My sister Bonnie and I had planned for weeks to meet on Long Island, where our other sister, Jackie, lives in a group home in Riverhead. I was coming as a surprise for Jackie on her 73rd birthday. Bonnie, spending a few months in Treasure Island FL with her husband Bill, would fly to her Long Island home and I would take Amtrak out of Charlottesville and meet her in New York’s Penn Station, then take the Long Island Railroad 75 miles out to Center Moriches, where we would have a sister’s weekend together, something we’d never done.
Finally Friday, March 2nd arrived. I rose early to meet my train at 9am. I’d woken a few times during the night hearing heavy winds outdoors but thought little of it. Soon, I turned left out of the driveway, happy and early on my way. Less than a mile down my road a tree was down and six vehicles were stopped. Uh oh, I thought, hope we can get this cleared quickly. I got out of my car to help move small branches from the road while several men tugged the thick tree trunk to the roadside. One called out, “Anybody got a chain saw?” A tall man quietly said he did, and soon the chainsaw began to noisily whine its way through the trunk.
I asked a burly red-haired man, “Can you tell me another way to Charlottesville from Route 151?”
He looked at me. “Lady,” he said, “We’ll have this cleared by the time you’d drive that way.”
“Okay,” I said, trusting him. And, shortly, half the road was clear just as he’d said, and we moved ahead slowly, my side door scraping against broken branches. I wondered what lay ahead, feeling happy I’d given myself good lead time, and discovered the roads open with high winds. I arrived at the train terminal in plenty of time. I hadn’t been on an Amtrak train in nearly 40 years and discovered I needed to learn how to pay for parking, where to find the train’s departure point, and had to return to the station to ask some questions over again. More, I forgot my parking spot number so had to walk from one end of the lot to the other to complete all I needed to do. It was 41! I’ll never forget it now!
With wind outside gusty and chilled, we huddled inside the station. About 10 minutes before the train was due to arrive, we walked outside to wait near the tracks, braced against the wind. Mary Poppins came to mind and I knew if I’d had an umbrella, well—you know. We waited… and waited… and waited for more than an hour until the train finally arrived.
We boarded, chatting and happy to be warm at last. I was still an innocent then, unaware that I’d already had two clear indicators about what lay ahead, not just for me, but for all of us on this day.
About twenty minutes later, the train stopped on the tracks. The conductor announced a fallen tree lay across the tracks ahead; men from VDOT would soon arrive to clear it off. Not concerned, warm and cozy, I reflected that our train would arrive in DC, stop briefly and then I would stay on it to go on to Penn Station in NY. All was well.
An hour later we started to move. Now we’re on our way, I thought, and settled in for a little reading. Very little, as it turned out! I texted Bonnie: Very heavy winds in VA today. I heard the Federal Government is shut down. Trees are apparently down all over. We’ve stopped again near Mannasas for three down trees on the track. We’ll be here awhile. I’ll keep you posted. This may be a long trip.
Bonnie replied, I can’t help but smile when the only time in ages you come to Long Island that you come in the middle of a nor’easter.” A nor’easter? That was news to me! Bonnie went on, LOL. Not to worry! We will prevail! Just relax and enjoy the ride when it starts. It’s a fast-moving storm so should pass soon.
Half an hour later, I texted Bonnie. We’re moving again.
Thirty minutes later, I texted: We’ve stopped. More downed trees.
Then we started, briefly. Then, another stop. We’re just above Manassas, I told her.
We started again. The next stop after Manassas is Burke Center, then Alexandria, then DC.
At 1:57, I texted we’d just passed Alexandria.
Bonnie said, Great! Let me know when you leave Union Station in DC.
Long story shortened, we arrived at Union Station at 2:44 pm. All trains north have been suspended, not cancelled. Suspended, we were told. We’ll update you at 4.
4pm passed, then 5. Somebody called out they’d just read on Twitter that Amtrak had cancelled all trains north. We stopped train staff to ask if this was true. No one would confirm. Why not, we wondered. Finally, an hour later, the rumor was confirmed. All trains north were cancelled.
Four of us, two women in our 70s and two in their 30s, talked and planned to stay on the train overnight. Then we were told we needed to disembark. People were everywhere, Union Station was filled with stalled trains, hotels were filling up, and newly scheduled trains for late the next day were filling up in minutes. And the wind was blowing about 75mph.
We found a room online in a nearby hotel and grabbed it. While we walked the 3 blocks over, we passed a car stopped for a light, the driver dazed because the huge wind had just blown over one of the heavy street lights and it landed on his front passenger side. Two people sat in back but no one in the passenger seat. Other drivers honked angrily at him as they cut around him so they could hurry away into the wild night. Paper and other larger objects blew dangerously across the streets. Twice I was blown forward, feeling like Mary Poppins without an umbrella, always braced to be struck by any object, small or lethal, as I stepped forward. Would I survive this walk? I wondered? As we passed buildings, homeless people sat on the sidewalks hunkered against buildings, holding blankets that whipped in the wind over their bodies. Would they survive this night? I wondered. Each of us was at the mercy of a nor’easter with murderous winds.
We checked in, put our baggage in our room, then went to eat across the street at the Billy Goat Tavern where we had a round of drinks and toasted one of our four on this, her 31st birthday. We ate burgers and/or sandwiches. I returned to the room first, so used to quiet days of writing in my home, so unsettled because I had no idea what the morning would bring.
I woke all through the night. Normally I use a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea but didn’t want to use it without the privacy I cherish at home. My choice had two outcomes: despite my intention to sleep on my stomach I did roll over where I began to snore until I woke up and rolled over. The other consequence was that I had less oxygen during sleep, which is tiring.
In the morning I walked back to Union Station to try to figure out if I could get to New York. Inside, a huge snake-like line of people, at least half a mile long waited to get to the ticket counter, where I waited for more than an hour watching so many people upset and angry and frustrated because they couldn’t get tickets they so wanted. I saw people behind the counter who tried hard to be patient and helpful but were close to the end of their tolerance. I began to see that I stood in a huge space filled with a gathering of humans who were transforming into the person we each become when we feel acute loss of control over our lives. I recognized myself in them, cherishing my ability to simply observe and feel calm because everything would work out. Maybe not what I’d hoped, but resolution would come.
When I became first in line a lithe woman of color beckoned me over, as she yawned. “What a day you are having,” I said to her. She smiled in acknowledgment, asked kindly how she could help me, and listened carefully as I asked for her help so I could decide whether to try to get to NY or if I should return home. She checked trains to NY first. No coach seats were available until after five pm. First class trains were moving very slowly at the present, due to flooding, power lines down, and of course downed trees; no one knew what lay ahead. The nor’easter was still going up north.
“When can I go to Charlottesville?” I asked. Her fingers raced across her keyboard, stopped and she stared. “4:30 today,” she said.
Meanwhile Bonnie sent a message saying that she and Bill felt it best for me to get safely back home. “I’d like to exchange this ticket for one to Charlottesville today,” I told her, a deep sad ache filling me because I wanted to be nowhere else in the world than with my sisters.
“Let me go change the ticket,” she said and turned to enter a room behind her. I waited several minutes. Once she peeked her head out, smiled and said, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. This is taking some time.”
“No problem,” I said.
Whatever she was doing took 20 more minutes, then she returned and placed a new ticket on the counter. “I’ve changed the ticket for 4:30 today and we’ve reimbursed your credit card $130.00.” My eyes widened. Everyone I’d talked to had to contact Amtrak to request refunds.
“You have really outdone yourself for me,” I said to her, as she smiled and tried to suppress a yawn. I turned to leave.
“Oh, one more thing,” I said. “Where can I charge my phone?” I needed Google Maps to give me walking directions back to the hotel to gather my belongings.
“You need a full charge or a quick one?” she asked.
“Just a quick one,” I said.
“Oh,” she smiled, and started pushing things away from her power outlet. “I can do that for you right here.”
My eyes really widened then. “You are a kind and amazing woman. I will never forget this time at your counter.”
She smiled matter-of-factly as she plugged in my charger. I stepped aside so another customer could be served, hoping he would see a glimpse of the beauty inside this woman.
I texted Bonnie. She replied: We tried. You made a good decision. It just didn’t work out. I’m sad, but glad you’re getting home today.” Little did we know….
Fast forward to 4:00, where I stood in line talking with a dentist from Lynchburg. We remained in that line until 6pm, 1.5 hours later than scheduled, when our train arrived. I hurried to find the quiet car so I could read.
Bonnie texted. On that train yet? I told of the delays. I’m so sad you are not here but I am so happy you are on your way HOME! she replied.
At 8:30 pm I texted her. We’ve been sitting on the track for over an hour now waiting for a freight train ahead to move. It’s broken down. This feels like deja vous.
Unbelievable. Please text me when you get home.
At 9, she texted, Are you moving yet?
Well the train ahead got fixed and then it was discovered tht staff worked far beyond their legal limit. Now we’re waiting for a new staff to arrive. It made me wonder if that would be a problem for the staff on our train. 3am, the conductor told me. “No problem.
The train ahead is on a straight track, so there’s no way to get around it. Don’t you think this story could be transformed into a comedy? I asked Bonnie.
OMG, I have no words, she texted. You are truly my hero. I cannot believe what your last two days have been like. One huge cluster f***.
I laughed out loud. Perfect description, I texted. That would make a great title for my story.
LOL, she texted. I’m chuckling now. We have to maintain our senses of humor. I can’t believe after all of this time and travel, I still don’t get to see you. There’s got to be a silver lining somewhere but I just can’t find it.
We’ll find that silver lining, I replied, over a bottle of Gruet champagne, I trust. When we do your Plan B.
OMG, champagne, yes, You’re onto something there.
At 10pm, she asked: You home yet?
No, we’re still sitting here. Word is second shift arrived but nobody’s contacted HQs yet.
I have no words, she said. Where r u?
Not quite at Culpepper.
My 10:30 update said: The new crew is at the other train and we should be starting up in half an hour.
Please, God, let this be true, Bonnie texted.
I’m reading a great mystery I may get finished…
I can’t wait until you get home.
My midnight update: We just got permission to start. Here we go. Let’s see how far we get.
1:15am update: Just pulled into Charlottesville. Talk with you tomorrow. xoxo
Thank God. Drive home safely. Love you.
2am update: I AM HOME!
PEACE. Sleep well, Sister. 😊
As I drove home, I wondered what time I would have arrived in New York.
When I read this story to my writing sisters, they said, “You might still be on a stalled train somewhere.”