A while back my parents booked a cruise to the Bahamas for themselves, their four grown daughters, and our families. We were responsible for getting each of our own family units down to the Port of Miami, from which Royal Caribbean's "Majesty of the Seas" ship departed on August 8. My family unit consists of two adults and three kids between the ages of 6 and 11. These days, plane fares for a family of five are exorbitant (especially after taxes and fees) – to fly to Miami with one connection would have cost us over $2,000. In addition to economic cost is the environmental expense of flying: commercial aviation is said to have a negative impact on the environment.
We considered renting a car and driving, but that would have cost more than flying in the end, when you add in rental fees, gas, and food and lodging along the way. It would also have been stressful, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. And driving long-distance isn't much better for the earth than flying. "Going Greyhound" would have cost about $900, but the bus ride to Miami is very long (around 39 hours), and spending nearly two days cramped in a bus full of strangers isn't all that appealing. That left one option: the train. Amtrak doesn't offer direct rides from Milwaukee to Miami, so our best option was to take the Capitol Limited train from Chicago to Washington, D.C. (a journey of 705 miles, 17 hours long), wait out a 7-hour layover in D.C. (which would allow us to do a bit of sight-seeing), and then hop on the Silver Meteor to finish the remaining 1,054 miles of our trip to Miami (a 23 hour ride). In other words, we would depart from the first train around 6 p.m. on Friday, August 5 and arrive in Miami at about 7 p.m. on Sunday, August 7, then do the trip in reverse a week later. The cost of this lengthy journey was just under $1,200 after our AAA discount.
After much consideration, we opted for the train as our vehicle to the port, and don't really regret our decision, as we discovered a few perks to this slow mode of travel beyond saving money:
- Reducing our environmental impact. This is a tough item to address because so much research suggests that planes, trains, and automobiles are, in some ways, neck-and-neck when it comes to which is worse for the environment. That is because of the many variables involved with each mode of travel that affect environmental impact. That said, I do think trains tend to fare slightly better than most other modes of transit, other than the bus. I think this is in part because of how many people can travel on one train. When a train is at full capacity, more people travel with less of an impact on the environment.
- Communing. Train riders tend to be more communally minded. When you sit for hours in a lounge car you are bound to have at least a few conversations with your fellow sojourners. We met some interesting folks on the train, and even the unsavory human experiences (e.g. the drunk woman shouting for her companion to "shut the f* up" at 1 a.m. on the train to Miami, or the guy sitting next to my husband from D.C. to Chicago who talked loudly in his sleep, or the man who snored for hours in the lounge car in broad daylight) provided entertainment. I realize this might be a deterrent for the less social travelers, but for us it made our trip livelier.
Inside the observation car of the Capitol Limited (Photo: Steven Zydek)
- Building Character. Riding on a train builds patience, and foregoing conveniences (e.g. wireless internet) for the duration of a trip builds character. For me the latter was a nuisance that I came, eventually, to enjoy. It doesn't take long to get used to the peace that comes with an e-mail-free life. And though the train rides were time consuming, I was surprised at how short an 18-hour train ride can feel. If you have some good books, a deck of cards, or a portable DVD player or are lucky enough to have an observation car with a gorgeous view, the time seems to pass fairly quickly. And when it doesn't, well, that's when a rider's patience is exercised – and strengthened in the process.
- Enjoying the view. On a train you really get to see America. If you're lucky, that will involve some spectacular views of our nation's natural treasures. I considered it a treat to be able to see the sights along the Capitol Limited line, including the Potomac Valley, historic Harpers Ferry and the Allegheny Mountains. You will also see some fascinating pictures of American life, including a LOT of poverty. I saw decaying small towns and run down commercial drags. I saw squatters under an overpass in Maryland. I saw parched fields baking in the summer heat and trainside trees covered by invasive vines. I saw burned out train stations and graffiti-covered freight train yards. I saw condemned homes and front yards that look like junk yards. My trip was both beautiful and, at times, disturbing, but in all ways illuminating.
The view from the Capitol Limited train (Photo: Steven Zydek)
Of course, there are some drawbacks to traveling by train. The sleeping conditions are wretched. With a good neck pillow and a blanket, you might be able to catch some sleep here and there. I found no truly comfortable sleeping position. I shifted around for hours each night until I was finally so exhausted around 4 a.m. or so that my body overlooked the discomfort and fell asleep. Sleeping cars are available for the wealthy, but with a cost upwards of $4,000 for our family trip, we simply couldn't afford the option. (We did hear that upgrades to sleeping cars purchased ON the train are much cheaper, if they are available, but we didn't partake).
In addition to awful sleeping conditions, customer service can make or break a train ride. On some trains, the customer service is great. On others, it's terrible. The Capitol Limited to and from D.C. was a beautiful "Superliner" with a fantastic staff. The attentive Amtrak employees picked up garbage and filth constantly. They were communicative with customers, pleasant, and fun. Conversely, the Silver Meteor to Miami was pretty sad. The staffers were at times grumpy and uncommunicative and the train was somewhat dirty -- toward the end of the ride the train felt a little cleaner than a Girl Scout camp latrine.
During our train rides I spent a lot of time whining to my sisters and mom via text messages. They all flew to Miami, so they left two days after us and returned home two days before us. I probably texted "horrid night's sleep" to them at least a few times. From this they got the impression that I did not enjoy myself. However, my husband and I concluded that we did like traveling by train. Yes, there were some unpleasant moments, and yes, I will probably bring more food next time and not stay on a train long enough to have to sleep in a chair for two nights. But we figure that train travel under 24 hours is fun and exciting and probably worth the trouble. Plus, our three daughters seemed to enjoy most of their time on the train. I hardly heard them complain, nor did I hear a repeating chorus of "are we there yets" throughout the journey. I've already started looking into shorter Amtrak rides. I think this might be our preferred mode of travel for medium-length distances.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, though Amtrak has a reputation, much like most planes nowadays, for tardiness, we managed to get to Miami with plenty of time for the cruise departure. Only one of our trains was delayed. As for the environmental friendliness of cruises, I know they can have bad rap, but according to Tree Hugger.com, some cruises are better than others. Thankfully, Royal Caribbean is among the more eco-friendly companies. I especially appreciated their Save the Waves program. We had a beautiful, memorable trip, not only because we were able to enjoy the gorgeous Caribbean, but because of our train adventure.
Was it hard for us to get home two days after the rest of our family members? A little. Train transit stretched our five-day cruise into a ten day journey. That might sound frustrating to the average citizen of this fast-paced world, but in reality, upon adjusting to the "slow travel" way, we discovered that long cross-country rides can be relaxing, enjoyable, and affordable. We're getting used to this slow travel thing, and even loving it.
It's a simple pleasure that I believe everyone should be able to experience: eating food harvested from one's own yard (or balcony, or kitchen window for that matter).
All year round I try to grow at least one or two things I can cook and eat. In the winter, that means mostly herbs like basil and oregano. In the summer, it means a lot more – especially in August, when most plants yield their fruits. Yesterday I harvested:
- blackberries: This is the first year I have a bumper crop of the very tart, juicy aggregate fruits.
- carrots: I usually wait a little longer to pick them, but I wanted to make soup, so I pulled a few of the carrots with big orange tops protruding from the soil.
- cabbage. I started a few cabbages from seed in the spring. Due to the cold, dark "sprinter" we had this year in Milwaukee, most of my seedlings took forever to come to fruition. I am just now starting to see tomatoes and my eggplants haven't even flowered yet. And I now have about two small cabbages that look like they are ready to be harvested.
- grapes: I think I jumped the gun on harvesting them – I've never harvested grapes before, as it's taken a few years for these vines to bear significant fruit. I harvested a bowlful but left most of the grapes on the vine.
Though our fridge is rapidly emptying of store-bought sustenance, I am holding off on grocery shopping for as long as possible by using produce from my yard. This is fairly doable as long as I have eggs, milk, and flour, and coffee beans on hand.
Last night for dinner I decided to make cabbage soup. I sautéed onions and garlic in a large soup pot, stirred in peeled, chopped carrots and cabbage leaves, added about six cups of water, vegetarian vegetable bouillon cubes, and a bit of pepper, garlic powder and parsley. I brought everything to a boil and then let it simmer. A few minutes before serving I added about 2/3 c. Marsala cooking wine and salt. I served the soup with shredded mozzarella cheese and bread.
For dessert I thought I'd try preparing a dish my friend shared with us a year or two ago. It was a kind of flan, but firmer, more like an eggy cake. Problem is, I lost the recipe and couldn't remember the French name of the dish. So I made up this recipe instead. I call it "Blackberry Crepe Cake" because of the recipe's similarity in texture and taste to crepes:
Blackberry Crepe Cake
8 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. vegetable oil or melted butter / margarine
1 c. sugar
2 c. flour (I use a mix that contains 50/50 unbleached white and whole wheat flours, with a little ground flax meal thrown in)
1/4 tsp. salt
2 c. blackberries (or other blueberries or raspberries or any tart berry combination)
[Stir all ingredients together. Batter will be slightly lumpy. Pour into greased 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm or chilled.]
Both the soup and the "crepe cake" (which, I'm sure, has a proper name) were yummy. I'm definitely going to make the cake again, though I have so many zucchinis I am going to be making chocolate-chip zucchini muffins for weeks before I make any other dessert.
Incidentally, for those who take this blog post as a boast of my mad homemaking skillz, be assured that I am not much of a "Susie Homemaker." Most of those who know me can attest to the fact that my house is always a mess, and many of our meals, including yesterday's lunch, came from a box. As I work my way toward complete self-reliance, a little Roundy's mac-n-cheese comes in handy now and then. Of course, when the mood strikes I can be a decent cook. But believe me when I say that I probably rely on convenience foods as often as any other working mom. I have a long way to go toward living off the land!