Travels with Harvey: Getting on Board with a Fresh Perspective

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We left our house at 5:00 am for the 6:05 departure, with the kids bundled so thoroughly they waddled to the platform.

It’s not always where you travel, but how you travel that’s important. In a helicopter 500 feet up, Virginia is a far more wild and rural state than it appears at highway level.  In Harvey, our RV, family time becomes more exciting as we play cards and make sandwiches at 60 miles an hour. Transportation can change your perspective.

That’s how it was with our pre-Christmas getaway. Minutes after reading about Amtrak’s new Norfolk-to-DC service, I was selling my husband on the idea. He wouldn’t

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fight traffic; plus, it was cheap; plus – here’s where I sounded like a kid at a carnival – we’d get to ride a train! Since my only recent railway excursion was from Festa Italia to New France in Busch Gardens, the train wouldn’t just be part of the experience.

It would be the experience.

Blame “The Polar Express,” but a Christmastime train trip seemed particularly magical.  However, the weeks between booking the seats and boarding the train were anything but. National tragedies, then one more personal, dampened our celebrations. We were weary as we crowded into the station before dawn that Saturday.

The train seemed to be filled with newbies like us, and we were all lemmings.  When one couple bypassed the station for the platform, we all filed out, then spent 15 frozen minutes grousing. When the train finally roared in on the unguarded tracks, and I loosened my death grip on the boys, we staked out our position. Doors to our left, then doors to our right, opened for boarding. Ours stayed stubbornly shut. Through a window, a woman gestured for us to move up a car, so naturally, we lemmings complied. Turns out, she didn’t want all of us to follow her – just her friend behind us. We trudged back, eventually found an entrance, and located seats, though not together.

We traveled with only the faintest sense of location, first shrouded in darkness, then by woods.  Eventually, trees gave way to towns, but only their backsides. We were intruders in private spaces: backyards with empty swings, overturned patio furniture, piles of firewood. One resident had heaved appliances and furniture over a ledge and into a ditch. Out of his sight, but not out of ours. We passed empty lots, warehouses, gravel piles, and industrial equipment. Not Virginia’s company best, to be sure.

The sun peeked from behind hazy clouds to reveal woods, then open fields, and eventually, towns as we headed to our first stop in Petersburg.

Three hours into our trip with three more to go. Seat cushions kept slipping forward. The wireless service failed. Angry Birds squawked nosily around me. I confiscated phones. One son built a fort using his tray table and coat, oblivious to the woman napping in the seat ahead. I gave him the look. Another son expressed a capital-A Attitude in a very public way. I shared an insightful critique of his behavior – also very publicly. He glowered.

This wasn’t “The Polar Express.” In fact, it was coming dangerously close to “Throw Momma from the Train.” I was starting to miss Harvey, in which, I calculated, we would have been there by now.

We needed a diversion.  I’d heard about a café car and seen evidentiary coffee cups.  I herded the kids through packed cars and into an empty booth. Next to us, a frazzled father had the same idea: snacks for sanity. Lifesavers were a bargain, even at $3 a pop.

Sipping coffee and simmering in frustration, I stared out the window. The scenery had changed.  Buildings turned their faces toward us. A dainty Victorian, festooned with wreaths, greeted us warmly.  A stately Colonial glowed in the morning sun. At the station, storefronts along Railroad Avenue beckoned. The sign marking Ashland Coffee & Tea announced our location. Later, I learned that Ashland had been built by the railroad, and the town seemed to be thanking its creator still. Its perception of the railroad – a source of strength, rather than an annoyance – made for a charming scene.

That’s when my perspective – fortunately – shifted.

Sure, RVing has advantages. Harvey’s refrigerator stays stocked with enough snacks for a scout troop. We travel on our own schedule, sleep on a cushy mattress, and shower in a private bathroom.  RVs offer freedom, convenience, and exploration…“more in the American Way of Life than any other product,” boasted one early advertisement.

But if RVs are the automotive tribute to America’s independent streak, trains embody our sense of community. The itinerary isn’t always convenient, and the view isn’t always pretty. You can’t go your own way, or have a lot of room to spread out. You might get misdirected.

The boys were so fascinated by Union Station in Washington, D.C. that our entire weekend could have been spent there, watching the trains come and go.

But on a train, we’re all on a journey together.

Autonomy and community. Americans rightly value both. Given recent events, perhaps we need an extra dose of the latter. Togetherness can be a messy thing, but all in all, a blessing.

I hope you’ll keep that in mind if we’re ever on the train together and my son builds a fort behind your seat. Also, don’t follow us. We don’t know where we’re going.

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One Response to Travels with Harvey: Getting on Board with a Fresh Perspective

  1. Suzanne Heck Reply

    February 9, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your train adventure…I can imagine it was a trip that your family will soon not forget.

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