Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Crossing the Mississippi

August 17 - This morning we packed up our bags once again and made ready to check out of our hotel. The Chinatown Hotel (bless its budget heart) has no elevator, so while I guarded our growing pile of belongings, David shuttled our four exceptionally heavy bags down the stairs (yes – I did get the better end of that bargain). While David was making a trip, all of a sudden there was what – I swear to you – sounded like a grenade explosion, followed by rapid machine-gun fire. The sounds were very loud and very close. A car alarm went off. I was alarmed and wondered when the guerilla army would burst around the corner. "I didn't picture myself dying in a hotel in Chicago at nine a.m. on a Sunday", I thought. But I realized something was up when I noticed that neither the hotel clerks nor anybody on the street seemed alarmed by the (very loud) sounds. Finally, I crawled out from inside the Ming vase and asked the desk clerk what the sound was. "Oh," he said without much interest, "probably fireworks."

Okay, fireworks at nine in the morning. I should have known. Oh well, we lived.

We dragged our suitcases into a taxi and drove to Union Station, whose architecture is the only remaining example of the grand old stations that were built at the turn of the century. It is strikingly beautiful. We checked in and got rid of our luggage (yes!) and then went to the Metropolitan Lounge, which lucky for us we got to use because we had a sleeper room. In the lounge we got rid of our carry-on bags (YES!) and took some time to explore the area, as we had lots of time to spare before our 2pm train. We saw the beautiful Lyric Opera of Chicago building, as well as a location of cinematic interest (more on that later).

After getting some food and reading material we relaxed in the lounge, which we were very grateful for as the main area had gotten really crowded. After not too long we were called to board the train, and were showed to our amazing and adorable roomette. Wow – this is the way to travel by train. We had seats facing each other that convert to become one bed, and a fold-down second bed above that. The apartment is very compact and so nice to relax in and take in the view.

We have met many characters in our short time here! Notably today was the woman who checked us in at Amtrak, who was a mixture of kind and crabby; alternately being sympathetic to us with our heavy bags and roughly ordering people back into line who didn't stay at the rope like she wanted them to. Also, our attendant on the train was Tony and he was hilarious, with a broad Texan accent and exuberant manner. He was ribbing us for being the quintessential newlyweds taking the train (we didn't bother to explain we were married last October) and teased David for (allegedly) stealing his newspaper. We could hear him giving an equally enthusiastic "welcome aboard" spiel to each sleeper cabin on our car.

The first part of our trip took us through lots of great small American towns, such as Lincoln and Springfield. The sun was setting as we had dinner in the dining car, chatting with a man from Austin who says we have to visit the city during our time here. Soon after we got back to our room, we hit an amazing milestone – the gently twisting Mississippi river, which we crossed around 8pm this evening. There was an enormous coal ship floating down the middle of the river – not the paddle boats you see in movies set at the turn of the century, but still very cool. On our train route, the river marks the border between Illinois and Missouri. It made me feel pretty far from home – we're definitely on an adventure now if we're crossing the Mississippi!

We'll sleep through most of our passage through Arkansas and wake up in the state of Texas. As I'm writing, David is reading a book above my head – he's on the upper bed and I get the one with the view. (I got the better end of that bargain, too!)

We're looking forward to getting settled in our new home-away-from-home, and to unpacking our suitcases that we've been living out of for what feels like a month! We're so glad our trip has gone as smoothly as it has – a wee bit of divine intervention in there, I think.