Showering at 70 mph

I was riding the California Zephyr, an Amtrak train that goes from Chicago to Emeryville, California, when I got a song stuck in my head:

“I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars.”

That’s from Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash’s song about a man in prison watching a train go by. When it got stuck in my head, I hadn’t noticed that I was only a few miles from Folsom Prison, in central California.

Anyway, after three days on the train, I’d like to set the record straight about those two lines.

Donner Lake

Frankie looks out at Donner Lake

Trains are full of hundreds of people (and teddy bears) with nothing to do but look out the window. You might keep that in mind the next time you think about peeing beside the railroad tracks. I’ve seen seven deer, three hawks, one sandhill crane, and two men peeing.

On the other side of the equation, people notice passenger trains, and sometimes, they wave. I saw kids waving from the front porch of their house, as well as fishermen and rafters waving from the Colorado river. “What, nobody mooned you?” asked a woman I met in the dining car. Evidently, mooning is not unheard of.

For the first leg of my trip, from Cincinnati to Chicago, I sat in the section called “Coach.” Every seat was full, and people lurched up and down the aisle all night long, back and forth the bathrooms. I dozed, but I didn’t sleep well.

In Chicago, I discovered the Metropolitan Lounge, a sparkling, brand-new facility just for first-class passengers. I was eligible, because I had booked a sleeper car for the middle portion of my trip. Suddenly, I had access to free sandwiches, wine, coffee, and deep, comfortable seats.

I had arrived in “First Class.”

When it was time to board the train, the first class passengers were whisked onto the last three cars, the ones behind the dining and observation cars. Sleeper cars are always very quiet, compared to coach. People speak in hushed voices, and the loudest sound is the flushing of the vaccuum toilets. The sound of the whistle is very faint, and even the tracks are super-quiet, unless we are going across a switch, which makes the wheels clatter, or around a bend, which makes them squeal.

Meps in the bathroom

I didn’t take photos in the shower. But here’s one from the bathroom.

One of the first things I did when the California Zephyr departed from Chicago was take a shower. There is absolutely nothing special about a shower on Amtrak; it’s a standard little stall with a stack of bath towels and soaps. But I was traveling at 70 mph while I did it.

Then I got cozy in my private “roomette,” which I only had to share with two teddy bears. I hung up a couple of jackets, set my books and notebooks on the shelves (which are also the steps to the upper bunk), and plugged in my laptop. At 7:00, I went to dinner in the dining car, sharing a booth with three strangers. We all ordered the exact same steak.

Fortunately for my dining companions, there were no tunnels during any of my meals. Whenever we went through a tunnel, I was in my private room, and I kissed my teddy bear. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read Strangers Have the Best Candy.

To return to the Johnny Cash song, the folks in the dining car were not rich folks. We were just average people from all over the world — librarians, retired postal workers, families on summer vacation. Some of us drank coffee, like the song, and some drank tea, wine, juice, or soda. We had our choice of steak, chicken, seafood, or vegetarian entrees. For desert, chocolate mousse was the favorite, but there was strawberry cheesecake, ice cream, and sugar-free vanilla pudding.

Charleen

Best service ever!

Unlike the dining cars of old, we did not have custom china, only plastic dishes. But some of the flatware had an Amtrak logo stamped into the handle. Most importantly, my meals featured a fantastic server named Charleen, an efficient woman with a twinkle in her eye and an encyclopedic memory of everyone’s beverage preferences.

Absolutely no one on the entire train was smoking a big cigar, because we’d been warned that if anyone was caught smoking, they would be thrown off the train. Furthermore, we were told over the loudspeaker, if anyone tried to smoke in the bathroom, all the bathrooms would be locked for the duration of the trip.

For two nights, I had my choice between the top and bottom bunks, and I divided my time between them. Last night, the Big Dipper was hanging over my window, as big as I’ve ever seen it, so I moved to the lower bunk to enjoy the view. There was nothing else to see outside my window until first light, when we left the Bonneville salt flats, crossed the Nevada state line, and passed Winnemucca. The riotous lights of the casinos left after-images on my retinas.

If you see an Amtrak train going by, be sure to wave. Even though it seems like another world aboard the train, we do see you. Some of us are waving back, or else we are mooning you. With the tinted windows, you’ll never know which.

 

How long does it take?

The cab driver asked. The waitress asked. The shuttle driver asked. All my friends asked. When people hear that I am taking Amtrak from Cincinnati to Eugene, Oregon, the first question they ask is, “How long does it take?”

Theoretically, it will take about three and a half days, assuming the train ever gets here — the Cardinal is already scheduled to be 1-1/2 hours late!

I’ll travel up to Chicago first and then transfer to the California Zephyr, with a sleeper car. That means two good nights of rest, showers, and all my meals in the dining car, sharing tables with strangers. The toughest decision will be whether to sleep on the top bunk or the bottom one. Finally, after another transfer in Sacramento, I’ll get to ride the most beautiful train route in the country, the Coast Starlight through northern California and Oregon.

Union Terminal

Union Terminal

The first part of the adventure, simply arriving at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, was awe-inspiring. I loved the exterior of the 1933 Art Deco building, and I took a bunch of photos. But inside, there was simply no way a camera could capture the interior. At 106 feet high and 180 feet wide, it’s the largest half-dome in the Western hemisphere, and it’s jaw-dropping. Here’s an application that lets you pan around it, so you can get a sense of the scale.

Frank Lloyd Bear is excited about our Amtrak adventure. He likes trains much more than airplanes, because trains have whistles.

 

Memory Lane

Memory Lane marker

The marker for Memory Lane on East North Broadway in Columbus, Ohio

Last week, I expected to take a trip down Memory Lane when I attended my 35th high school reunion. Much to my surprise, it was an event two days later that took me down the literal Memory Lane and taught me a bit of Columbus history.

I arranged to meet one of my oldest friends from college, Vicki, in Clintonville. She lives a few blocks from my home in the 1980’s, and she’d told me about a guided art walk being held in the neighborhood. I was eager to take a stroll down Memory Lane with her, because I had walked, driven, and bicycled every street in that area.

Halfway through the tour, I got a real surprise. It turns out that East North Broadway, a street I have traversed thousands of times, actually is Memory Lane!

In the 1930’s, when the city was planning to build a new bridge across the Olentangy River at Broadway, the newly-formed Clintonville Women’s Club proposed that the bridge approach have flowering trees along it, planted for young men of the neighborhood who died in the service.

Little did they know what was to come — the project was underway when World War II broke out. Memory Lane would be lined with trees, each one bearing a marker for one of the boys who died in the war.

Many years later, the city widened the street and removed the trees, which may be why I never realized I was driving on a historic street every day. But a Boy Scout project saved the markers and had them preserved in a nearby cemetery.

Today, there are markers along East North Broadway, like the one above, for those who died in many wars, and homeowners maintain beautiful memory gardens with blooming trees in the strip between the sidewalk and the busy road.

And for those who attended the Friday night event of the high school reunion, I’m posting a few photos for you as well — our own little trip down “Memory Lane.”

The Joyful Bear: A Furry Philosophy for Overcoming Adversity and Finding Happiness

make-you-happy

Get a book to make you happy!

Today marks the official launch day for The Joyful Bear!

This is a landmark moment in teddy bear literacy. If a 10-inch tall teddy bear can publish a thought-provoking book of inspiration for adults, what kind of dreams and goals can you achieve?

I have a dream for this little illustrated book about happiness. I dream that it will make people smile and appreciate their lives a little bit more. I dream that Frank Lloyd Bear will become a 10-inch tall celebrity. I dream that the message of The Joyful Bear will spread far and wide, and will make the world a happier place.

You can order a copy of Frank Lloyd Bear’s book from Amazon or directly from the two of us, autographed. It’s available in both paperback and Kindle formats.

 

 

And the Very First Copy of The Joyful Bear goes to…

Juanita poses with Frankie and the first copy of The Joyful Bear

Juanita with Frankie

This is my brother’s best friend, Juanita. The two of them have been buddies for many years, and Hank serves as a guide for Juanita when they go out to restaurants and events. Technically, this is called, “the blind leading the blind.”

Juanita came up to Hank’s apartment to see me when I got to Columbus. Ever-curious and full of questions, she asked if she could feel my new book, which she cannot see. Little did she know that Frank Lloyd Bear was waiting for such a request. He jumped into her arms and gave her a big, furry bear hug, because you don’t need sight or hearing to appreciate a teddy bear.

To Frankie’s surprise, Juanita asked if she could buy a copy of The Joyful Bear. She planned to give it to her sighted friend, Jane, who helps her out a great deal. We are honored by her request, so Jane gets The Very First Copy, courtesy of Juanita.

 

Testing my new toy

Ever since I met plein air painters in the boatyard, a couple of years ago, I’ve wanted to try my hand at it. (See “Beauty and Goodness Are In the Air,” which was published on mepsnbarry.com in Feb. 2014)

Three weeks ago, my father got me a French box easel for my birthday. Now I can go out and do plein air painting, which seems like a great way to get fresh air and mosquito bites, as well as talk to curious strangers. Today, I did a test painting on the back porch, and as you can see from the results, Frank Lloyd Bear joined in the fun!

Painting

Painting of Dad’s lake with Frank Lloyd Bear meditating

French box easel

The French box easel on the back porch. Its design incorporates some seriously complicated 19th-century engineering.

How much for the kitty in the window?

The sign at the strip mall simply said “Kitten and Cat Adoption.” The sign on the door said “Open.”

I had some free time and a camera, so I stuck my head inside. I’m not looking for a cat, but I thought I could take some photos to bring attention to cats in need of adoption.

Inside The Cats Meow, I found dozens of happy, healthy cats lounging around, watched over by a volunteer named Kristin. She told me the shelter was founded a couple of years ago by Barbara Eakins, and that the 501(c)3 needs donations of money and supplies, as well as homes for cats. If you’re local to Vero Beach, they’re having a fundraiser on May 14 at Uncle Sam’s.

Here are some of their current residents, looking adorable and adoptable. The internet needs more kitty pictures!