Feeling I’m falling boo

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Amtrak notes for newbies

Here’s a few things I’ve learned from my Amtrak travels…

Passes

There are 3 USA Rail Passes.  The adult prices are $389 for 8 segments in 15 days, $579 for 12 segments in 30 days or $749 for 18 segments in 45 days.  I’ve now done two coast-to-coast trips this way.  On the first trip I had the cheapest one and I had to pay a little extra because i went over the 15-day limit.  On the second, I went for the next one up and I found I needed more than 12 segments.  That’s how I roll, always just going over the limit…  However, I found them to be excellent value for money.

The important thing to remember when planning is that a journey might take up more than one segment.  “Amtrak considers a travel segment any time you get on and then get off a vehicle (train, bus, ferry or other allowable leg) regardless of length.”  So my trip from Washington DC to Belfast, Maine consisted of 3 segments: DC to Boston, Boston to Portland, Portland to Belfast.

Also remember that this just gets you a seat.  If your journey is overnight and you want to sleep in something more comfortable than a coach seat, you’ll have to pay extra.

The Terms and Conditions Page is worth a look.

 

Reservations

It’s best to make a reservation as soon as you know which train you want to get.  Amtrak does not oversell as far as I can tell.  You won’t see people standing or sitting in vestibules in the way you might on a UK train.  There were a couple of occasions when the train I wanted to get was sold out – this can be awkward in those areas where there’s only one train a day, which is to say pretty much everywhere outside of the North East routes.  When I faced this going from Milwaukee to Austin, I was advised to call again after midnight on the day of travel when reservations that haven’t been paid for get reset – it worked for me, though of course it’s not guaranteed.

Timetables

It’s worth asking for a system-wide timetable when you pick up your pass.  All stations also have paper copies of the timetables for the services that run there. Trains are referred to by their brand name (The Texas Eagle) as well as their number (21 or 22 depending on direction) It’s useful to be able to see just how far behind schedule you are on longer trips 🙂  Freight traffic gets priority on the network, so some delay is pretty much guaranteed.  Be prepared for a 1 or even 2 hour delay on any journey that’s more than 12 hours.  I didn’t miss any connections, but was told that Amtrak will pay for buses, accomodation and food if things go really wrong. The Amtrak phoneline gives fairly accurate real-time information on how each train is running – as I remember it’s good to know the train number.

Phone Line

1-800-USA-RAIL or 1-800-872-7245 store it in your phone now! The automated agent “Julie” is rarely of use if you’re planning anything more complicated than getting train information.  Say “Agent” as soon as you’re given the choice and you’ll get put in the queue for a real person.  I found Amtrak phoneline (and station) staff to be extremely friendly and helpful, mostly enjoying the  challenge of dealing with my out of the ordinary requests.

At the station

Even if you already have your tickets, it’s worth asking how the train’s running to schedule and checking out which gate or track you’re going to be leaving from.  Get a seat as close to the gate as you can as British queuing rules do not apply.  People get up before they’re called and before you know it there’s a crowd of people hovering around.  This does not automatically form into an orderly line as you might expect… so get there first!  Also, chill out.  You will get on the train and you will get a seat, you might have to sit next to someone and not get a choice about sitting by the window or the aisle, but that won’t kill you.

Getting on the train and finding a seat

Conductors will often call seniors (over 62 yrs, I heard a couple of times) and families with babies and small children first.  On North Eastern trains you can get on at any door.  On other routes you’re likely to be directed to a particular car based on your destination.  You will likely have some discretion choosing your seat if you get on at a terminus, though cars are sometimes divided into areas for single travellers and those in parties of two or more.  

A conductor will come round soon after departure to check tickets. They will then put a seat check (a small piece of paper or card) in the rack above your seat denoting where you’re getting off. Most conductors will prefer if you don’t move around to different seats but if you do, make sure you move your seat check with you.

Finding your way around

There are two types of train, the single-decker ones mainly found on the North Eastern commuter routes and the double-deckers elsewhere.  On single-deckers the restrooms are at one end of each car and you’ll get to the cafe and/or dining car if there is one by walking in one direction or another 🙂  On the double-deckers, restrooms are on the lower deck of each car accessible via the stairs in the centre.  Then the layout is usually that sleeping cars are at the front, followed by the dining car, then an observation car with big windows and sideways seats and a cafe downstairs and then then coach cars.  So if you’re sitting in coach, walking in the direction that the train is travelling is a good idea if you want to find anything else. 

Sleeping

I can’t tell you anything about the sleeping accomodation as I was always too tight-fisted to try it out.  I had three nights sleeping in a single seat and four when I had a double seat to myself. Raising the leg rests on two seats together gives you quite a bit of lying down space, though at 5′ 11” I’m probably at the top end of being able to do that comfortably and I can’t say that I got more than  5 or 6 hours sleep on the nights I did it.  

Doing it again, I would make sure I had some sort of blanket (the air-conditioning is unpredictable) and some sort of pillow or cushion of my own in addition to those given out.  I doubt that it’s the healthiest thing to do to rest your head on a seat and breathe in where someone else has been sitting for 24 hours but when you’ve been on there for 12 hours yourself you’re not thinking so much about that.  An eyemask and earplugs might be handy too if you can handle that level of sensory deprivation in a space full of strangers.

Eating and Drinking

I always took food and drink with me for these journeys.  Stocking up at a supermarket or grocery store beforehand means you get to eat well, eat what you want and save money.  If I’d been even better prepared I’d have taken a coffee flask to fill up before boarding too.  The coffee that’s served onboard (currently $1.75 + tip) is not really what you want to wake up to after a night sprawled across coach seats.

I ate once in the dining car this year.  I had a microwaved cheeseburger with small limp salad  and some crisps that cost me about  $12. I was really hungry and it was better than nothing.  That’s all I’m going to say.

For those alcoholically inclined I think that state alcohol laws apply wherever you are but I saw people buying beers at 10am.  I also observed several people being warned that being drunk would get them ejected from the train.  I’m aware that one guy had a very cold early morning in Spokane because he’d had a few too many.

Power Outlets

Always best to board with all of your electronics fully charged.  Generally there’s a pair of outlets for each pair of seats, but there was one train that had no power outlets at all in the car I was in, and on another they were only working intermittently. When you have the aisle seat it can be awkward leaning over someone you’ve not met, who happens to be asleep, to plug your stuff in.  Having a power block is a good idea, though I suppose overloading could have been one reason for the intermittent failure that time.  Also the power outlets are quite close together so if you have big chunky adapters for big chunky 13-amp UK plugs you might not be able to use them both at the same time.

 

Phone Coverage & Wifi

This depends a bit on what network you choose to use but through rural areas of many states I had little or no coverage usually from a carrier that would give me voice/text but no data.  Do some research beforehand on what you can get that will give you what you need – I ended up making a decision based on last year’s information and although it worked out OK, I might have been able to do better.

I only got wifi to work on the Downeaster from Portland to Boston.  It’s available on the Acela Express too I believe but I never got to try that.  Wifi in stations is advertised but rarely worked.

Originally posted on Please Look After This Englishman

Collaborator(s) needed

The conception, development and execution of the journey were all carried out in the same way.  I thought about things, i wrote about them, I wove the responses to my writing together with person-to-person conversations I had into decisions about which way to go next.  That. Repeated over and over.

Before the trip, I spoke to people around me at the Centre, at Tuttle, friends, random acquaintances. On the trip, I spoke to the people I was staying with or with others I encountered as well as occasionally checking back in with my London friends.

Now I’m back, I feel like I’m not doing that so much.  I think it’s because I don’t know how to shift gear and ask for a different kind of help.  I am fine with getting help opening up options and making short-term decisions.  Closing things down, getting them down on paper and turning them into something interesting, noteworthy, remarkable, valuable, not so much.  Somehow I want to do that all by myself, I think I have to draw a line on collaboration, retreat to my cave and produce *my* thing, *my* product, *my* story.

I’m looking for people to work on this together.  I feel like an actor who needs a director, a journalist who needs an editor, or something.  I could be wrong about what or who I need, I just know I need help, challenge, support, something other than me to go any further. 

Having written that, i recognise that it’s not as entirely open as that.  I think I need people who already have some understanding of what I’m doing and some affinity with it.  Help conditional on me being able to explain to you from first principles exaclty what we’re doing and why is no help at all at the moment.  If your response is “I’d love to help you, but I don’t really understand what you’re doing” then thank you for the offer, your time will come, but right now I need something else.

Originally posted on Please Look After This Englishman

The Pull of Conformity, Identity, Ego

I’ve been back for a week and I’ve noticed a struggle in me between continuing to be as I was when I was away and how I’m accustomed to .being now that I’m back in a familiar environment.

Being in a familiar environment, “my” bits of London, means I don’t have to think as much, I know where everything is already, i know how it works, I’m not sitting on the District Line wondering at each station whether I got on the right train as I did when I traveled a few stops on the T in Boston, for example.

But it comes in other ways too.  

I’m questioning why I am back thinking in terms of a 9 to 5 workday, having to get up at a certain time to do just what exactly?  Stopping doing “work” things at another time, why?  When i was away, I had a social pull of getting up to spend time with the people I was staying with, or else I woke at dawn (or before) because I was on a train.  Now I’m home I get to decide, but I don’t consciously make that decision, I fall back into patterns that I’ve established over years and years.

I’ve noticed myself worrying more about silly things like what I’m wearing.  During March, i pretty much wore what was clean.  I took about two weeks worth of clothing and did one load of laundry while I was in Austin.  Did anybody think I was dressing inappropriately?  I don’t know, but nobody mentioned it, if they did.  The only reason for me feeling vaguely embarrassed was the holes in some of my socks.

Which helps me remember that while I was there, I was an alien, i could choose to do whatever I wished because if I broke any etiquette rules, even intentionally, I’d probably be forgiven because I was being English, or quaint, or eccentric.

I spent long hours on trains – I’ve been on a couple of commuter trains and the tube a few times since I’ve been back and I’m straight back into conditioned behaviour.  Not connecting with anyone under any circumstances, getting irritated by anyone making the slightest noise or having a conversation.  Looking out of the window as a way of avoiding what’s going on and escaping into my head rather than as a way of engaging with what I was passing.

The freedom of travel is that we can put aside ego, be surprising to ourselves and others, let go of who we think we are or should be and try out being someone else, maybe that someone is really who we are.  The challenge is to keep that up when all the familiar inputs, people, environment are around us, encouraging us to conform with what we’ve done before.

Originally posted on Please Look After This Englishman

Ukulele as social object

photo: kittygutz

When I was travelling, I got into the habit of taking my ukulele out with me most days (actually this started happening much more during SXSW when Sarah, Dan and Phil encouraged early morning crooning in the car while heading downtown).  Not only did simply having an instrument in my hand prove to be a bridge to unexpected conversations with strangers, I also would whip it out and give people a song or two. People loved it… even English people!  It became an important part of my social currency.

An important thing that Taylor told me in New York was to make sure I kept doing some of the things I’d learned to do on the road, just for practice, just to see what happens.

I would not dream of carrying my uke around everywhere in London and giving people songs. Nope. Never.

God. How. Embarrassing.

So I may have to just start, now I’m home, to see what happens.

 

Originally posted on Please Look After This Englishman

@missrogue on getting real

Tara Hunt talks about the honesty behind the honesty of that TEDx talk:

“I was scared to give it. I’m still scared every time I send it to someone. I’m not talking about my success or all of the awesome things I’ve accomplished in that talk. I’m talking about struggling, failing, not knowing where I’m going, being delusional, stumbling, breaking down and generally being a mess. Sure, I give a little upbeat Apple Ad bit at the end of the talk so I can end it on a hopeful note. It’s the same upbeat talk I give myself at the end of every single day.”

Yesterday I heard someone say “Fear can either stand for ‘Fuck Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Recover'”  I laughed because I recognise that I’m currently about 80:20 on that – most of the time I will still run.  I’m keen, in public, to make the most of the times I face things, but honesty really gets me further than hiding the fact that I fell short again. 

Confession really is good for the soul, who’da thunk it?  The more I admit to having screwed up… again.  Doh! AND AGAIN and really, still not having a clue, but getting up every morning and trying again to do the right thing today, then the better I feel and the more warmth and love and understanding and close connection I see around me – oh, and that’s what I’m in it for – that’s success.

 

Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous

@missrogue on getting real

Tara Hunt talks about the honesty behind the honesty of that TEDx talk:

“I was scared to give it. I’m still scared every time I send it to someone. I’m not talking about my success or all of the awesome things I’ve accomplished in that talk. I’m talking about struggling, failing, not knowing where I’m going, being delusional, stumbling, breaking down and generally being a mess. Sure, I give a little upbeat Apple Ad bit at the end of the talk so I can end it on a hopeful note. It’s the same upbeat talk I give myself at the end of every single day.”

Yesterday I heard someone say “Fear can either stand for ‘Fuck Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Recover'”  I laughed because I recognise that I’m currently about 80:20 on that – most of the time I will still run.  I’m keen, in public, to make the most of the times I face things, but honesty really gets me further than hiding the fact that I fell short again. 

Confession really is good for the soul, who’da thunk it?  The more I admit to having screwed up… again.  Doh! AND AGAIN and really, still not having a clue, but getting up every morning and trying again to do the right thing today, then the better I feel and the more warmth and love and understanding and close connection I see around me – oh, and that’s what I’m in it for – that’s success.

 

Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous