Railroading North America

30/ Williamsburg

30-1wmbg-ext-trainside-dsc06991-usemeDAY 30

Amtrak Train #30, The Capitol Limited
Arriving Washington, DC

Amtrak Train #93, The Northeast Regional
Washington, DC to Richmond, VA
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I have slept through Cleveland and Pittsburgh. By dawn, when an announcement wakes me announcing breakfast, we are in the mountains, in Maryland and in the snow. Unlike the flatlands of two days ago, here it is rocky, wooded and in the snow, beautiful.

The Colorado, the sleeping car to which I am assigned (room 10) is newer, sleeker beige plastic and less faux brown woods. A check of the time reveals we have long since passed into the eastern time zone, but our location baffles — we are either an hour ahead of schedule and nearing Cumberland, MD, or an hour behind and haven’t reached Connellsville, PA. My I-Phone’s GPS is no help — wherever we are, we are without service.

Last night I had dinner with a man who repairs smokestacks. He is returning from a job in Texas and plans to rest until spring.

These are not small smokestacks. The largest ones are 1,200 feet, and he commonly inspects smokestacks that are 600-feet climbing up and down both the insides and outsides.

“Smokestacks are still being built?” I ask. Naively, I had assumed that with ecology and the greens movement that big smokestacks had fallen out of favor.

“All the time,” he tells me. Utilities still build a lot of them.
30-2was-wmbg-final-trip-dsc06963-usemeThe more he talks the more I realize this is one dangerous job. He works with a team of two other men and he won’t work with men he doesn’t know. He has his own clothing, cables and safety equipment. He is as careful as a parachutist because “my life depends on my equipment.” He is traveling is circuitous route home by train in part to protect his equipment.

Heights scare the daylights out of me.

I ask him when he knew that he could do this work. “When I got my first paycheck,” he replies. “It was the first time I’d ever gotten a paycheck with a comma in it.” I like him a lot.

He says he has maybe five years left and while he used to enjoy his work, he no longer does. It is very arduous — first he must climb, burdened with all his gear, to the top of the smokestack. His biggest enemy is lightning. A friend lost his arm, and nearly lost his life, to a rogue lightning bolt.

And the worse situation he was ever in?

A six hundred foot smokestack he and others were working on fell. There had been two teams and he was on the team that was resting. “Only one of us was killed,” he recalls. “The rest of us were lucky.”

He talks about his son. “My son thought he wanted to do this work. He kept after me, so finally I took him out to a job, and we started climbing. He got up thirty or forty feet and looked down. Then he looked up. Then he climbed back down — and never mentioned it again.”

He usually works nine months a year, but this year has worked only five months. “The economy is affecting everything,” he says.

He’s terrific company.
In the morning he finds me in the dining car as I am finishing breakfast. I have brought along an extra copy of the train schedule (which he had not been able to find) and a morning newspaper in case I found him.

My final morning on the train, I have breakfast with a young couple from Chicago. She works for non-profits. He works as a cook and waiter. They have decided to move to Florida from Chicago.

They are young and carefree and very much in love.

“We have brought a lot of our stuff, but not all of it,” she says cheerfully. “We’re hauling along tons of stuff.” Like the smokestack guy, they hadn’t originally planned on taking the train. They wanted to rent a car and drive to Florida, seeing the country, but the rental would have cost too much. Flying with all their stuff was impossible, but Amtrak wanted only $100.


They have spent the night curled together in coach seats. He has stuff to retrieve in Tampa from when he worked in Ybor City, the old cigar-making Cuban section of Tampa that has now been restored and is somewhat touristy. He’s delighted that I know Ybor City, and surprised. I ask him to suggest eating-places I have missed and he is delighted. His tutorial includes how some of the dishes he recommends are made.

“I’ve got a big TV that friends are keeping,” he says out of the blue. She looks at him. It’s obvious they are having a continuing discussion about things he has left here and there with friends.

“We can’t carry a big TV,” she says sternly. “You cannot carry a big TV on your back like a backpack.”

“We’ll get it later,” he says to me.

As the train moves south toward Washington, we fall in behind a freight train and slow to a crawl. We arrive two hours late.

My Ybor City friend and his wife, and the smokestack guy all miss their trains south. I, too, have missed the last train for Williamsburg, which was to have been the final leg on my North American Rail Pass.

I still can go to Richmond on an evening train and rent a car. But now I learn there are no cars available in Richmond. I cannot find a hotel in Richmond, either.

I dither. I decide to take the second-to-last train of the night to Richmond and walk into a hotel that is part of the chain where I always stay. I’m about to find out how valuable a customer I am, I guess.

In Richmond, the hotel clerk is nonplussed, but rallies. He gives me a room and my usual rate. He hands over a free breakfast, two drinks at the bar and an appetizer. Amtrak may not know how to handle a guest, but these guys do.

I skip the bar and appetizers and head for the shower and bed.

In 30 days I have covered almost 10,587 miles, taken 12 different trains, slept 9 nights on the trains, taken over 1,700 pictures and written 30 dispatches totally 30,000 words (most, but not all appears here)

I’m yet to pat a polar bear on the nose in Hudson’s Bay, and I’m still haven’t seen Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I did see the Crawlers in Halifax and I helped a woman in Toronto decide that from now on she will call herself a “Torontogonian“.

I left more places I want to see in Canada than I got to.

Better planning would not have helped: train and ferry schedules, slow freights with higher priority and track work in California and on the Canadian line to Hudson’s Bay would have derailed my planning anyway.

In the end I arrive more rested than when I began.

Hand me another rail pass and I’d be out of here in the morning.

(Photographs: The Williamsburg, VA, Amtrak/Transportation Center — because my train was late into Washington, DC, my journey ended in Richmond, VA instead of here; Gate H, Washington’s Union Station, site of my final train departure on my North American Rail Pass; an antique horse drawn baggage cart on display beside tracks at the Williamsburg, VA, Amtrak station; Portland, OR, sign inviting train travelers to come ride trains again soon; below, petecrow at Capreol, Nova Scotia, October 31, 2008)


Distance today:
Chicago to Washington, DC: 764 miles / 1,229 kilometers
Washington, DC to Richmond, VA: 101 miles / 163 kilometers
Final Distance Totals of entire Trip: 10,587 miles / 17,037 kilometers


“Thirty Days on Amtrak & VIA Rail Canada”
Photographs and Copy have been jointly Copyrighted 2008
by Seine-Harbour Productions, Studio City, California, and by Peter M. Crow.



  1. Welcome back, but I will miss reading about your trip. I LOVED every minute of reading about your journey and the people you met. The pictures were wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Janet — November 23, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  2. Me, too . . .

    Comment by Bruce — November 23, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  3. Nice work Pard-Nuh, I have enjoyed immensely the travel travails……

    Looking forward to showing you how good Aussie wines are and how the french have much to fear.

    Comment by Stephen — November 27, 2008 @ 4:35 am

  4. Great read. Still laughing. Still learning.

    Comment by Edward Betz — April 5, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

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