Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Day 13: The Empire Builder Strikes Back

Trip Leg #5: Chicago to St. Paul.  418 miles.  8 hours.

My very forgiving friend Deidra picked me up at close to 11:00 p.m. at the station, after numerous (and nebulous, since I had no accurate arrival info) text messages. We were supposed to have an entire day together to catch up, but since I got cheated out of eight hours while trapped on the Zephyr, we ended up with about an hour to chat before hitting the hay. However, we did drive past Millennium Park and Navy Pier and the Art Institute on our way to her condo. It was the quickie tour.

The next morning, I rode back into downtown with her. During this trip, she got pulled over and ticketed for having expired license tags. Thanks again, Chicago. I hardly knew ye. Since she works only four blocks from the station but had meetings all morning, I was turned loose in the city. However, I had nowhere to stash my bags, which limited me to staring up at big buildings, eating a leisurely lunch, and wandering around enormous Union Station to kill the few hours before my train.

2:00 p.m.  After being disappointed on every leg of the trip, I finally had Amish on board! I kept my ears tuned for Low German to see what I could pick up, courtesy of my grandparents.

2:15 p.m.  I realized this would be my first and only trip without an overnight. By this time, I felt like I could do eight hours standing on my head. Before pulling out of the station, I saw a monk in orange robes pause to take digital pictures of the train as he boarded. Who knew? They're tourists, too.

3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The guy across the aisle from me introduced himself as "Kay," a college student from Nigeria, and popped over for a conversation. When he learned I was an editor, he wanted opinions on his English skills. He also mentioned that he was considering moving to Minnesota because Michigan was too cold, which is like moving to the Sahara because Arizona is too hot. I issued the appropriate warning about local winters and considered my work done.

5:00 p.m.  I escaped to the lounge car to journal. During that time, the guy behind me said the following about train travel: "I used to fly airplanes. I've seen everything you can see from 30,000 feet, and let me tell you, it ain't this!" The fields were golden, the trees were red, I had a Mountain Dew and some honey roasted peanuts and only a few hours till home. It was heaven.

6:00 p.m.  Kay joined me at my table with the hot dog he'd just purchased. He asked me if I was going to eat, and I said no, I didn't have far to go, and I wasn't hungry. He then asked if I liked hot dogs, and I said, "They're okay." He disappeared briefly and returned with a hot dog and apple juice (what a combo) intended for me. A super nice gesture, but I really wasn't hungry and wasn't about to choke it down to be polite, so I told him I'd eat it later.

7:00 p.m.  In the course of our second conversation, Kay told me several interesting things. First, that I "look very serious" and like I "don't have many friends." Second, that I would look better without my glasses. Third, that I "look Chinese" in the picture he took of us. Okay. His intentions were good, but the execution could have used some work. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant hour working a word find book together until he got sleepy and I suggested we both return to our separate seats for some shuteye. Of course, I had to take the hot dog with me.

8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.  I pretended to be sound asleep to get some time to myself, since Kay had begun checking in with me for everything. At one point, as I headed downstairs to the bathroom, I heard a voice behind me: "Courtney, are you all right?" I turned to find him on the stairs looking concerned. Again, well intentioned and probably just a cultural difference, but clingy.

10:15 p.m.  That damn hot dog was still sitting on my tray table, and I kicked myself for not ditching it while Kay was napping, because he made a point to remind me not to waste it. So, when I got off the train in St. Paul, I had to zip the stupid thing into my bag to avoid looking ungrateful.

11:00 p.m.  Kay and I bid farewell, and I left with Christian, my late-night chauffeur. When he asked for the details of why I'd been hugging an African dude near the luggage return, I could only reply that it had been an interesting end to the trip. And I had a wiener in my backpack to prove it.

Stay tuned for the epilogue.

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