Journey: Amtrak’s Silver Star

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Orlando, Florida to Alexandria, Virginia – 934 miles

Coach class on the Silver Service trains uses single-level Amfleet cars, so the view isn’t quite as good as on the double-decker Superliner cars on some of the long-distance routes but it was still a lot of fun and I spent pretty much the whole 18-hour trip just staring out the window.  The Silver Star and Silver Meteor use the same tracks for the most part except that the Star swings west to hit Columbia and Raleigh, while the meteor takes a more direct route through Charleston and Fayetteville.  Neither has any ocean view at all.

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The historic Orlando station.

I didn’t have anyone next to me until the station before my destination.  There was supposed to be someone but…I guess they lost them.  The car attendent kept wandering around going “where is my Philadelphia?”  Pretty sure they got off in Florida and never got back on.  Great for me, probably not so much for them.

I got on in Orlando in the evening, fell asleep as we were crossing into Georgia, and woke up two states later just inside North Carolina.  We passed through several major cities and all sorts of tiny adorable towns.  The only sad part was that it was dark out for such a big chunk of the trip, on my way back I’m going to try & book it so that I go through those places during the day, and the ones I already saw at night.

The Silver Star isn’t exactly the epitome of comfort but I arrived in Alexandria on time (!) the next afternoon having spent $117 and basically no effort in the process.

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Museums of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is one of a handful of pretty little cities out on the peninsula between Tampa Bay & the Gulf of Mexico.  With beautiful beaches & palm-lined streets it’s been a tourist destination since the beginning of tourism.

The Museum of History is on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier, which juts out into Tampa Bay & is currently closed for construction.  It’s a small but interesting museum, $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $9 for children, military, & students (this was the first place I got a discount with my student ID!).  Their permanent exhibits include an Egyptian mummy, general area history, aviation, a few signs about pirates, and for some reason two rooms filled with nothing but autographed baseballs.  When I went in April they had a shipwreck exhibit on that showed models & artifacts as well as the technology involved in finding the wrecks & retrieving small bits from them.

Just around the corner is the Museum of Fine Arts ($17/adults, $15/seniors/military, $10/children/students), which holds many works from some of history’s greatest artists in its permanent collection.  After viewing ancient pieces from all over the world, I found myself in the presence of three genuine Monets.  Unlike most art museums, they welcome photography in their permanent collections.

Event: Live Oak International

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Every year in January horse drivers & jumpers come to Ocala from all over the world to compete at Live Oak Farms.  It’s become quite a festival, they have food trucks, vendors, even the Budweiser Clydesdale were there, all hooked up doing laps around the show ring.  It was a lot of fun except for the woman sitting next to me during the jumping saying “You can do it horsie! Oh that’s OK you’ll do better on the next one!”  It was the horse show equivalent of those people who talk to the characters during movies.

A Love Letter to the Florida State Fair

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I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my absurd love of fairs.  Maybe it’s my Midwest upbringing, but I LOVE FAIRS.  All kinds: local, county, state, whatever.  I love everything about them.  I love baby animals and prize-winning chickens and little kids showing pygmy goats.  I love gussied-up llamas and livestock judges waxing poetic about cows and fancy horses with braided manes.  I love midways and overpriced rides and smells of awful fried food and obnoxious barkers trying to get people to play their ridiculous games.  I love expo halls full of craft booths and tables covered with handouts about bugs.  I love handmade quilts with ribbons pinned on them and dioramas with model trains running around the edge and forestry exhibitions of endangered animals.  I love ugly but lovable elementary-school art projects and musicians demonstrating mountain dulcimers.  I love samples of local honey and displays of exotic fish and barns full of rabbits.

I just really, really, really love fairs, and the Florida State Fair is one of the best I’ve been to.  I saw the Budweiser Clydesdales, fed a butterfly, and watched a woman weave cloth with a wooded loom.  I tasted ice cream some guy made as part of a demonstration to get people to buy some contraption or other.  I found out that Florida has a special kind of horse called a Cracker that does a funny little trot and saw a kid get hauled over to a hay bale by a goat he was trying to show.  I watched people feed carrot sticks to giraffes.  I spent seven hours looking at wooden clocks and bonsai trees and recycled yard art.  It was great.

Destination: Round Island Lighthouse

Round Island is part of Hiawatha National Forest, is entirely uninhabited, and really doesn’t have any tourism to speak of.  Occasionally someone will take a kayak across the channel, or we’ll see a bonfire on the beach, but for the most part it’s pretty forlorn, the lighthouse locked up tight, nobody around.  One day a year the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, together with Boy Scout Troop 323 of Freeland, Michigan, open it up for tours.  The tour itself is free, but if you don’t have your own way across transportation from Mackinac costs $15.  First they put seven people into a smallish fishing boat, then they transferred us into two inflatable Zodiac rafts.  I wish I’d been wearing lighter pants, I was siting right in the bow and my jeans didn’t get dry the whole time I was there.

Nobody really took care of it from the time it was decommissioned in 1958 until a storm swept away a whole corner of the building in 1972, and people started to realize they might lose it forever.  They kept it from collapsing then but the interior is still in desperate need of reconstruction.  Holes in the walls, holes in the floors, but it’s a beautiful building.  Boy Scouts throughout the building talked about the history all the way up.  The first floor housed the two massive compressors that created steam to run the foghorn, the second and third floors were living quarters for the keeper, his assistant, and their families.  Some of the bedrooms had the foghorn right outside the windows – I’m sure that was fun to sleep through.  On the fourth floor there’s just a ladder up into the lantern room, and from there a tiny hatch opening out onto the deck.

While I was there a woman named Gertie came to the island.  She’s 90 years old, and her father was once the lighthouse keeper.  She spent a handful of summers living here as a girl, and sat for a long time telling us about carrying water up from the lake, the things her sisters found walking the beach, and making whatever fun you could in such a lonely place.  We moved into what had once been her bedroom, and while she spoke a floorboard broke out from under her daughter’s foot.

Going inside Round Island Light is a rare opportunity, and one that I passed up too many times.  I probably spend three hours wandering through it and listening to Gertie’s stories.  It would be nice to see it restored someday, but the money and effort involved with such an undertaking may be too much.  In the meantime we’ll just have to love it as a beautiful ruin.

Destination: Drummond Island

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Drive an hour from St. Ignace, to the very eastern corner of the Upper Peninsula, onto the Drummond Islander IV in De Tour Village, and land in paradise.

Paradise with nobody in it.

Paradise with cool abandoned stuff.

Paradise with lots of trees & wildflowers.

Seriously.

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Ferry passage for a car and the driver is only $14.  It was shocking how much stuff they put on that boat – cars towing boats, fifth-wheel campers, I even saw a semi towing a huge excavator waiting to board.  I spent two nights at the semi-rustic Township Park campground, a spot with electricity is $16/night.  The first night I couldn’t sleep, so I laid awake listening to loons call.  Bring a canoe or kayak if you’ve got one, there’s all sorts of little outlying islands, including Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge.  There’s also plenty of hiking and four-wheeling trails.  A lot of roads on the map unfortunately are signed as private roads, so I couldn’t explore as much as I wanted to :(.  There’s no shortage of services here, the main intersection in town has a grocery store, hardware store, and dry goods shop that all seem to be owned by the same family, and there’s plenty of restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds.  I think the gas station had as wide a variety as our grocery store here on Mackinac.

The Worst Mainland Trip of My Life: A Timeline

11:00 am  – I leave my house with an empty duffle bag intending to catch an 11:30 Star Line ferry to Mackinaw City, and from there to the Wal-Mart in Cheboygan to stock up on groceries.  There’s not a lot of options on the island so most residents make these trips occasionally.

11:16 am – I arrive on the dock and join a conglomeration of lines along with a bazillion other people.  It’s pouring rain so even though it only took me a few minutes to walk through town, my duffle and I are both soaked.

11:28 am – We’re supposed to leave in two minutes and the boat hasn’t even arrived from the mainland yet.

11:40 am – The 11:30 part 1 boat departs.  Since there’s 800 gajillion people trying to take this boat and nobody wants to sit on the exposed top decks because of the weather they’ve actually sent a second boat, but it’s not here yet so I’m still standing in the rain.

11:48 am – I finally board the ferry that was supposed to leave eighteen minutes ago.

11:55 am – The 11:30 part 2 boat casts off.

12:00 pm – Some guy starts clapping & singing, trying to get everyone else to join in.  I find myself desperately missing the boats that only have a handful of locals on them, where everyone is basically asleep.

12:33 – I debate briefly how best to reach my car.  Star Line has a shuttle service, but there’s a lot of people who also want to take it so it might be faster just to walk.  In the end the rain & cold win out and I board the van, telling the driver where I’m going.

12:45 – The shuttle driver has dropped off everyone else, I think I must be next but he appears to be driving in circles.  He’s going through all of Star Line’s outlying lots, so I figure he’s looking for other people to pick up as he makes his way to my destination.

12:50 – The driver stops to pick up someone, as he gets back on from bringing in her luggage he turns to me & says “I’m sorry, was I supposed to drop you off somewhere?”

12:55 pm – I reach my car, fully two hours after I first left the house.

2:30 pm – Having finished my shopping, I park my car and call for the shuttle to bring me back to the dock.  I had debated with myself here as well, but I wanted to make the 3:00 boat and it was still raining, so I decided again not to walk.

2:50 pm – I call the shuttle again, as nobody ever came the first time.

2:55 pm – The shuttle finally arrives.  It only takes a couple of minutes to get back through town and since the last boat left so late I figure I’ll probably still make it.  The shuttle stops to pick up someone else; when I ask if we’ll make the 3:00, the driver says we will.

3:02 pm – The shuttle pulls up to the dock right at the moment the boat is pulling away from it.  I watch it disappear into the fog, wondering why they this departure had to be the only one to ever leave on time and if my frozen food will still be frozen by the time I get it home.

3:15 pm – I rescue my cookies from my duffle bag so they won’t be obliterated by having a bunch of other people’s stuff thrown on top of them.

3:45 pm – I board the returning ferry and take a seat next to a window, the sill of which contains a puddle of rainwater and approximately 1,387 dead bugs.  Water keeps dripping on me but at that point I couldn’t get any wetter so I keep my seat.

4:04 pm – After an hour sitting around listening to Star Line employees gossip about Tinder and wondering if my glass jars of spaghetti sauce will still be intact after being manhandled by the luggage crew, I am finally heading back across the Straits.

4:25 pm – Having reached the island I find my bag buried under two others.  It’s not raining anymore but it’s still cold, and rather than park the luggage carts in the shelter they’ve left them out on the wet dock in the wind.  Aside from the couple of hotel porters milling around snagging the handful of pieces going to their respective properties, nobody is doing anything to take the luggage off or see that people get their bags.  I end up chucking the top bags off myself to get my stuff and get out of there.  By some miracle my food is still intact and relatively frozen.