Monday, December 22, 2008

Train Adventure Post 3: December 22, 2008 [1:35pm]

I am sitting in the Midway Airport. When my train pulled in after 10:00pm last night (nearly 24 hours after leaving Denver), I had clearly missed my D.C. train, which left at 7:05pm from Chicago. They wouldn’t even let me go to New Orleans; New Orleans sounds closer than Chicago, and like a better city in which to be stranded. I’m stuck in Chicago without a coat. So Amtrak decides to put me up in a hotel, give me cash for cab fare and food, and re-book me on the 7:05pm train to D.C. the next day. I can’t seem to figure out why Amtrak isn’t making money. Dozens of other disillusioned train riders and myself congregate in The Chicago Inn lobby, only to find that their bar is closed. What kind of hotel is this? When drinking’s not an option, I might as well sleep.

Come morning my phone ringing wakes me up; right on cue, my mother is looking for options to get me home. With my current ticket, I get home the morning of the 24th, rather than the 23rd. Normally this wouldn’t be THAT much of a problem, but I’m supposed to be hosting a part at my house on the night of the 23rd. Seems kinda awkward if I’m not there. As it turns out, one-way tickets from Midway this afternoon are quite cheap. While I’m trying to decide if I would feel like a pampered, wussy, sell-out if I fly the rest of the way home, another call comes through on my cell phone. Berkeley Physicist is calling to see what happened to the rest of my trip. [At this point I should note that he’s not actually an overboard stalker, we actually exchanged contact information after bonding over bitching about grad school, advisors, research projects, and funding situations.] As it turns out, his train to New York is running 6 hours late already. Decision made. Book me, mamma!

Not knowing what the day will hold, I begin my tour of the city. First stop Union Station. In Denver I had checked my main luggage through to Atlanta – time to find out where my clothes are. As it turns out, they’re in the station and will be waiting for me at baggage claim. What helpful people. Then I ask about a ticket refund. They’d be happy to fully refund the last two legs of my ticket. Really, why ISN’T Amtrak making money? I was comforted to find out that the majority of the other people in line around me had worse stories than I did – at least my trip (to this point, and I’m probably jinxing myself here) didn’t involve one or more busses. With luggage in tow, I hop a cab to Midway.

Upon arriving at Midway, I am firm in my belief that riding in cabs in Chicago is by far the most dangerous thing I have ever done. One cab actually tried to drive away when I was only half way out of the cab – I have the bruise to prove it. After tipping well in homage to my arrival anywhere not in an ambulance, I check in for my flight. In my search for coffee to ward off my caffeine headache, I run into another paleontologist – what a small world. As it turns out, his travel plans are proceeding just as he had planned them; I’m in awe. After an enjoyable few hours of conversation to mask our internal struggles to remember if we’re friends on Facebook, its time to part ways as his flight is boarding. I return to my gate to face my next adventure.

Train Adventure Post 2: December 21, 2008 [4:20pm]

After hearing an announcement over the speakers that we had stopped during the night for a broken rail and were running even further behind schedule, I figured I had slept – I have no memory of stopping. At 8am Central Time, less than 10 hours after leaving Denver, we are running 3.5 hours late – my layover in Chicago is only 3 hours. Awesome. My seat neighbor turned out to be a morning chatter and wanted to know all about my night’s sleep and how I was feeling. She at least seemed to be in a good enough mood to indicate that I didn’t snore in her ear all night, so that was a relief. I went to search for coffee and ended up in the dining car having a seated breakfast. This was not my intention, but was pleasantly surprised to find that they served grits. Of course, I guess it’s not THAT unexpected to have a corn product in Nebraska.

I didn’t hang out with the puppies in the morning, but I did run across them on occasion as they strayed from car to car. The one thing I did notice is that the puppy called Flowers found a gal-pal. Another chick in the Denver station was sitting in our area and was chatting with us as we waited for our train. I think she re-charged her phone three times while we were waiting. I’m just going to say that I called it last night in the lounge car, because this morning as I was making my way back to my car from breakfast, Flowers and Safeway Chick (she works at Safeway) were cuddled up in neighboring seats. However, according to Microwave, they did not make use of the larger changing room/bathroom on the lower level of the car.

Writing this in retrospect after knowing that I’m going miss my connection in Chicago, I will say that the ONE cool thing about the train is the ability to meet different people. Other than the puppies I met in the Denver station, I have met a variety of other travelers including a Boulder family (sadly the youngest son had left his suitcase of stuffed animals at home), a physicist researching at Berkeley, a person “in trade” from the Bay Area whom it took me half of lunch to figure out if he was male or female, a couple from the Denver area in which the boyfriend is getting a degree in earth sciences, and a few international students with whom I would love to vent about the fall of the American rail system. And I must say that I was quite proud to be able to identify Ohio on a US map – I’m not sure I would have been able to do this 3 months ago – but with the states color-coded and Cleveland staring me in the face, I succeeded!

And now, for the sake of my sanity, I think I need to stop writing before this turns into a bitchfest, as we sit stopped on the tracks, 5 hours behind schedule, behind a freight train, with rail work ahead (metal contracts when its cold? no shit?). I’m going to now continue watching Mamma Mia! with the hopes that Pierce Brosnan singing will make me giggle.

Train Adventure Post 1: December 20, 2008 [11:46pm]

So I had been warned that trains never run on time; and apparently these people who warned me didn’t lie. Have a cookie. My train was supposed to leave at 8:10pm; two hours later, I was still in Denver’s Union Station. At first I found this highly annoying, but then I started interacting with the people around me. Most notable were three guys I started talking to (and with whom I am now sitting with in the lounge car on the train) – I believe their names are Flowers, T-bone, and Microwave. Or at least something very close. They go to Wyoming Tech, a school I was not aware existed, and seem to want nothing more than to pretend they’re cowboys while admitting that they’re not cowboys. They’re from Illinois and ride lawnmowers. I must admit is was very odd to hang out with an 18, 19, and 20 year old, considering I spend most of my time at school making fun of undergrads. They definitely lived up to my expectations in terms of their attempts at dirty jokes, texting everyone in their cell phones, and fantasizing about beer. Resultantly, the first thing I did when I got on the train was to buy a beer for myself and drink it very slowly and enjoyable in front of them. I then allowed Microwave to drink my backwash. But they were cute little puppies.

One would think that boarding a train would be a boring process; this is true, up to the point that security is called to handle a belligerent passenger. I am proud to say that this passenger was not I. There was one noteworthy guy in a camo hat who was making the rounds in the Denver train station. He was odiferously drunk and rumor had it he had been there for two days. Everyone knew him by the time our train arrived. After causing a minor skirmish on the platform, Camo Hat settled down, only to be replaced by a large belligerent asshole, whom it was hard to identify as drunk or not – it could have gone either way. He would be unsubtly obnoxious and mouthy and then reply to every security confrontation with “No Comment” and “Do you know what ‘No Comment’ means”. After talking to security for 10 minutes with his crying wife, they let him on the train. So much for security.

In true form, immediately upon finding my seat, I parked my bags and then headed for the bar car. I managed to pick up the puppies along the way, as they were seated in a different car. We got to the snack car and found the bar was closing, but I sweet-talked a disgruntled Amtrak employee into opening the cooler for me so I could pay $4.50 for a Bud Light. At least I didn’t have to tap the Rockies. While suffering teenage sad faces as I cracked open my beer, I took much delight in making fun of the puppies for not noticing that Mr. Disgruntled Amtrak Employee failed to card me. Silly undergrads! Conversation progressed from comparing ring tones, to me teaching them what “binomial nomenclature” means and the difference between pterosaurs and dinosaurs, to them showing me how they painted their cell phones different colors in “Automotive detailing and finishing” class. Apparently I picked the wrong major. By midnight, I was no longer being entertained, and decided to go harass the person in the seat next to me for a few hours. I stretched out with my dinosaur pillow and Harry Potter blanket and thought I would never get to sleep.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Glorious Melding of Culture and Science

In my opinion, only the South has perfected the art of combining natural history, American history, and tourist traps into a glorious, enriching entanglement that warms my heart. Just check out places like Pigeon Forge, Rock City, Stone Mountain (also doubling as one of the largest granite outcrops), and Williamsburg’s Bush Gardens if you’re prepared to be dazzled. The Midwest may have a ball of twine and a corn palace, but lacks the battlefields and topography-related beauty that can be offered by the South. As a state rich in American history, Virginia has unabashedly embraced this glorious Southern tradition. In central Virginia there is a hidden jewel (unless you were lucky enough to go to school 13 miles away) known as Natural Bridge. Natural Bridge plays host to many natural wonders such as the namesake rock bridge (there actually used to be a road that ran on top of it…until the Balrog got out of hand), and the Natural Bridge zoo (trying hard to recreate the natural habitats of its inhabitants). And in this world of natural beauty, my two favorite subjects embrace in a truly inspired merging of science and culture: dinosaurs and The War of Northern Aggression. In Dinosaur Kingdom (part of the Natural Bridge attractions), dinosaurs are waging war on tyrant Yankee soldiers, thus completing my soul.

Here’s the set up: “It's 1863 and Union soldiers have discovered a hidden valley filled with dinosaurs. Now the Yankees plan to use the dinos as weapons of mass destruction against the South.” Dinosaurs aren't just eating people, they're eating Yankees. Nothing likes to be used and have their state’s rights taken away.

Through Dinosaur Kingdom, dinosaurs can be seen plucking and eating Union soldier from horses, attacking Union soldiers in the outhouse, exacting revenge for a stolen egg (did those silly Yankees not see Jurassic Park III??), being ineffectively lassoed, and generally kicking the asses of the attempting Northern oppressors. All creationists should visit this park for a first-hand depiction of why human and dinosaurs never could have lived together – either dinosaurs would have driven human extinction, or the South would have won The War. As so aptly and insightfully put it: “Dinosaur Kingdom is a twist on the biblical Creationist view that people and dinosaurs lived together. Here, people live with dinosaurs -- but only until the dinosaurs eat them.” I am dinosaur hear me whistle Dixie.

And for the record, I never doubted which side dinosaurs would have been on.

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