Much as we'd like them to be, everyone knows that travel plans and travel reality are not always the same thing, and I got a solid reminder of how easily those two can get out of alignment with each other.
To get to Duluth from Chapel Hill NC is not a straight forward endeavor, especially if you, like me, eschew air travel and don't own a car. It entailed four separate legs of train travel, and ended with a van ride via a shuttle service linking The Twin Cities and Duluth. Here's the way it was supposed to work:
train #79 (The Carolinian) from Durham NC to Greensboro NC
train #20 (The Crescent) from Greensboro to Washington DC
train #29 (The Capitol Limited) from Washington to Chicago IL
train #7 (The Empire Builder) from Chicago to St Paul MN
van #810 from the State Capitol to downtown Duluth
This added up to 58 hours of "en route," including the need to stay up in Greensboro to catch the Crescent at 3:44 am, and a 2:45 am arrival in Duluth. So this itinerary, even under optimal conditions, did not involve a lot of sleep until after I'd arrived on the shores of Gitchi Gummi.
As it happened, all four train legs offered checked bag service, so I availed myself of that in Durham, handing over my somewhat heavy suitcase (laden with presents for Duluth), checking it all the way through to St Paul, saving myself having to wheel it around on my three intermediate stops. Before making that choice, I carefully took into account that I had generous layovers in Greensboro, DC, and Chicago, which meant that there would be ample time to effect the appropriate transfers. At least that was the theory.
Things started to go off the rails (so to speak) when The Empire Builder's departure from Chicago was delayed by 50 minutes due to a mechanical problem with the equipment. That meant I'd lost half the time available for me to navigate the distance from the train depot to the van rendezvous point (at the intersection of Cedar St and Martin Luther King Blvd, within sight of the state capitol building). Fortunately, whatever the mechanical problem was, they dealt with it sufficiently that the train lost no additional time chugging north and west, and we pulled into St Paul the same 50 minutes late we were out of Chicago.
Then the wheels fell off my plans. I had a narrow window in which to collect my bag, walk to the nearby light rail station, and make my way to a stop within a long uphill block of the van pick-up location. Unfortunately, my bag and I did not reunite in St Paul. Everyone else happily collected their luggage and departed, and there I was at 11:30 pm with an empty carousel and a station agent, getting nervous about making my connection to Duluth.
I took a deep breath, gave the agent my baggage claim, my train tickets, my local phone number, and my address in Duluth. He dutifully filled out the form and I bolted out the door in search of the light rail stop, one block away.
I was able to catch the 11:47 pm headed for Robert St (only three stops from the train depot), anxious about arriving in time for my scheduled van collection at 12:05 am. I got there, out of breath, at 11:57 pm. Whew! I enjoyed a few minutes while buoyed by the thought that it was all going to work out in the end (after my wayward luggage caught up with me), but it turned out I was not yet done with misadventuring. The van never showed up.
Here I was at a deserted intersection in downtown St Paul after midnight. After waiting in vain for an hour, I had to face the music: the van wasn't coming. I carefully checked my confirmation, and, yup, I was in the right place at the right time, and on the right day. What happened?
Amazingly, I was able to catch an open wifi signal from the street, and was thus able to tell Susan to stand down on collecting me at 2:45 am in downtown Duluth, and to send a message to the van service apprising them of an unhappy customer stranded in downtown St Paul—and would they please collect me at 7:05 am, when their next scheduled trip was due to swing by Capitol Hill.
Then I took the light rail back to Union Depot, where I there was a pay phone (although I had charged my track phone battery right before the trip started, the phone was dead on the streets of St Paul) and I'd be in a warm building. The temperatures had dropped into the 60s and I couldn't put on more clothing because my suitcase was wandering the rails somewhere between NC and MN.
Luckily, the train station remains open until 2 am, and I arrived there at 1:40 am. That gave me enough time to call the van service. Though there was no one in the office in the middle of the night, their system gave me two options: a) leave a message that would be listened to when their office opened at 6:45 am; or b) be transferred to an emergency number where an on-call staffer would be awakened—though be advised that I might be assessed a $10 charge for waking them up. I figured my situation justified option b) but no one answered and I was shunted back to option a). Sigh.
So, after doing all that I could to let the van folks know that I was rattling around loose in St Paul and really wanted to be collected at 7:05 am, I could do no better than wait for morning. I left a detailed email for Susan laying all this out, asking her to call the shuttle office right when it opened—as there wasn't much time between 6:45 am and my hoped for rescue at 7:05 am.
Then I took the light rail back to Capitol Hill, arriving about 2:40 am and began my all-night vigil as the temperatures slowly descended into the 50s. It was a long night. As there was a slight breeze out of the north, I relocated to a nearby parking garage that had a low retaining wall that I could hunker down below and that helped conserve heat. Still, it was not warm enough to nod off, and the minutes crawled by very slowly.
Susan had emailed me, "Oh no! Are you laughing or crying?" It was hard to not feel sorry for myself, but I also knew it wasn't going to do any good. So I went through about 10 minutes of woe is me, and then concentrated on staying warm until dawn.
At a little after 5 am, cars started coming into the parking lot, as the early bird government workers arrived in preparation for a normal Tuesday. Noticing the guy huddled against the retaining wall, it wasn't long before a had a visit from the Capitol Police, many of whom had already noticed me earlier in the night waiting to no effect at the intersection of Cedar and MLK.
While I didn't know what to expect when I was hailed, it was only fair to appreciate that they didn't either. While they had questions, they were not rude or aggressive and at least my story hung together (the shuttle did make regular stops at the intersection I was waiting at, and I had been there for five hours). When I walked through all the things I had done to try to reach the van people, they duplicated my efforts and were satisfied that there wasn't anything more I could do until the office opened at 6:45 am.
Although there's no way to be certain, I suspect that the police were somewhat skeptical about my story. Although my possessing a laptop helped, my not having a suitcase didn't, and they must have been wondering whether the potential problem I represented (they don't want homeless people lurking around the Capitol) would go away at 7:05 am or not.
Fortunately, after reaching my nadir when the police introduced themselves to me at around 5:30 am ("Excuse me, can we help you?"), they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, and it was definitely mood elevating to see the sky gradually lightening in the east. Construction workers punched at 6 am to restart their renovation of the capitol, and the stream of incoming vehicles to the parking lot surged. I had made it through the night! I was shivering slightly by then but, happily, the shuttle appeared on time and I gratefully sank into a seat in a warm van. Even better, the driver was appropriately apologetic, and assured me that the dispatcher back in Duluth would "make it right."
From there on, everything improved. Susan met the van mid-morning and there was a lovely warm bed at the end of my extended play Tuesday. While Susan was shocked that my hands were still cold when she collected me after two-and-a-half hours in the van, I was able to successfully re-fire my boiler sitting on her living room couch sipping hot coffee, such that I was warm again by the time her work shift ended at 1 pm.
In retrospect I had a couple more reasonable options available to me after I was stood up by the van—either of which may have occurred to me if the weather had been more inclement: 1) taking the light rail all the way out to the airport, which would have been open all night and offered shelter at a pleasant temperature; or 2) simply hailing a taxi from the train depot and having them take me to a nearby hotel, with the expectation that I'd have the van service reimburse me for the cost.
My stubbornness in finding the least expensive solution cost me a miserable night, but the van service accepted responsibility for not collecting me and refunded the cost of my round-trip fare. Plus, Amtrak eventually found my suitcase in DC (don't ask) and it's now on the floor beside me as I type, having just been delivered by FedEx—arriving in Duluth a mere two days after I did.
All in all, this was not an auspicious start to my monster road trip—but, you know, it could have been worse.