Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #4

Death of an Engine, but Spring finally catches us by Train
near Homestead (near Miami), Florida, USA
April 22, 2001
Scoreboard: 4800 miles, 20 states

Motel fever sets in. Amelia assumes the personae of “The Toilet Paper Mummy” in Nanuet.

Our trip to New York turned out to be fairly successful, after all. The editor of The Sovereign Post (a political web publication that I’ll be contributing to regularly upon its debut in late spring) was kind enough to meet me (the day after our scheduled meeting in New York) in Nanuet for pizza & beer. We got along famously, and the publication sprang for our New York-related expenses. Ah, life in the literary fast lane!

The car trouble, of course, proved to be terminal (for the car). Fortunately the black triple A guy named Reggie took us over to a garage run by his Italian friend named Paul (“This is Pauley,” he yells on the phone) who happened to have a Hassidic friend named Berish who owns 15 vans and arranged to take us and all of our junk into the city for a very reasonable rate. Hurrah for multiculturalism!

All of our junk is not a minor affair. In fact, in the overload section of the Amtrak terminal in Penn Station, after a bit of math that charitably cast me at 200 pounds, it turns out that we loaded the ol’ station wagon down with more than a ton of family and accoutrements.

I wonder why she got tired? Volkswagen vans on the continent are already shaking…

The scene in Penn Station was incredible, it should have been accompanied by some soaring melodramatic Hollywood soundtrack or at least Woody Allenesque honky-tonk jazz piano. At one point the Red Cap slammed our biggest antique trunk into the bottom of an escalator, from whence it entirely blocked egress. There were about thirty of us on the steps behind it turning and running desperately, jumping straight up when there was no room between the trunk and the stairs that descended into nothingness.

There was one particularly expensively dressed young man with an equally expensive blond haircut who considered the entire thing a personal affront, and no slight disaster. He barked out obscenities in a manner that would bore a sailor but was clearly all that he could muster. He really wanted to curse up a storm, just wasn’t sure how.

If it hadn’t been for that guy I would have been scared. As it was all I could do was partially maintain my mirth and laughter.

There are a lot of cool things about running a train the length of the eastern seaboard. Trains of course made America great, and like so many other contributors to that greatness are now back-burnered or nowhere to be found at all.

The train gives you a back-alley glimpse of the road. Deserted factories, landfills, and junkyards. Stuff they would never allow anywhere near an interstate. You also get nearly unadulterated nature, far away from the neon and tarmac. Northern Florida with its thick forests mixing into groves of palm trees with sunshine lingering on the branches and falling gently onto thin brown dirt paths, is absolutely beautiful.

George Washington Bridge

After singing a song about it for the past year, the girls were surprised to find themselves on the George Washington bridge. I hummed the theme to Taxi.

Before I get too far into today’s installment I have to say that there are many decisions that must be made even prior to embarking on a 10,000 mile journey across states and continents and train tracks.

For me one of the big ones was what kind of stereo to bring. Obviously we couldn’t fit the full blown house version. On the other hand we didn’t have to settle for a little 2-watt bathroom system, either. I consulted with Theresa and we decided that we could get something just a bit bigger, something big enough that I won’t be desperate for a home model when we get to Italy for the winter.

The choices at Costco were minimal, but the prices weren’t bad. I slid from boom-box to boom-box, slightly larger each time, until I found a 160 watt-per-channel Aiwa at the best deal of all. Theresa tried, in vain, to point out that it was only marginally smaller than our home unit. I cranked that baby up, and they’d made a sale.

The individual speakers were larger than the unit we’d had in mind.

So spring finally caught up with us somewhere in South Carolina. On the way down, in Baltimore maybe, or Washington, D.C. I looked out the window and saw, against a skyline of boring buildings, a skyscraper with two rows of Greek columns on the top. It was perhaps the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, and definitely the single greatest unintentional insult to the Greeks. It was very funny, though.

Oh yeah, they would have loved a big tall angular building with columns on top. Fits right in. I wish I had bootleg tapes of the guy selling the idea.

Theresa kept sneaking off to the club car to have a smoke and would return with tales of an Irish guy launching into Rodney Dangerfield-inspired monologues, keeping an entire room full of heavy drinkers at bay and ordering more rounds. People with two open beers making motions for Bloody Mary’s, drunken women from Chicago making no sense at all but determined that all must hear, and smoking cigars. Occasionally one of the revelers would come staggering through our car and Theresa would nudge me and offer some vignette of mild misbehavior.

I was thinking how strange it is to live in a country where anyone who would rather be loaded than straight automatically has an alcohol problem, but anyone who would rather work than spend time with their family is celebrated as the embodiment of some sort of ideal.

After the 26 hour ride we arrived in Miami just before midnight. I’d done a bit of research on the train and located a camp site perfectly situated between the station and the Port of Miami where we board the cruise ship.

I started asking around, and no one had heard of any campsite being in the location I was describing. The name of the place wasn’t noted on the map, there was just a red teepee emblem denoting campsite. A porter offered to look at my map with me.

“That ain’t no campsite, that’s in the ocean, man!”

I looked closer, he was right. I must have noticed that the campsite was situated near Key Biscayne earlier, but I guess I figured it must really be on shore. It wasn’t. It was a cruel joke, I can hear ’em now, putting the map together, finishing up around midnight laughing and saying, “Let’s put a campsite about five miles offshore in the ocean! ha, ha, anyone who looks for it there deserves whatever happens to them!”

“Maybe it’s a campsite for people with boats,” the porter offered helpfully.

We grabbed about half of our luggage and settled on yet another cheap hotel in downtown Miami. The next morning a very nice Cuban exile helped us pack things into yet another taxi. He was light-skinned, asked if we were from Scotland, and told us in halting English that his name is Bill McKenzie. Everyone has a story and if you try hard you can sometimes think of one nearly as good as the real one.

We took yet another cab, this time to a KOA about 30 miles outside the city limits. The girls were ecstatic.

Tent home

A tent with a room of my own! (Theresa, Myles, Kasmira, and Amelia)

On Orcas Island we lived in a big house on 15 acres, but the house only had two bedrooms so there was a bit of sharing going on.

Our tent has four bedrooms. The girls have been looking forward to the luxury of having their own room for months. Even if it’s mobile and they can’t put up Aaron Carter posters.

We started busting open the baggage. The box that Theresa thought contained food was stuffed full of one of the speakers to the great stereo we brought. The rest of it awaits our return to the station.

No problem, the car dilemma actually put us 6 days ahead of schedule. We missed a few important things, my mom and Disney World, but maybe mom will come visit us in Italy and I’ve already convinced the girls that Disney World has nothing on Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

In the evening the crickets fill the air with their gloriously monotonous enchantments, and in the morning we’re greeted by the cooing of doves. The clouds are spectacular, there’s a local internet access number and a pool. After all that running this week of relaxation is welcome.

Without lobbying we’ve become something of a U.N. drop-off point. Some French neighbors gave us some jam on their way to the airport. Not to be outdone the Germans followed with canned corned beef, charcoal and cheese. We split a cab with two young Danish guys, and grabbed provisions in town. They assured Amelia that there’s nowhere like Tivoli Gardens, but were most interested in my tales of alcohol-driven dementia by the inhabitants of New Orleans. They’ve decided to go immediately.

The road is unpredictable, even if you have a plan. If you have so much of a plan that it’s predictable then you’ve probably missed the point. We scoffed at guidebooks assuring us that we should budget 25% over everything we could think of. “Can you imagine,” I asked rhetorically, “being that out of it that you can’t even think of what you’ll have to spend?”

Two weeks ago I adjusted the figure upward to 40%, and a week later to 60%. In the tranquility of this campsite I’ve broken out of the paradigm and developed an entirely new measure: You should be prepared to spend $200 per block. This reflects the blocks in Wyoming that go endlessly, sometimes for days; the blocks that move by quickly in New York, and the blocks that spring up tangentially from otherwise sensible blocks in Miami.

If you’re desperate to go, make up your budget and then go whether it works out or not. We did. We’re happy. We hear doves when we wake up. We have our own rooms.

Tune in next week when our thought processes are further eroded by the simple joys of not having to take a train all day, not having to drive 5 mph outside Butte, Montana because the ice is five inches thick, not holing up in Willoughby, Ohio because no one is continent, and not waking up at home wondering what would happen if we jumped off the edge towards Europe.

Tune in next week when we board the ocean liner The Grandeur of the Seas and mingle with people that probably think they’re rich and famous.

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