Riding the California Zephyr – Part Two

We jerked forward out of Union Station, Chicago, the train slowly picking up speed. In a matter of minutes we were zipping through a long tunnel. We came out into the sunlight with Chicago in our rear view mirror. Miles of corn fields and other fields of crops awaited our train as we barrelled down the tracks. Illinois gave way to Iowa and the flat agricultural land continued unabated, interspersed with small-town USA. It was gloriously monotonous.

There is no wifi on the train so make sure you have plenty to do. I did use my cell phone hotspot a few times to do some work that had to be finished, but mostly I had my face smashed to the window of our compartment because I could not imagine missing one minute of this ride.

Our compartment was not large but the fun of train travel is to try something different, right? And, let’s face it, it was a whole lot bigger than a seat on an airplane. The compartment has a nice long sofa and a chair, plus room to stow your suitcase above the chair. There is a teensy closet, big enough for about three outfits. The sink is right in the room, but that was part of the adventure. The bathroom is no place for sissies or people with tight-space issues. The commode and the shower are right together – there is even a shield to place down over the toilet paper so it doesn’t get wet while one is showering. Who thinks of these things?

When we had unpacked what little we did unpack, I went in search of hot water for my afternoon tea. Now, some might laugh or dismiss me outright, but there is nothing more rejuvenating than a nice cup of hot tea in the afternoon. As soon as I had my tea steeping, we checked out the observation car. It was pretty empty, but that was to be expected…most people do not enjoy agricultural land like I do, more’s the pity.

The observation car is a great place to while away some of those long train hours. It is on the upper tier of the train so one is elevated enough to see everything – and the floor to ceiling windows bring the outside in. Even better are the windows that curve up into the roof of the car. That came in quite handy later in the trip.

We had a seven-thirty pm dinner reservation in the dining car. Remember, I said that meals are included with a compartment. Well, as luck would have it, our train ride took place one week too early to have the full service meals that Amtrak is famous for. We were still on the “COVID Meal Plan” which, unfortunately, included a total of about six separate meals – one of which they ran out of at lunch on the second day. The meals were okay but not great. There were no white tablecloths and no cloth napkins. They used plastic utensils and paper napkins, as well as disposable containers the food came in – so, no, not even plastic plates. We were able to watch the sunset from the dining car as we ate our supper…and had pre-packaged brownies for dessert.

My husband and I retired to our compartment after supper and soon, Gregory, our room steward, came and converted our compartment into beds for the night. The top bunk folded down from the wall and the sofa pulled out into a bed for the night. If both people are very thin then both could fit together on the sofa bed, but hubby and I decided that no one would get much sleep that way. I happily climbed up to the top bunk…and promptly banged the fool out of my head on the ceiling. I was shocked. I am so short that my fifth grade students used to spend the school year coming into my room to see when they had grown enough to finally be taller than me! Anyway, word to the wise, even short people…er…vertically challenged people have to be careful on that top bunk.

I slept like the dead. The banging, jerking, stopping train did not deter me from a great night sleep. Hubby, however, had a very different experience. He does not sleep well in a different bed – something I sympathize with, but do not understand. He tossed and turned on the not-so-thick mattress, but he did have the cushioning of the sofa to help add layers to his bed. Not that it really helped him much at all. This is seriously something to think about if you have sleep issues. For those of us who can sleep anywhere, anytime, it is a non-issue.

By morning we had crossed through Nebraska and were in Colorado. We were up and going early to make sure we did not miss one minute of the next part of the journey – traveling through the Rocky Mountains. Some of the most glorious scenery in the country. Trust me. Just ask anyone who has traveled on the California Zephyr and they will agree. Best. Part. Ever.

Yes, I believe I will stop here for today and share next week about Day Two of the California Zephyr. I hope you will wander back by next Tuesday for more of our train trip across the country.

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Riding the California Zephyr – Part One

What an adventure we have had! COVID restrictions have eased, the weather is warm, and travel has ramped back up. My husband and I decided to take a train trip from Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA. We had talked about doing it for several years and this year we decided that the time had come. We were taking the California Zephyr across seven states of our great nation.

We went through AAA for our tickets, which worked out okay, but I think it would be just as easy to book directly with Amtrak. Amtrak emails the tickets about two weeks before travel, so we had tickets in hand in plenty of time. Then we counted down the days until travel time.

We booked a bedroom compartment, because we wanted the experience of spending two nights on the train – and neither of us wanted to sleep sitting up in coach. There is another choice between coach and a bedroom compartment called a “Roomette”. It is a tiny room that converts into a bed at night. If you can, splurge for the bedroom compartment…it has a private bathroom. Otherwise, the roomette has a shared bathroom down the hall for all of the other roomettes. One great perk of the sleeping compartments (a bedroom compartment and a roomette) is that they are considered “first class”, so meals in the dinning car are included in the price.

We flew to Chicago and stayed at the Holiday Inn and Suites on Harrison Street. Now, this was not a fancy hotel by any means, but it served its purpose of being safe, clean, and near the train station. We were able to just walk to Union Station, the Chicago Amtrak train station that the California Zephyr is based out of. This is where the second great perk comes in. We had access to the Metropolitan Lounge at Union Station. Described on their own website, the Metropolitan Lounge “offers a new level of luxury to Amtrak travelers who are seeking a spot of respite during their time in Chicago.” And, yes, it was very nice with food and non-alcoholic drinks included as well as wonderful seating over two floors. One of the Amtrak attendants took us right to our train and made sure we got on the correct train car.

Finally, we were on our way. Ah, but I believe I will save that part of the story for next week. Wander back by next Tuesday for more of our train ride on the California Zephyr.

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Savoring Books

I was talking to a friend the other day and we were discussing books. I said that books have always been my friends. She did not understand at all. To her books are something one reads for one book club or another and then moves on to the next one. She will read twenty books or more in a month. I know! That is crazy talk to me. I love reading my books. I take time getting to know them and hearing what they have to say. But, each to their own.

I have always just…wallowed in books. They were my first friends when my mother read to me as a small child. They waited for me to get home from school. We stayed up into the night (with flashlight under covers) enjoying each other’s company. They never complained if I had to put them down to do something, and they waited right there until I came back to them. They didn’t need to be fed or walked.

The people in my books were not just characters but friends who lived full lives – before and after the outside covers. I had a hard time trusting real children my age, they often taunted me over my very petite size or how formal I was. It was just my nature, but they didn’t care. Children really can be so very cruel. But, my friends on paper were never cruel to me. Actually, I read how they solved problems or worked through issues over the course of fifty or five hundred pages. They taught me about life and how to live in the world.

Whether there was a secret garden to be discovered or ghosts in the attic, I could count on them to show me the way forward. I loved a little mouse who rode a motorcycle. I loved the English moors long before I saw them. I went all over the world without ever having to get up from my favorite window seat. Tiny homes, grand homes, boats, caravans, caves. I lived in all of them without once stepping foot outside.

Even now, I pick up old friends and reread them for the umpteenth time. Some must be in the hundreds over a fifty-odd year span. Some are dog-eared and so worn, but I would never get rid of them, they are perfect just as they are. Others have disappeared completely; though I have a feeling if I checked my daughters’ houses I might find a few. I just bought a new copy of Rebecca because I cannot find my ancient copy anywhere. So I have a new copy of an old friend. And that’s okay, because I know the story will be the same, even if the cover is different.

I enjoy finding new authors and new friends, but I always go back to my first loves. They kept me company when I felt so alone. They never disappointed me. They helped me through childhood traumas and grown-up growing pains. I didn’t just read those books, I savored them. I still do. So, I hope you will excuse me now, Rebecca is calling and I must go see what is happening in Manderley.

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Where Are You Going Post-COVID?

If you have seen my earliest posts, you will know that I suffer from a chronic illness. Some days are better than others. Last week was a terrible week. I gave myself permission to not post last week to lessen the stress I put upon myself. It always surprises me just how much stress we do put on ourselves. Does it surprise you?

At least we were able to travel a few weeks ago. I am happy to say that we went to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. It was a glorious week…once we got there. Have you ever flown Spirit Airlines? Dear Heavenly Day, the flight over was not a good flight, to say the least. The departure time was perfect. The flight time was great. The trip itself? Horrendous. There was a group of ten people flying together but who chose not to pay extra for seats together. That was not, however, a problem for them, they just screamed across the plane to one another. Oh yeah, that happened. That happened for three hours. Obviously, the flight attendants do not get paid enough to bother with the crazies who fly on the planes.

Once we arrived in St. Thomas another reality hit. It took one and one-half hours to get the rental car we had rented weeks ago. Yup, we had a reservation, so we got a car eventually, but all of those people who thought they would just get a car when they arrived were out of luck. I don’t think it is going to get any better anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Ah, but the brass ring was when we settled into the resort. It was pure bliss. Heaven on earth. A glorious week of ocean, pool, water sports, to-die-for foods, caribbean breezes, and time with my hubby made for a magical first-trip-post-COVID week. We took time to smell the roses, and all of the other flowers. We took time to watch the wildlife. We took time to just be. And it truly was glorious.

I was dreading the trip back on Spirit Airlines, but my beloved husband surprised me by paying for the upgraded seats. Now, that is the way to fly Spirit. Those seats are two by two, so no crazy lady sitting beside me screaming to her friend three rows up and over from us. We were sorta cocooned in our own little world, just the two of us. The seats are mighty comfy, too. That is the only way hubby is getting me back on a Spirit Airlines flight.

So. So, even though last week was a very difficult week, there were other weeks that were great. I am so glad to be traveling again. Wandering the world. Finding the by-ways of the world to see. Gathering fodder for my writings. Spending time with blank pages and then filling them up. Just going.

Even with a chronic illness, or perhaps in spite of a chronic illness, I get up and go when I can, where I can, however I can. How about you? Where are you going post-COVID?

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Brave Writers

I find when I am reading nowadays that I read with the eye of a writer. I look for the hook. I look for the transition sentences and paragraphs. I look to see how the authors move the stories along. I look to see how they end a chapter. I no longer just read. Do you do the same thing?

But…but even so, I still love to read. And, I love to write. I really do. I cannot even imagine not writing. I wake up thinking about my characters. They follow me around all the time, tapping me on the shoulder, throwing ideas into my mind’s eye. And that is okay by me. They keep me company. They are my friends…even the dead ones.

The murder mystery I am working on is coming along nicely. It is on its second edit. Hopefully, it will soon be ready to be sent out into the world. That’s always a scary thought. The sending it out. What if no one likes it? What if it’s just not good enough? What if. Such wasteful words.

Here is the synopsis that I have put together. The elevator pitch. The back cover blurb. Tell me what you think. Would you read it? “There is a dead girl on the quiet, South Carolina Lowcountry island called Fripp Island. A dead girl in a bathing suit, coverup, and one pink flip-flop. The three women who discover her body are going to have the devil’s own time trying to find the killer while staying out of the way of the surly police detective. Although, the good-looking, helpful detective is an entirely different matter. Now, when the dead girl shows up and wants to help them find her killer, things really get out of hand. Throw in a kitten, an ouija board, an out-of-control golf cart, and a hermit, and the girls find themselves careening from one end of the island to the other, trying to outrun a desperate killer intent on keeping his secrets silent…and anyone who gets in his way.”

It’s hard to even put that much out into the world. Those wasteful words bounce around in my head trying to take center stage. The corners of my mind try to catch them, but those words can be so elusive, sometimes just a slight echo, other times a clanging gong. Maybe that’s why Hemingway drank. Not that I am comparing myself to Hemingway. Saints preserve. Never would I do that. The truth is that all writers put themselves out there – on display – naked – for the world to see. Is it craziness to do so? Maybe, but I prefer to think that it is brave.

So, today and every day, I bravely write, sometimes sending those words, those stories, my children, out into the world. Hoping the world will be kind just as I try to be kind when I am reading with that writer’s eye, thinking about all that went into that story…how brave that writer was.

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A Great Writer – New to Me

Oh, my word. I am having the best time reading a new author. She is a wonderfully Southern writer. She writes cozy mysteries. Thankfully, there are ten of them in this series; sadly, I am almost finished with the second one. Which means that there are only eight more to go. She really knows the South Carolina Lowcountry, and Charleston, in particular. She has nailed the people, the sights, the smells, and the eccentricity of the people.

Well, I guess you would like to know who I am talking about, don’t you? Silly, me. Of course, you do. I am talking about Susan M. Boyer. My friend from Greenville, where Mrs. Boyer lives, told me that I just had to read her Liz Talbot series. She was right. I simply adore the series. They are bright, clearly written, fast-paced, hysterical reads. The murders are convoluted enough to keep you guessing but controlled enough that you don’t get bogged down trying to figure things out.

Liz gets in more scrapes than any modern character I can think of…and she does it on a small barrier island just off Charleston. You would think Mrs. Boyer would run out of interesting characters on an island with a contained population, but, no, there is plenty of crazy populating that island. A psychic godmother, a proper southern mother, a good-old-boy-gun-toting father, an overprotective brother, a New-Age cafe owner. Well, the list goes on…and on…and on. 

Did I mention that Liz is a private eye? No? Well, she is. And she is mighty good at it. I love that part the best. She is not local law enforcement, so she can bend the rules on occasion. Okay, she strolls right on past “bending”, but we don’t mind in the least. I love that she enjoys skinny-dipping in the ocean at dawn. You have to like someone who doesn’t take herself so seriously.

The first book is Lowcountry Boil, and the second one is Lowcountry Bombshell. That’s right. Each book has “Lowcountry” in the title. I am really looking forward to Lowcountry Boneyard, the third book. Who knows what mischief Liz will get into next.

If you haven’t read any of her books, yet, now is the time. If you’ve already read all ten of them, hush now, don’t give anything away. 

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An Intentional Traveler

Traveling is like writing. At least, for me it is. I plan out where I am going and how I am getting there, just the same as I write. I am a planner, not a pantser. Writing, like traveling, is a complicated process. I have certainly written more in the past year than I have traveled. That, however, is about to change.

Soon, my husband and I will finally be traveling again. We are just so thrilled to be able to go places once more, but we have decided to be more intentional in our travels. We have decided that the journey must be just as important as the destination. To that end, we have decided to fly to Chicago and then take the train to San Francisco to see our daughter. 

I have traveled by train on the East Coast a number of times, but I have never traveled west by train. I think it will be exhilarating…or terrifying…to travel over the Rocky Mountains by train; to travel through long tunnels that split mountains in half. I am looking forward to seeing so much of our great country through the train windows; well, perhaps not when in a tunnel.

I love traveling by train in Europe, and have done so for years and years, but, somehow, when traveling in the United States, we almost always fly. It is quick,  sort of, but not very fun anymore. It does take off on time, sometimes. It is very impersonal, though there is often someone to talk to. Well, at least there used to be…now everyone is too afraid to talk to anyone else, even masked.

The truth is, there are other ways to get to one’s destination without flying. So, we are going to try some of those other ways. Trains, boats, ships, cars, trollies, and trams are all on our list for the next year or two. We want to enjoy the travel, savor the time. We do not want to rush from one place to the other; we want to see everything.

Maybe, we want to see everything because we have seen nothing for more than a year. That is true. But…but, maybe, we have realized that we must treasure the opportunity to see between the departure and the arrival. To be intentional. To be an intentional traveler…just as I am an intentional writer.

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Finding Words in the Garden of Life

I write all the time, every day, even at night. I love words and how they flow across the page. I love to write for children, for tweens, for adults. My world is filled with words. A few years ago my beloved mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia. It is a terrible disease. I watched it rob her of her present and then her past. I watched it rob her of her happiness, her contentment. But, it also robbed her of her words, and, to me, that was the saddest part of all. To not be able to call up the words to describe something, to tell a story, to simply ask for something. I cannot imagine not having words…but I know the pain of a loved one not having those words. The pain of their life slipping away into forever, where there are no words.

So, this year as I planted my flower gardens, I decided to be intentional about my gardens, about my plantings. I planted a gnome garden to remember my children’s childhoods. I planted an herb garden to remember my grandmother and her wonderful gardens and her kitchen that smelled so delicious as she cooked the fruits of those gardens.

Then, I did something special. I planted a memory garden to remember my mother-in-law. I planted Zinnias in the back to represent her at her best – tall, straight, bright. Zinnia’s symbolize important friends/people who are absent. Next, I planted Mardi Gras Coreopsis to represent her happy nature. Coreopsis’ symbolize a cheerful nature. Then, I planted French Double Dwarf Marigolds to represent her ancestry and her love for her husband and son, and later her love for her two granddaughters. Marigolds symbolize joy and optimism, but they also symbolize mourning. She always remembered family who had gone before her. Finally, in the front, I planted alyssum. Those delicate flowers always remind me of her English porcelain skin and white-blond hair. They remind me of her. They represent all that was good in her. Alyssum symbolizes beauty and serenity.

As I walk the pea-stone walkways in my garden, I am reminded of words. The old Royal typewriter sitting on the table in the conservatory. The little garden signs with cheerful sayings. The garden flags with silly sayings. (Come wine awhile) I walk past my mother-in-law’s memory garden and words spring unbidden to my mind. Descriptions of her, the stories she told, the stories I told. Words follow me on the faint breeze, across the marsh, through the tinkle of the fountains as I wander the garden.

Words make up such a massive part of a writer’s life. We spend so much time writing them on plain white paper, the backs of envelopes, recording them in little notebooks. But we don’t have to just write them down, capture them from the ether. We can find words everywhere in life, especially if we take time to smell the flowers.

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Looking for Kindness in Books

I have been reading a lot of books over the past year; after all, there hasn’t been a whole lot going on, so reading was an easy escape. One thing I have noticed is the number of recently published books that have difficult endings. Sad endings. Tragic endings. Rip-your-heart-out endings. It is exhausting reading those books.

What happened to happily-ever-after books, uplifting books, gentle books. Why does every newly published book have to be gut-wrenching? Is that what publishers think we want? Is that a reflection of society? Do people really enjoy those books? Is that all there is?

I just finished a book for my book club in which the protagonist died at the end of the book. Talk about a let-down. We suffered through the entire book, suffering with her through everything she went through…only to have her die at the end. She had no happy ending. She didn’t get the bad guy. She didn’t walk into the future with her head held high. She just died…and left her two young children orphaned. Really? Really?

I thought it was one of the worst books I have ever read, and it is on the New York Times best seller list. We were evenly divided in my book club as to whether or not people enjoyed the book. One participant asked, “where is her happy ending?” It appears that the author thought the protagonist didn’t need a happy ending – and that we, the readers, didn’t either.

What does that say about authors, publishers, and our society. Are we really so jaded that we don’t need happy endings, or at the very least, satisfying endings. I love it when the good guy wins and the bad guy gets it in the end. Maybe that is my issue…that I want a satisfying ending. Maybe that was just the way I was raised, after all Lassie and Timmy saved the day every week. And so did the rifleman. And Charlie’s angels. And Rockford. And Agatha Christie. And Dell Shannon. And David Baldacci. And Janet Evanovich.

Maybe, I want what no longer is. Maybe, life is not fair, or just, or kind. But when I read a book, I don’t want reality. I want a great story that catches me up with it and takes me to a whole new place. A place of goodness and mercy. A place where right trumps might. A place where I can let my guard down and just enjoy. Maybe, I just need to look harder for such books. Do you know of any? If so, please share. Let’s all look for kinder, gentler books with great stories. Maybe we can change the world…one book at a time.

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Traveling When I Can Where I Can

Travel is still up in the air for most of us. I have two trips to France planned for the later part of the year…hopefully, those will happen. I have a trip planned soon for St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), but that one is looking “iffy”. Two trips have already been canceled for this year so far and moved to next year…they should be fine. It should be fine to travel by then. Right?

So, in the meantime, I am traveling short distances for short amounts of time. Like this week. This week, I am at Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a short drive from home. I am with my college girlfriends and we are all celebrating our “Big Birthday Year” together…at the beach…with lots of cake…and bellinis…and masks. The good times are rolling!

Travel is supposed to be fun and rewarding. Both are true about this trip, but it has a deeper meaning, too. We have lost members of our class. We have learned to treasure our differences and enjoy our time together. Life is short…and at our ages, it is getting shorter.

So spending time together, without the headache of air travel, with the beach as our background, is a win-win for all of us. We have a house on the front beach – a bit of an expense, but well worth it. The sound of the surf lulls us to sleep at night and wakes us twinned with the bright sun in the morning. We step off the porch and into the sand, walking the beach just after sun-up. The light breeze chills us until the sun’s rays strengthen and warm us. We speak softly enjoying the early morning quiet. Soon enough everyone will be awake and talking…and talking…and talking. 

What fun it is to reminisce about our college years at our small South Carolina Presbyterian college, Erskine College. There were great days, good days, bad days, and truly horrible days mixed together in those four years. They helped shape and define us. We were all touched by those years. We are better people because we shared that innocent time together. Now, we share our “golden years” together. Remembering, talking, laughing, and even crying. Life can be hard, unfair, disappointing. But, it can be happy, fun, and peaceful. There is a balance.

Travel is a part of that life, a part of that balance. We are together, traveling from our individual worlds to our shared world. And, in life, being together is one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and each other. So, my friends, go…travel…whenever you can…wherever you can.

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