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Inch forward. Stop. Wait. Go: Running late for the train

June 13, 2014

P1010365(Model train track layout in Baltimore, Maryland)

A week ago last night I was huffing down Interstate 81 in Virginia trying to catch a train by 5:45 p.m.

Would I make it?

I truly did not know. But I did know the only thing I could do was inch forward, stop, wait, go, breathe slowly.

I had left in plenty of time—even allowing enough time to go the local city hall in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and obtain a dollar parking permit before they closed at 5 p.m. That’s the joy of traveling by Amtrak where many stations remain totally unstaffed, no bag inspection, no way to pay for parking at the station. (Why couldn’t they at least put a locked box there?) Anyway, the deal is if you leave your car, you need a permit, and you have to send for it by snail mail a week ahead, or go visit city hall.

My first alert that something was up on my intended route down I-81 was a blurb on the radio—tractor trailer accident on I-81. So it was my turn to be caught in one of those numerous dangerous and dreaded snares. I dialed 511-Virginia. Yes, I would need to get off about milepost 292 or earlier. Traffic backed up for 8 miles southbound, 4 miles northward, my direction. It must have been a bad one. I prayed no one died. And began to get nervous. I still had time, but not THAT much time, especially if I had to go to city hall. You can’t fight it.

When I realized there was no way I could make it to city hall before they closed, I called them (luckily I had grabbed the phone number online before I left, no smart phones yet for the Davises); after they took down my license number, make and model of car, and phone number, they said I could just pay the $1 a day fee by stopping at city hall when I got back. Whew. Very decent and trusting of them, sweet enough to make up for not just having a pay box at the train station.

It took about an extra hour navigating the traffic dumped onto Route 11 which threads alongside I-81 through much of Virginia, and state police were directing traffic as I detoured through the small towns of Strasburg, Middletown, and Stephens City until I could finally get back on the Interstate. I won’t pace you through every squeal of breaks and one enormous pop once I got back on I-81, that sounded like yes, a bomb. That turned out to be just a retread blowing on a truck in front of me. For that I steadied my steering wheel, straddled the rubbish. Safe.

Suffice it to say I got to the train station with maybe ten minutes to spare, long enough to drive through the parking lot twice, hunting desperately for a parking space. I had to resort to rolling down my window and calling out to a man with a backpack, “Where is more parking?” He directed me to the other side of the station, across the highway. More thanks going up for the kindness of strangers. Once safely at the train station, I even had time to dash up one level to the station restroom (the historic roundhouse there is worth a visit all by itself, with displays of interest to children.)


It was a blessedly uneventful trip the rest of the way on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, lounging in the sightseeing car, watching the backyards and swollen rivers of West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana go by in train time.


Slow but sure.


For a 2009 article from The Washington Post on the frequency and severity of crashes along I-81 check here.


Have you enjoyed train travel? Stories? I’d love to hear yours.


For more tales from the train, see my Another Way newspaper column today. Two trips in one month’s time is about enough. My mother had surgery in early May and is doing well. To sign up to receive my newspaper column by email every week, go here.


From → Family Life

  1. I resisted the urge to check out the ending and decided to just “go along for the ride.” “All’s well that ends well!

    We used Eurail passes on our first trip through continental Europe in our younger days and enjoyed the miles melt by on the bullet trains. Once we missed a train to Strasbourg and ended up with a long, long wait for the next train, and then a long, long walk to our hotel.

    When the children were very young, we would take the Amtrak from Jacksonville to Elizabethtown, PA. The kids could exercise (!) in the aisles and we had all the amenities without eating up precious time for stops and re-fuels. Once a package of fish Clliff caught was stolen. But mostly – a pleasant experience.

  2. Good for you — tried to build suspense! Are you saying someone stole a package of fresh fish on the train? Maybe someone thought they were smelly?? Frequently I am thinking “Wow, anyone could run off with a bag at any time” as most of the baggage is unchecked, right? I don’t even lock my suitcase, but maybe I should. I loved traveling by Eurail passes back in the 70s as well with my “Europe on $5 and $10 a Day” Frommer guide well in hand. Those were the days (she said weeping with nostalgia)!

    • We are Rick Steves’ groupies and so follow his advice on guidebooks. The fish story happened here at home on the Amtrak. The fish weren’t smelly, so I think someone needed/wanted our food!

  3. Your travel experience is a metaphor for life! Hurry, wait, stop, go, redirect, frustration, surprises, kindness! I love your stories and the way you write!

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