Orlando To Arlington: One Night On The Amtrak Auto Train

When it came to the logistics of how to move to Virginia, I gave it a great deal of thought.  I had movers carry the furniture, but there was still a bunch that traveled with me- things I wouldn’t entrust to a mover or things I knew I would need right away before the movers would get to my destination.    I considered three ways to do this:

  • Fly up and have some auto transporter move my car.  This would be the most expensive option, of course.
  • Drive up.  It’s about 850 miles between Orlando and Arlington, which means at least twelve hours of I-95 driving.  While this is theoretically the least expensive option, there’s gas to consider, and very probably a hotel in the middle.  Also, I hate driving more than a few hours.
  • Take the Auto Train. Amtrak’s Auto Train runs every day in both directions between Sanford, Florida (just north of Orlando) to Lorton, Virginia (just south of Arlington).  I didn’t even know this existed until I started researching ways to get up to Virginia for the move.  A one-way ticket for both me and my car cost a little more than five hundred dollars.  As you might have guessed based on the title of the post, I chose this option.

On Thursday, August 6th, it was finally time to move to Virginia.  I woke up, checked out of my final Orlando hotel, had a quick I-Hop breakfast, and drove my packed-up car to the Auto Train station in Sanford.

I foolishly let the little mapping robot in my car tell me how to get to the station instead of just following the signs.  I took a really winding backroads path to the Auto Train station, but at least I finally found it.

When you arrive, you follow the markings on the pavement to the first check-in.  The special rail cars on the left side are called autoracks, and that’s where the cars go.  I’ll talk more about those later.   The train on the right side is the passenger compartment-  they’re separated in Sanford because they need to load the cars and passengers separately, but they get linked up before we depart.

When you get to the first check-in, the attendant will scan your printed ticket.  I paid a small extra fee to be one of the first thirty cars unloaded when we got to Virginia, so the door of my car got a magnet slapped on the driver’s side door with a priority number.

One really cool thing about the Auto Train is that you can pack up your car like a giant checked bag.  You won’t have access to your car during the trip, but it’s still a good way to carry a lot of stuff.  I packed the things I would need for one night in a smaller bag, including my laptop and some sleep clothing, and left the rest in the car.

After the first check-in, you pull up to a canopy where vehicles are being taken in different lanes.  This is where I said goodbye to my car for the duration- they have you take your carry-on bag for the train and leave the keys in the car.

I’ll focus for a moment on the car’s journey-  there’s a dedicated staff at the Amtrak station that functions sort of like valet parking, except that in this case, they’re parking your car in the autoracks.

The autoracks are really neat.  They’re bi-level, which is why you can see some ramps going up into them while the closest car in this photo is driving down a ramp into the lower part.    I watched them take my car in, and it was on the lower level for the duration.  Auto Train consists are reportedly nearly three-fourths of a mile long and can transport over three hundred cars per trip.

A quick aside for the linguistically minded among you:  Prior to reading about autoracks, I had never heard the term consist as it applies to trains.  Considering how much time I’ve spent on trains, that’s kind of amazing.   A consist is a set of railroad vehicles forming a complete train-  in other words, the engine plus the passenger cars plus the diner car and lounge plus all the autoracks together are a consist.      New words are fun!

Here’s a short video of the crew driving someone’s vehicle onto the autoracks.  I watched a bunch of these because I’m a huge nerd and it was fascinating to me.

Let’s move on to the passenger experience.  Both the Sanford and Lorton stations have a fairly large waiting area for pre-boarding.   In the case of the Sanford location, there’s a shuttle that runs every twenty minutes to downtown Sanford a few miles away, for anyone who wants to kill time before departure.  I elected to stay put.  (Although with Hollerbach’s just two miles away, it was very tempting.)

There’s a check-in counter where I checked in and was given a compartment assignment.  I’ll talk more about that a little further on.

I mentioned earlier that the Auto Train consist is nearly three-fourths of a mile long- this is not an exaggeration.  This is only the passenger compartments and dining car, and only part of that.  Getting the entire train into one photo would not be possible from this close.

This is the hallway near my little sleeping compartment.  Some of the larger sleeping compartments had a different hallway along one side of the train with the compartments being all to one side, but this area was all “Roomettes.”

A Roomette, in Amtrak terms, is a small enclosed compartment with two seats facing each other and a small fold-down table in the middle.  There’s a knob for temperature control, a power outlet, a light switch, and curtains for privacy during sleep time.   Also, the door latches from the inside, which is reassuring.

At night, the two seats can be pushed flat to make one bed, and a separate bunk pulls down from the ceiling.  When it was time to sleep, I actually chose to use the upper bunk instead of the lower, even though I was alone and could have done either one.

Our departure was at 4pm, so they rolled the passenger compartment forward, coupled the autoracks, and then we were off.  While they were coupling us and getting us ready, an engineer somewhere on the train gave us some raw statistics:  Our Auto Train had 182 passengers, 14 crew members, and four engineers/conductors.   111 people were in sleeping compartments, and our train was carrying 101 four-wheeled vehicles and three two-wheelers.

The first few hours of the train ride were all Florida, but I still saw a few pretty things out of my window.   There were lots and lots of cows, for a start.

And waterways, weather, little boats…

…and some neat smokestacks.

My sleeping-compartment ticket included a dinner and a small continental breakfast.  When I checked in back in Sanford, I was given a small flyer with my dinner choices.  Normally, you would be assigned a dinner slot and you would go to the dining car for this.  These aren’t normal times, however, so all meals were taken in the sleeping compartments.

Technically I can say that I had dinner in Jacksonville, but I was just passing through.

Here were the selections for dinner:

The flyer was actually not correct about everything, but they were pretty close.  For example, here’s the “first glass of wine” mentioned above.  You can tell it’s a red because the cup has an ‘R‘ Sharpied onto the lid.

Presentation aside, the food was great.  I chose the flatiron steak.  I wasn’t really expecting much from an Amtrak steak, but it was deliciousThe veggies, mashed potato, and bread were also excellent and I cleaned my plate.

Dessert was a chocolate cake.  It was delicious and moist.  It was most definitely not a lie.

After dinner, I resumed staring out the window at all the passing landscape.  There were parts of the journey that seemed like it was 97% trees and rusted out El Caminos.   I’m only half-joking.  I’ve never seen so many El Caminos in one day before, and ALL of them were abandoned in wooded areas.

Soon after we crossed into Georgia, we passed the distinct water tower of Folkston.  I didn’t get a good shot of the tower, so I yoinked this one off the web to illustrate.

Pretty soon after that, it became too dark to really see much outside of the train, aside from the occasional gas station or Wal-Mart in the distance.    The attendant asked me during boarding what time I wanted him to configure the bed.  I had him come by at around ten.  I played some zoom trivia for a bit, but my connection wasn’t very stable so it was not very successful.  Amtrak technically has wi-fi but they don’t support video chats or streaming of any kind, so I was tethered to my phone and it was a little wonky.

The Auto Train makes only one stop in between endpoints, and it’s not for passengers.   The train makes a brief halt in Florence, South Carolina to change engineers, refuel, and refill the water tanks.    I was still awake when we made this stop, but I was exhausted.  After a time, I climbed into the upper bunk and slept fitfully.

When I woke up, we were already in Virginia, cruising through Richmond.  I was awake enough to see Squash-A-Penny Junction Antiques when we rolled past, and I rather wish I’d had the camera out.  Set near the junction of two major rail lines, it was originally built in the 1860s as a general store.  Now it’s an eclectic antique shop, and it just looks neat.   I definitely want to double back to see it at some later point.

Right after we passed the Squash-A-Penny in Doswell, the attendant brought my “continental breakfast,” which was a banana, a crumb cake, some milk, a juice cup-  not really a very heavy breakfast, but that’s ok because we were less than two hours from arrival.

Naturally, I started looking out the window again after breakfast, and just outside of Fredericksburg, we passed a big stone pyramid in an otherwise open grass field.  I can’t pass up the opportunity to find out why a monument might be out in a field, so I looked it up later.  Here’s what I learned:

This field is actually part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The pyramid, composed of granite stones and standing 23 feet tall, was erected in 1903 after a request during the late 1800s by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society.   This American Civial War monument marks the point where General George G. Meade’s Union division penetrated a gap in ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s lines on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the years it has become known as the Meade Pyramid.   The more you know… 

Toward the very end of the journey, the Auto Train spent a lot of time hugging the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, with Maryland across the way.

Finally, after a little more than sixteen hours on the rails, we made a slightly-early arrival at Lorton Station in Virginia.    They uncoupled the autoracks first and started to offload the cars while the passengers deboarded.   I have read that the entire Auto Train can offload all of the cars in a little more than an hour, but my car was pulled up almost as soon as I reached the front door of the station.

Ten minutes after I stepped down from the passenger compartment, I was back on the road, driving the last eighteen miles or so to my new apartment in Arlington.

Have you ever traveled by Auto Train?

21/52

There’s No Place Like “Home”

Last week, I found round trip airfare from Orlando to Atlanta for this year’s Dragon Con for only $136.  I posted it to BookFace, saying something like, “The moment when you spot an INSANELY good rate for Dragon Con airfare, but you don’t know if this will still be your home airport. ::sob::”

To my vast surprise, several people had a “wait, what?” type of reaction, and a few messaged me privately to ask if I was moving away from Orlando.  I mentioned in my new year’s post that I was contemplating a move out of Florida, and I’ve been talking incessantly about the possibilities with a few people, so it never occurred to me that so many of my friends would be in the dark.  (Clearly, I need to get more of them reading this blog.)

To address the question more directly:  I still haven’t decided for sure if I’m leaving Florida.   Or where I’m going if I do move.

It’s really difficult to break through the inertia of staying in one place for a while.  I’ve moved twelve times in the last ten years, but I’ve been in this one place for a little while now, and it can be difficult to pick up and go for the thirteenth time.

What I have decided with certainty is that when my lease ends this summer, I don’t want to stay put.  I don’t really like my apartment, for one thing.   Also, it’s fricking hot here.  And it would be significantly hotter in South Florida.

The climate here isn’t the only thing to be considered.   It’s been years since I lived in a place that “felt like home” to me. When I came back to the US after my time abroad, no part of South Florida felt quite right; I felt like a stranger in my own home town- more than I did in Germany.

I traveled back to Germany twice after I moved back, once for work and once just to visit.  During both of those trips, I had the uncanny feeling that I had only just left a few days before.  Aside from a few familiar restaurants closing and new ones opening, and aside from Jenny and Robert’s children getting taller, everything felt the same.  It felt like I had just left, and it felt like no time had passed at all.  I was incredibly comfortable there.  Not so with my return to the US – everything here felt kind of alien to me.

I’m not suggesting that I want to return to living outside of the United States- I absolutely do not. (Although if my job wanted me to be in the London office for a while, I wouldn’t say no.).  What I am saying is that when no place feels like home, it’s difficult to feel settled.  I genuinely don’t know where I want to be.

For where to go next, I have a few main considerations:

  • Is the temperature colder than Florida for most of the year? (Not bloody difficult!)
  • Is there cool shit to do?  Especially the music;  how’s the concert scene?  Is it a constant flow of activity there or do they roll up the sidewalks at 8pm?
  • Is there decent public transportation there?
  • Do I know anyone in the area? Friends or family?
  • Can I get a decent apartment there without blowing my spleen out on rent payments?
  • Is there a variety of delicious food options?

I’ve considered a number of possible destinations.  I’ve considered eastern New Jersey, with easy access to New York.  I considered Austin for the music scene, but moving from a swamp to a desert is not my idea of cooling down.  I also thought about Portland and the Pacific Northwest, or the Raleigh-Durham area, or Atlanta.   My work is completely remote, so I can theoretically work from anywhere.  In practice, it’s best if I stick to the same time zone as the main office in New York;  I am NOT a morning person and moving west would mean working earlier.

The top contender at present is the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area.  It ticks every box I just listed, and then some.   DC has easy access to three airports and the most useful part of the US rail lines.  It has a pretty useful metro system, and a constant flow of things to see and do.  The weather is a lot closer to what I actually want.  I’ve got a few friends and a really nifty cousin there.  Despite having no firm decision to move, I already have tickets to at least four concerts there this year.  I also have a fervid desire to go to at least five more events that were announced, but until I learn to clone myself that isn’t happening.

So yes, I’m leaning that way.  Still, the decision is not fully made.

Florida is not without its advantages, and I would be remiss to ignore the things I would be leaving behind:  An established social scene with a lot of friendships that I would miss.  Easy access to the theme parks.   Having sorted out which doctors to see in the area. (Finding new doctors is just a pain in the ass.)  Tijuana Flats and Publix.   Being only about a 70 minute drive from my sister, and only a few hours away by car for most of the rest of my family.   Being able to comfortably wear shorts for eleven and a half months out of the year.

But then there are the parts of living here that are less thrilling.  For example, the great social scene I just mentioned is largely centered around a bar scene, which means lots of beer intake.  (Some people would call that a plus, now that I think about it.)  Also, having to wear shorts for eleven and a half months out of the year to remain comfortable while still sweating is miserable and uncomfortable and kind of sticky.

And Orlando doesn’t feel like home either.

I don’t know if a new city will be any better, but I do think a fresh start would be really good for me.   I’m not worried about making friends in my new location, because I’ve moved to a new city sight-unseen a few times now, and I was able to find a tribe there each time.   For an introvert, I’m really quite friendly and sociable.

And hey, at least I won’t be sweating in January.

When is the last time you moved?  Was it a difficult change?

6/52

Whasaaaaaaaap?

I apologize for using a seventeen year old commercial as my subject line, but it’s kind of appropriate.  It feels like it’s been at least that long since I really posted anything, not counting that one post with the yummy cinnamon rolls.

I’ve tried to come back to the blog numerous times, but each time I do, that blank post box just stares accusingly at me, asking why I haven’t fed it.  The further you go between posts, the more difficult it is to wrench yourself back to regular blogging.

So getting back to where I’ve been and what’s been going on since my last truly informative post, let’s start with the stuff that’s not changed:  My relationship with Amelie is still great, and we have loads of fun together.  My family is all pretty much the same as they were before.  My dad is doing a little bit better, actually-  he was diagnosed with some form of Parkinsons and the medication they gave him specific to that has helped his mobility quite a bit.

For the changing things, though-  my apartment lease ended on December 9th, and I moved into my brother’s spare room as a transitional thing.  I’m still there.  My job ended on December 15th, and the following Monday I took a six month contract doing pretty much exactly the same thing I had been doing previously.  The difference is that now I’m working from home instead of an office, except for that one time that Dave and I tried a Regus co-working space.  That was kind of neat, actually, and maybe I should have used that experience as a blog post.

Although my departure from Mr. Company was in December, it’s not until the first of April that the company that hired me in 2002 is really and truly dead.  The last few people left at the office have their last day at the end of this month, and there’s going to be a final happy hour near the old office-  I plan on going, but I suspect it will be a fairly somber outing for a happy hour.    The death of my fourteen year career with my former Mr. Company might be an entire separate blog post in the future, because there’s a lot to unpack there.   I’m still waiting for the actual realization that it’s truly over.   I suspect I’m in some form of denial because I’m still doing more or less the same work, at least until the end of the contract.

The biggest thing happening in my life at the moment is that I’m relocating.  You may have noticed that most of the concert dates in the sidebar of this blog have started to be located in Central Florida.  That’s because Orlando is where I’m heading.   I’ve already moved everything that was in my storage unit here up to Orlando, during a surprisingly fun day with Amelie, a fifteen-foot U-haul truck, and the assistance of several friends and family members.   Most amusingly, my Orlando digs turned out to be on the same street as my friend and fellow blogger Jenn.  The universe is full of very silly coincidences.

I’ll be spending time flipping between Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale throughout April and into May.  My Orlando residential address is a temporary situation- once I’m up there full time, I’ll be looking for a new place of my own.  There’s all kinds of great little apartments for rent near Lake Eola and downtown, and the rental rates are way lower than they are in South Florida.

As for the jobbyness,  Amelie and I are both hunting for new gigs in Orange County as my contract starts to wrap up.  Looking for something new before the month of April is sort of pointless for me, because the contract doesn’t end until May 30th.  Amelie could start something new much faster than me, but it would be pretty convenient if we’re starting new things at roughly the same time. In the interim, I’m trying to learn some new things and perhaps get a certification or two to make myself more appealing to employers.

So that’s what I’ve been up to…  how about you?  Whasaaaaaaaap?

Repatriation Day

Bayern

Today is the day that I leave Germany. I’m not leaving forever, because I have friends here. After today, though, I won’t be a resident of Deutschland. I’m heading back to Florida.  My plane out of Frankfurt is actually scheduled to depart at the exact minute this post is scheduled to go up.

While this is a travel day for me, I thought it might be fun to give my friends an idea of what my Floridian  life will be like, geographically speaking, courtesty of http://overlapmaps.com/.  I’ve noticed that Europeans who have never been to the United States seldom have any real idea of just how expansive the US really is.  Americans who haven’t traveled here are similarly bereft of clue when it comes to scale, which is part of what makes these maps so much fun.

Here’s an example to illustrate that point.  This conversation actually happened between me and a colleague back in the US:

Colleague:  Hey, can you go to the data center to look at this server?
Me: The data center is in Frankfurt.  That’s three hours away.  I might be able to get there by tomorrow, if I leave now, go home, pack a bag, and manage to catch the next train out.
Colleague:  …so that’s a no, then?

First up in our map fun:  South Florida, overlayed onto the region of Bavaria I currently live in.   While these distances are not exact, I can say that Munich roughly overlays where Miami is, and Regensburg roughly overlays where I will be living.

overlay01

These next two are just fun:  Germany overlaid onto Florida, and Florida overlaid onto Germany.

overlay02 overlay03

…and just for giggles, the United States overlayed across all of Europe.  The US is a big place.  I lived in the US for my entire life before 2011, and I still haven’t seen nearly as much of it as I have seen of Europe.   I’ve gotta get on that.

overlay04

Which is bigger?  Your home town, or the place you live now?

On Packing

I tend to overpack for trips.  I always pack more socks and underwear and t-shirts than I could ever possibly wear for the number of days I’ll be gone.  I always have more stuff than I will ever need.  “It’s a three day trip in the dead of winter?  I’d better pack my swim trunks. And I really should bring a pick-axe, a compass, and night goggles.  You never know!”

When I was asked last fall if I wanted to move to Germany for a few years, my belongings were already in storage. I had been selling a condo, and part of that process involved getting me and my stuff out of it. I placed almost everything I own into two storage units, one large and one small, and I moved into my brother’s spare bedroom for the (theoretical) short term. My goal was to find an apartment once the sale was complete, but my focus changed to Germany before I ever had a chance to lease a new apartment.

When I knew for certain that I would be going to Germany, I started to offload a lot of my possessions- particularly the big furniture. A co-worker in the Florida office had moved to Florida with his wife a short while earlier, and they didn’t have much in the way of furniture, so they took the bed-frame, night stands, dresser, couch, dining room table off my hands.  They had instant furnishings, and I had less to store. Another co-worker took a deliriously comfortable mattress off my hands, and some smaller things went to other folks.   Before long,  I only had an ancient desk chair and my beloved coffee table remaining.  I was able to downsize from two storage units to just one, and soon after that, I moved to an even  smaller one. During that time, I also made choices about what to ship and what to store.

I brought a few things with me, but for the most part, my lifestyle here is pretty austere.  I travel a great deal, so most of my extra cash goes into that.  What can I say?  I’m an inveterate overpacker in life as well as on trips.  Ryan Bingham is kind of my hero.

I wish I had the experience then that I have now, however, because my ship-or-store choices would have been very different.

  • If I had a do-over, I would have shipped my books. With the exception of three or four technical tomes, my hilariously outdated guide to London, and my Kindle, all of my books are still in storage in Florida.  My signed Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams are there, along with dozens of paperback novels, cookbooks, reference books, and more.
  • If I had a do-over, I would have shipped my DVDs, because even though I rarely watched them at home, there are times that I miss the movies in my collection. I have Netflix, but the selection there is utter rubbish these days.  Netflix has primarily been good for watching old How I Met Your Mother episodes, and not much else.
  • If I had a do-over, I probably would have shipped my coffee table. I worry that being in storage for three years will destroy it, and if it were here, I would have less shin pain than I do now from smacking my legs into the evil bastard of a table currently filling that role.
  • If I had a do-over, I would definitely have shipped my Rollerblades. I sometimes think it would be fun to inline skate around this town.  Regensburg is really a bike city, but I do see inline skaters from time to time.
  • If I had a do-over, I… well, I probably would still have put most of my kitchen goods in storage, but I would have shipped my knives. Good kitchen knives are a vital cooking tool.  I had to buy a few pieces when I got here even though I have a great set of Henckels knives in a box back at home.  I really didn’t think that one through.

Here’s the real problem: Despite the fact that a still-fairly-large storage unit is full to brimming back in Florida, the items listed above are nearly all that I can remember from it.  It’s only been eleven months and the rest of the contents have fallen entirely out of my brain.  Nothing else in there is memorable.

For clutter, out of sight really is out of mind.  The less I remember of my belongings back in the US, the more unmoored I feel.    It’s an alarming sensation, to feel so adrift, so homeless.

Oh sure, I know there’s a box of photos and a some old paper files, but that’s just two boxes. What else is there? Old bedding and cushions that I should just give to charity? Glassware and plates that would be cheaper to replace in three years than to store?  I don’t really know.  I’m pretty sure that there are at least two pieces of cookware in there that have actually never been used. (Long story.)

I think I need to revisit the storage unit when I go back next month, even though I can’t really bring the do-over choices back with me.  It would be much too expensive to consider shipping anything else over right now.   I might be able to get rid of a bunch more crap and move to a still-smaller storage unit, though.  Maybe some of my Florida friends would be interested in dishes, glassware, pots and pans, and whatever other mystery items turn up in the storage unit.

Maybe I can whittle it down enough to really be Ryan Bingham.