Monthly Archives: July 2013

Homeward bound: Norfolk to Baltimore

There is only one northbound train departing Norfolk each day, and if it wasn’t departing at 6:10am, I would’ve been glad to take it. Instead, I continued my adventure by commuting by bus to their next station tucked out of the way somewhere in a residential area in the western part of Newport News.

The good news is: their 7:35am Thruway-Bus came reasonably on time and got us to the station well ahead of schedule. The bad news is: said station is a tiny, non-descript concrete building with only: a ticket window with adjacent Quik-Trak machines, 20 chairs, one television and a pair of restrooms. There was no restaurant or gift shop, but they did have a pair of vending machines (not that I could get even remotely close to them with all the people\luggage crammed into that one room, but they were there).

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the kind of station they were building at Norfolk. God, I hope not.

Train 94 started boarding at 9:14am and within 10 minutes we were on our way to Williamsburg (which has a nice looking station from the outside, but the old guy on the platform with the Camcorder kinda creeped me out). From there, we continued our journey north and west with every sway, stop and jerky start feeling like a fresh punch in my still ailing stomach.

After a series of starts, stops, slow-downs and delays, train 94 finally pulls into Richmond around 10:45am. It was a shift change stop so I took the opportunity while we were stopped to go into the restroom and at least TRY to get rid of whatever shrapnel was ripping my insides apart. I hung my head over the sink, focusing on a spot near the drain and just as I almost felt something come up…


The shock of this causes me to not only lose my concentration, but to nearly hit my head on the overhang. It also made me realize this wasn’t going to happen this time either, so I unlocked the door and to my surprise found no-one waiting on the other side. I made it back to my seat just as the train started moving again.

I will say this: Northern Virginia is actually very pretty… once you get past the ugly warehouse\industrial landscape of modern Richmond. Unfortunately, it soon lends itself to the highways, warehouses, strip malls and sub-divisions of the encroaching DC suburbs.

We pull into Quantico station at 12:55pm. Truthfully, I’d been trying to sleep for the past two hours, but between my stomach flu, motion sickness and a very unhappy two-year-old sitting two rows behind who started wailing every time the train stopped or jerked forward (which was every 5-10 minutes). Seeing this as another losing proposition, I made my way over to the dining car for a microwaved Panini, bottled water and a bag of chips. I figured they wouldn’t help me feel any better, but starving myself until I got to Baltimore seemed like an even worse idea.

We pulled into DC’s Union Station at 2:18pm after getting a very good of the Capitol in passing. It was a twenty minute stop, but, more importantly, I knew it was only 90 minute commute back to Baltimore. My Amtrak journey was coming to an end, pity I was too sick to enjoy it.

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Norfolk day 4: Sick as a dog

I woke up on Saturday morning feeling like someone kicked me repeatedly in the stomach. Oh well, I figured, maybe I can go downstairs and get breakfast and it’ll go away. Nope, I couldn’t eat a darn thing…for two whole days.

It’s not like I didn’t try to enjoy the majority of my trip, it’s just kind of hard to do so when you’re constantly nauseous with diarrhea, sore throat and running on a maximum of 2-3 hours of sleep per night because the pain in my stomach was SOO bad. Not only could I not sleep due to the pain, I could barely move as well.

Well, today I felt ever so slightly better so I decided I was going to out and try to do something – even if it killed me. Unfortunately, like Baltimore, nearly every art\tourist attraction in Norfolk is closed on Mondays.

According to the guide book in the hotel room, the Norfolk Southern Museum was open on Mondays. I figured with a Frappuccino from the lobby (I found drinking something cold soothed my burning throat and made the nausea go away temporarily), I could walk the 2-3 blocks without much difficulty.

Yes, I made it to the NSF museum with a minute or two before it was scheduled to open. I leaned against the building to catch my breath and as I slid down I could hear a door opening about 20 feet away from me. I initially figured it was the curator or someone coming out to open the galleries for the day.

Then I saw her face, the short, black security guard probably in her late 50s with black pants and a white shirt stormed over to me pointing at me angrily and shouting (eventually wagging her finger in my face):


It’s one of those catch-22s, I can’t leave until she stops yelling and she’ll continue yelling until I go away with what’s left of my tail tucked into what’s left of my legs. I limp over to the park and take a seat next to a passed out homeless person (which is what she probably thought I was) for a few minutes until my watch said it was after 10am.

Anyway, I summoned up enough courage to go back, knowing full well this would be difficult regardless of when it was – particularly since it still stings me writing this. I walk into the building and a young black lady in the same stark white shirt is sitting at the security desk.

“My colleague said to not let you in this building.”

“I’m here for the museum,” I said in a calm, normal voice.

“That’s…um, not open today.” she said clearly stalling.

This is another awkward position, I know I’m supposed to say something but I have no idea what. I also know the gallery is supposedly open on Mondays, and that’s she’s clearly stalling for time, but I can’t argue with her about it either (printing error in the guidebook?).

“Great,” I ended up saying. “Now, I just have to find something else to do, but even the river cruises are closed today.”

That’s when I could hear a self-satisfied “humph” from behind me. I didn’t need to look. I already knew who it was from and as much as it irritated me I wasn’t about to make a scene.

I was just going back to the hotel and reading the annual report I hastily shoved in my backpack before the trip. I figured it would probably cover most of the same ground…with a lot less aggravation.

“How do things like that always seem to happen to you?” my mom said somewhat skeptically when I called from the room phone.

I don’t know, believe me, I don’t know….

Categories: entertainment, museums, Norfolk, writing | Leave a comment

Norfolk: Day 1 – Nauticus and Fort Norfolk

For the first time in months, I can legitimately say I had a really good night’s sleep. However, this meant I was up ridiculously early. I can’t have everything, but I could get breakfast…from the rudest server on the planet. Fortunately, I was bound and determined not to let her snarky attitude ruin my day.

My first stop was Fort Norfolk, the epitome of over-hyped “nothing to see here” tourist attractions. Yes, there was a historic fort there, consisting of five small buildings with two interpretive signs enclosed within a white stone wall, but the rest of the fort is a modern collection of buildings. It was nice to see we’re still using one of Washington’s original naval fortifications, but this made it harder to find as it is not listed as part of an active military base.

I walk back to The Tide and take the bright, clean train back towards downtown. My next destination was conveniently located halfway between two stations so I flipped a coin and took the second. Why not? It was a lovely day, besides I was already sweaty what a few blocks going to do to me?

I arrived at Nauticus within a few minutes of disembarking from the light rail. It was a hot walk, but the air-conditioning inside the museum was a welcome change after wandering around in the sun all morning. That being said, I still wasn’t impressed with the city’s most hyped a tourist attraction.

You see Nauticus is more than a mere “marine museum” – it’s an aquarium, a naval history museum and a science center with a 4-d theater rolled into one building. It’s a lot to ask from one institution PLUS they have the battleship tours and a separate museum celebrating the various accomplishments of the U.S Navy.

The third floor was the slightly disorganized life at sea exhibit called “Guns, Sweat & Gears: Anatomy of a Warship” which was basically a collection of bunk beds, cookware, armaments and archival photos that just seemed kind of thrown together. It had no logical flow for me to follow through the exhibit almost as if they told their construction crew to simply “put that stuff anywhere.”

I leave Nauticus around 3pm and make my way back to the hotel to shower and change clothes for dinner. I didn’t have specific reservations; I was just tired of wearing wet clothes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to sit down and check my e-mail and start on my Amtrak summary (as WP lets me use any timestamp I want on my stories).

At 5pm, I grabbed my room key off the dresser and headed downstairs to the lobby. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I figured that there had to be something good at MacArthur Center. I make my way around to the food court on the third floor and find a sit down restaurant with a friendly if inattentive waitress who clearly just wanted the solo guest out of her section without being overly rude. At least, the food was good. Actually, it wasn’t but I don’t feel like letting two lousy meals ruin my vacation.

In order to pick my spirits up, I crossed the corridor and bought a ticket to see Despicable Me 2 over in the cinema. Like Nauticus above, I am not planning on writing a full review, but I will say it was one of the best movies – animated or not – that I’ve seen in a long time.

It was only 9pm when I came out of the movies… but I wasn’t sure where else to go so I walked a few blocks back to the hotel. No-one said I had to go to bed so I turned on the television and continued writing my posts.

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Southward ho: Baltimore to Norfolk

Last year, I took Amtrak’s Northeast Regional to its northern terminus in Boston so this year I figured it might be fun to try and take it to its southern terminus – Norfolk, Va. The problem with this proposition is the city has ONE inbound (9pm) and ONE outbound train per day (6:10am), but no adventure is without its compromises.

I arrived at Baltimore’s Penn Station at 1:30pm, a full hour before my train was scheduled to depart.

Unfortunately, by this time it was already “delayed” and every time I checked the monitor above the Information desk, the departure time got pushed farther and farther back. However, the train itself arrived only 10 minutes behind schedule…just for it to sit in the semi-shaded station for another ten minutes due to the “excessive heat warning” from their bosses in NY (there was a heat index for 101 degrees forecast for today, and it easily felt like twice that for the ten minutes I was out in it).

The same thing happened when we reached DC an hour later. Except, this time it was a full half hour we were waiting in the underground station before slowly making our way south.

We got an excellent, if fleeting, view of the Chesapeake Bay as we departed Quantico Station and equally fleeting views of farms and fields through the rough overgrowth as we crawled towards the idyllic postcard town of Fredericksburg, Va that eventually gave away to the bland industrial landscape of exurban Richmond.

The truth was, I was hoping we’d be past Richmond (the unofficial “halfway point” of the trip) by 6pm. However, the various “heat delays” slower traveling speed made that virtually impossible as we pulled in to the city’s northern suburban station around 6:39pm.

We limp our way south through the dense forestlands of Central Virginia as I made my way to the café car which was already out of nearly everything “except sodas, chips, candies and beer.” Fortunately, I was just there for a snack.

The sun starts to set and train finally starts to pick up some speed just to slow down for its next station in Petersburg. From then on, the train lumbers along before coming to a full-fledged stop somewhere outside of Waverly before barreling our way through a variety of towns that were too dark to see outside my train window.

It was at this point that the crew came over the PA to announce the obvious: “we will not be arriving at Norfolk on schedule. However, we will be arriving around 9:15pm.”

Fortunately, the actual arrival time was 9:13pm and there were still numerous friends, family members and assorted taxi drivers waiting at the bottom of the ramp leading to the otherwise ordinary train platform.

Now, all I needed was to find my hotel and get some rest so I could be ready for the first day of my vacation.

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Editorial: Md Zoo’s new pengiun exhibition

Zoo begins construction on new $10.5m penguin exhibit. I admit the idea of a South African fishing village in the middle of Druid Hill Park sounds cool (no mention of whether it will have SA themed shops\restaurants), but the location of this attraction – dead center of the zoo across from the “Village Green” – of it seems a bit off.

This is particularly true since it involves not only moving the tram stop but relocating the entrances to both “African Journeys” and “Polar Bear Watch,” not to mention the affect this brand new themed village will have on their existing “village” (sort of like walking from the highly detailed “Harambe” onto a whitewashed version of “Discovery Island” at Animal Kingdom).

I agree that more penguin research and repatriation is essential to the survival of the species and their overall happiness and comfort within the zoo environment, but $10.5 million for a new exhibit strikes me as a tad excessive (do they really need “periodic” waterfalls, water spouts and a potemkin “fishing village”?).

I’m not saying they shouldn’t put something in that green space next to “African Journeys” just something smaller and more complimentary to the zoo’s existing scale (for instance, the current artic fox cage is literally the size of a dog crate, just sayin’), but to me it seems like their current plan would be a better fit for the upper portion of Buffalo Yard Road (the rarely used walkway they have temporarily rerouted the tram onto due to construction) near the entrance to “Maryland Wilderness” and across the service road from “Polar Bear Watch.”

In fact, it gives visitors a reason to take said pathway past the zoo’s original enclosures (archaeology, history and zoology all in one tiny fenced-off area) rather than cramming onto the overcrowded trams like they do now. I know from my trip to Williamsburg that kids are interested in archaeology, even if their parents weren’t always prepared to explain the details to their inquisitive wards.

Of course, it’s too late to question planning decisions already in construction, yet too early to review something that nobody has seen yet. On the plus side, it leaves room for more useless commentary as new details come to light…

Categories: attractions, Baltimore, editorials, maryland zoo, news, ramblings | Leave a comment

Not quite a rail convert

Last year I took my inaugural trip on Amtrak from Baltimore to Boston for a vacation. The ride was smooth, comfortable and relatively uncrowded (on the way up anyway). The problem is “medium” distance (5-8 hours) train rides are almost as boring and claustrophobic as long flights – especially if the person in front of you puts her seat back all the way.

The one thing that surprised me about Amtrak was while they had a definite security presence, there was a noticeable lack of screeners, backscanners and strip searches. I arrived a half hour before my train arrived and spent the vast majority of my time in the waiting area playing my 3DS, yet somehow I didn’t feel remotely unsafe.

This year, I made a weekend trip from Baltimore to Harrisburg with a transfer in Philadelphia. Both legs of the Northeast Regional trip were extremely crowded though the Keystone Service trains weren’t as bad. However, I did encounter a somewhat rude conductor on the Regional and had an Amtrak sales woman insult me at the Harrisburg station when I tried to ask her a question (technically, I was re-asking as the first time I asked she simply parroted my question back to me in the form of an “answer”).

If you’re reading this then you are well aware of the various indignities of modern air travel from authoritarian TSA agents, overcrowded planes that rarely leave on time (if at all) and the brusque flight attendants. Not to mention turbulence, lack of leg room and having the tray table stabbing you in the stomach when the person in front of you reclines their seat all the way back while being constantly ribbed in said stomach by the woman next to you doing her Sudoku puzzle – and that’s a good flight.

Whereas with Amtrak, I arrive 30 minutes before departure (rather than 2-3 hours), don’t have to worry about delays in Denver or Chicago (okay, that one does effect the NE corridor as both The Cardinal and Capitol Limited serve Chicago) and can spent the entire ride seated without being hassled with pushy flight attendants demanding I give them $5 for my once complimentary beverage\pretzels. I also don’t have to worry about traffic jams, crazy drivers or speeding tickets (though the recent train derailment in Canada does have me worried).

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on flying. As big of a headache as post-9/11 travel is, it does have speed on its side for cross country routes, and the unfortunate reality that more cities have airports than train depots (for the record, Shamokin has neither but it used to have a train station).

Right now, I’m working on another “medium length” train ride (southbound this time). I chose it because it was shorter, cheaper and more convenient for me than flying, but mostly because it was cheaper. Unfortunately, the price doubled since last night…

P.S – This is my 195th post!

Categories: Amtrak, ramblings, transportation | Leave a comment

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