The Time I Took an Actual Midnight Train to Georgia

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

As I researched good travel options to get me from Washington, D.C., to Hilton Head, S.C. for a week-long vacation, it quickly became clear that there were no good travel options. I could fly out of Baltimore at 5am; I could spend $700 to take a direct flight to the island; I could hitch a ride down with friends, but I'd get in two days late.

When someone suggested I look at Amtrak options, I laughed - until I found a $100 ticket to Savannah, the stop closest to my destination. The catch is that it was an 11-hour train ride - 11 hours on a train, you guys - but at least it was overnight, leaving at 7:30pm & arriving at 6:30 the next morning. My mom's flight was to land in Savannah at 9am, which meant we could easily meet up to drive to Hilton Head.

And that's how one warm August evening, I ended up on a literal midnight train to Georgia. What follows is a timestamped account of my 11-hour adventure south.


7:30pm: I exchange pleasantries with the middle-aged man sitting next to me. He'll be getting off early, he says, in Richmond, & he does not crack a smile when I apologize in advance for being the sort of person who eats a tuna sandwich for dinner in an enclosed space.

7:35pm: I am seated behind a very loud, very large family. I think I count 11 of them, total, with at least seven children, the youngest of whom are seated directly in front of me & have incredibly grating child-voices. The non-smiler next to me continues his trend of not smiling as we are subjected to a great deal of high-pitched yelling & absolutely zero adult intervention. I am slightly more forgiving when I realize that this family, who boarded in Philadelphia, is bound for Miami... which is a 24+ train ride, altogether. Those poor, poor parents.

7:45pm: In my stress, I consume an entire bag of Cheddar Chex Mix & immediately regret it. My actual dinner, a tuna sandwich on multigrain bread, sits untouched in my carry-on bag.

8:15pm: I Instagram two sunset photos, like a very basic Internet person, & spend a great deal of time texting with friends & with my mom, who has to wake up at 3am for her flight. Clearly, we're a family with travel smarts.

7:55pm: One of the teenagers in the family in front of me has a revelation: "I just realized that 'chillax' is 'chill' & 'relax' smushed together!" she howls. Her relatives proceed to laugh hysterically.

10:00pm: I pop half a melatonin, recline my seat, cover myself in a thin fleece blanket I got for free at a baseball game, & settle in for an hour of uninterrupted, almost-even-comfortable sleep.

10:45pm: This outstanding Facebook conversation reaches a culmination.

11:00pm: I awaken with a start as the man next to me - a new guy, as the other got off an hour & a half ago - begins to snore. Loudly. Very loudly. Pushing my earplugs further inside my ears to try to block it out, I drift in & out of sleep.

11:45pm: The familiar & dulcet tones of Sesame Street ring out over the train car, even over my earplugs. With her whole family asleep, the child in front of me has opted to lull herself to sleep with TV... out loud. But with her whole family asleep, no other adult on the car seems to feel comfortable asking her to to put on headphones. Snoring Seatmate & I sigh at one another in frustration, & my eyes well up with tears of exhaustion as I take a quick walk through the train to cool off.

11:55pm: When I return to my seat, Sesame Street has been silenced. "It woke her mama up," Snoring Seatmate explains sleepily. The relief in his voice is palpable; he sounds the way I feel.

12:00am: It's official: midnight train to Georgia! I pop the other half of the melatonin & fall asleep for approximately 30 minutes.

12:30am: "MAMA! MAMA!" I awaken to the frantic louder-than-whispers of the child in front of me. "MAMA, I'M SCARED! It's scary on this train when everything is dark! There are noises!" To my relief, Mama is not having it. "Go to sleep," she grumbles, & the child obliges. I send up a blessing to a God I don't believe in for Mama's train-parenting techniques.

2:15am: I am 85% conked out, but I'm awake enough to realize that I just farted in my sleep. I hope that Snoring Seatmate, for all his own inadvertent bodily noises while asleep, will forgive me. I'm not even that embarrassed. I mean, it's 2:15am, & I ate a whole bag of Chex Mix for dinner.

3:30am: I awaken again to find that Snoring Seatmate & I have fallen asleep with our heads inclined toward one another. I have been sleeping awkwardly close to a total stranger. I overcorrect this embarrassing behavior by curling into a ball against the window.

4:45am: Snoring Seatmate, who has not snored for many hours, exits in Charleston without so much as a head-nod in my direction. After all we've been through together, man? I thought we had something.

5:00am: The old man across the aisle from me is coughing up both lungs. Is this croup or Ebola or some natural result of being approximately one thousand years old? There's no way to know. I breathe into my neck pillow & pray that I do not contract the Bubonic plague before I get to see the ocean again.

5:15am: Now begrudgingly but fully awake, I consume half of an hours-old tuna sandwich under cover of darkness in the hopes that no one will be able to trace the source of its pungent odor.

5:31am: My 92-song playlist finally runs out of songs.

5:35am: The train starts moving backward. Ebola Man is the only person around me who is awake, but he appears unconcerned. WHY ARE WE MOVING BACKWARD?

5:55am: I discover that my beloved straw fedora has been crushed under the footrest of my seat. I observe a moment of actual mourning, as I doubt I'll be able to find a suitable replacement to keep my very pale self from burning at the beach.

6:00am: Seven cell phone alarm clocks go off simultaneously, awakening half a grumbling train car. I note with some relief that we're moving forward again, though I don't know when it happened.

6:15am: As the sun rises, we pull into Yemassee Station, which looks like the set of a cheap horror film (see photo). An abandoned hardware store sits across the tracks from the station, & heaps of broken furniture litter the ground for dozens of yards. Each sign is missing at least two letters, including the sign for the train station itself. I realize that this "town" is just 20 minutes away from the home of a high school classmate who once told me I would burn in hell for being Jewish. I decide I would rather face that fate than live in hell, which is what this place appears to be.

6:25am: The kids in front of me are blissfully still asleep, but Ebola Man next to me just coughed up a wad of phlegm the size of a gumball. I start to wonder what shtick must be to the strangers around me, & I decide that I'm probably the girl who's always shuffling stuff around, looking for stuff in my purse - my contacts, my Chapstick, my phone charger, the rest of my tuna sandwich. It occurs to me that I might be inadvertently annoying.

6:35am: My stop nearing, I head to the restroom to freshen up (which seems like an oxymoron in a restroom like this). When I return, the child seated in front of me is awake. And watching Sesame Street again.

6:55am: About 25 minutes behind schedule, the train pulls into Savannah's Amtrak station, a comically small, isolated building surrounded by exactly nothing. My app tells me the humidity level is 100%, no joke. I head to the bathroom to do some more freshening up (again with the oxymorons), because what else am I going to do for the next two hours? Thanks to the glory of Neutrogena face wipes & copious amounts of dry shampoo, I emerge looking surprisingly decent, given that I've just spent a half a day of my life on a train.

8:00am: My friend Rachel, who is interning in Savannah for the summer, arrives at the station to catch an 8:20am train to South Carolina! Before her train boards, we have just enough time to laugh at the ridiculousness of seeing a familiar face in such a ridiculous place at such a ridiculous hour, &, of course, to snap a selfie.

9:15am: Having taken a cab to the Savannah International (haha) Airport, I meet up with my mother, & we point our rental Kia in the direction of Hilton Head Island. Our vacation begins!

[10:00am: I learn that we cannot enter our vacation condo until 4:00pm & that it will therefore be six more hours before I can even think about napping. I promptly burst into tears.]

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