, CA by car
To Los Angeles by car
To Kansas City, MO by train
To Chicago by train
To Albany by train
To Saratoga by car
To Boston by car

And then can I have another vacation?

Wish us luck!