Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Lake Shore Limited - Train travel from NYC to Chicago

<i>Lake Shore Limited</i> poster, 2000s.
Let’s start here – a roomette on an Amtrak train is small, maybe 3’ x 6’. So you are going to be very cozy with whomever your traveling partner is. That being said, it is your space, so enjoy it and make it yours. Stow your gear and get comfy. Having your own space is much more comfortable than the bustle and noise of coach seating. The Amazing Ms. D. and I got to do just that on the first leg of our journey – The Lake Shore Limited from NYC to Chicago. 

Lake Shore sleeper car in Penn Station

The Lake Shore Limited is one of my favorite trains. It travels from NYC up the Hudson River to Albany. In my opinion this is one of the most beautiful train rides in the country. The route was originally run by the NY Central Railway as the Exposition Flyer and started in 1893. Its original advantage over other routes was that it is a “water level” route. It follows existing rivers, canals and lake fronts, which means that there were no mountains to get over. It was the original flagship service of the NY Central, until the line started the 20th Century Ltd. In 1902. The Lake Shore and the 20th Century were a big part of NY Central’s competition with the Pennsylvania Railroad for passengers. Unlike today’s airlines the trains competed by adding amenities and making travel as comfortable and fast as possible. NY Central discontinued the service in 1956. Amtrak restarted it in 1975 and it is the only way to go from NYC to Chicago by train without having to change trains.

Now you might be asking “Why bother to take the train?” Well, The Amazing Ms. D and I have reached a point where we enjoy slowing down, and train travel definitely slows you down. No rushing through security, no spending an hour in line. The train gives you a chance to relax and reflect. You get a chance to see the country you are passing through. Riding up the Hudson I can imagine what it might have been like taking this route 100 years ago. You can still see many of the old factory buildings, some abandoned, some re-purposed, a few still going. All along the Hudson there are abandoned small buildings that used to serve some purpose for the railroad.

The Big Board at Penn Station NYC

Yonkers Waterfront

Sing-Sing Prison

The trip from NYC to Albany takes about 2.5 hours. Albany is a long stop, at least 45 minutes. This is where the Boston leg of the Lake Shore Limited joins up with the main train. The reason that there is so much allotted here, is that they used to actually connect the equipment from Boston to the NY train. Now they just transfer passengers, but they have left to time in the schedule. Take advantage of the time to get off of the train and stretch your legs. The station was rebuilt in 2002 and offers a coffee shop, newsstand and post office.  If you don’t mind eating a little early I would suggest taking dinner in the dining car on the way to Albany. It is not busy, and you can eat and enjoy the scenery (think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest). The dining car closes down when you get to Albany and after that point you competing with the passenger from the Boston leg of the train, who have only had a club car for the past 6 hours.

Lake Shore Limited in Albany

Albany-Rensselear Station

The Sun was setting as we left Albany and started heading west along to Mohawk River. The train started to go into night mode. The hallways quieted down, and around 9 the car attendant came and converted our roomette into its two bunk beds for sleeping. We settled in and fell out. Now, if you are like me, it is the change of motion that wakes you up. So during the night I slept well, but I woke up for the extended rest stops in Cleveland (3AM) and Toledo (6AM). After a quick shower (there is one in the sleeper car) we headed for breakfast. We ate and watched the sun rise over the fields of Indiana.  One thing that I really like about taking the train is that overnight your view of the country changes. From the Hudson River valley to farms of the mid-west. 

Albany Government Center

Indiana Farmland

We rolled into Chicago a little early, passing through the huge train yards, with the Amtrak trains, freight trains and commuter rail trains coming entering, leaving or just sitting around. We packed up our bags and headed to the “Metropolitan Lounge” a separate waiting area for passengers who have booked sleeping accommodations to wait for the next leg of our trip – The Southwest Chief to Los Angeles.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Athens Georgia

Athens City Hall

I have not spent a lot of time in “The South.” 3 months of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia; a couple of trips to New Orleans; a trip to Nashville and Memphis (BBQ and Blues); and a few trips to southern Florida. It is not that I have had no interest in that part of the country, but as someone who grew up in the 60’s/70’s and who is in an interracial relationship, I have to say that I have also have had my reservations. It is not that I believe that there is no racism in NYC, god knows I have seen it, and done what I can to oppose it. But I know where I can go in the north, in NYC, and what areas to avoid. So when The Amazing Ms. D was invited to speak at the University of Georgia I was really looking forward to seeing the city of Athens GA, but I wasn’t sure what I would find. What I found was an interesting mix of old and new. A city that definitely has a past, and that is looking ahead to its future.

One of the things that impressed me was how genuinely friendly people were. Starting with the bus driver who took us from the airport in Atlanta. A transplant from California, he was really interested in why we were visiting Athens and what our plans were. Everywhere I went, from the breakfast service at the Holiday Inn, to the University, just walking around the town, people were friendly and helpful.

The town of Athens Georgia developed along with the University of Georgia. It was founded as construction started on the school in 1801, and its name was chosen to reflect its role as a home to education. Along with the growth of the university, the city of Athens also grew to be a center of local industry. By the 1840’s there were cotton mills, flour mills, and textile mills in Athens. The mills were located along the Oconee River, which provided both water and power to run them. In 1845 The Georgia Railroad opened, connecting the industry of Athens with the Augusta, Georgia where goods could be transferred to boats and floated down the Savannah river to the coast.

By Boston Public Library [CC BY 2.0 (, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Morton Theater- the first black owned theater in Athens

First Presbyterian Church
Georgia Railroad Tressle

If you want to know about the history of the city, there are still 4 antebellum mansions in town. I visited the Ware-Lyndon House in downtown Athens. Built in 1840’s, today the Ware-Lyndon House has been restored as a museum and there is an arts and performance center attached to it. There is a lot of history in the home, both of the families that lived there and of the city of Athens. There are also exhibits of contemporary artists in the new addition. It is worth the visit. 

In terms of history, I found three things interesting. First, there was almost no mention of slavery in the history of the town. At the Ware-Lyndon House there were references to the land that was owned and other buildings that were sold, but no mention that say whether or not the family (one of the richest in the town) owned slaves or not. Second, were the references to “The War between the States”. At least I didn’t see anything that used the term “The War of Northern Aggression.” Thirdly, for a town with a 200 year history, I was surprised by how much of downtown Athens had been rebuilt during the 20th century. Most of the oldest building in in downtown Athens look to me to be from the 1920’s-1950’s. They are almost all commercial buildings. So that, like many cities, there is no one living in the downtown area, or so it seemed to me.

One final thing that impressed me was the variety and quality of food available. I ate at four very different restaurants, all of which were excellent in their own way:

DePalma’s Italian CaféThis is a wonderful Italian restaurant and pizza shop. Three of us had lunch here on our first afternoon in Athens. We feasted on delicious homemade pasta and wonderful salads. The décor is dark polished wood mixed with somethings that made us feel at home.

Cali N Titos – This is a funky pan-Latin restaurant, in the new fast-casual style. You come in and place your order and then the food is brought to your table. The menu covers several Latin cuisines both Caribbean and Central American, offering Cuban sandwiches, Tacitos, yucca, and miniature mofungo stuffed with shrimp. The food was fresh, authentic and sabroso! The décor was interesting to say the least. Piñatas line the wall and hang from the ceiling. The light are covered by Bustelo cans, and there is row boat in the front yard with a fountain in it.  

Weaver D’s – Simply a down home, riverside soul food shack serving up wonderful eats. Don’t expect dietetic food, we are talking about fried chicken, fried pork chops, greens and the an excellent cobbler. Nothing fancy, just 2 long tables and a counter in the back where you place your order. On the table are bottles of chow-chow along with other condiments. Worth a visit for the food, a must see for fans of REM – “Automatic for the People”.

Pork Chop "Sandwich"

The National – Local chef Peter Dale and partner Hugh Acheson have a wonderful spot here in Athens. Serving locally sourced, Mediterranean inspired food, this is definitely the place to come for a special night out. I had the stuffed dates appetizer and roasted chicken breast (served over a savory bread pudding). Both were excellent!

So if you are coming to Georgia, Athens is a destination that should be on your list of MUST SEE places.