Travel Diary: North By The Cardinal
As West Virginia’s men’s basketball team embarks on another trip to the Midwest, it seemed an appropriate time to roll out the latest version of a classic staple of the Blue & Gold News: the travel diary.
Over the years, we’ve published several such articles documenting our trips to cover the Mountaineers on the road. While my skills in that area don’t nearly measure up to the efforts of those involved in producing previous editions, my journey to New York City to cover the Mountaineers for their game in Madison Square Garden offered a bit of a different angle, as I decided to go by train. That, I figured, was enough to take a shot at relating some of the entertaining sights and occurrences that pop up on road trips.
Taking the train from Charleston to New York City was one of three options. Driving is always one choice, and I’ve made that trek many times. However, since no one else was available to (or chose) to go with me, I wasn’t looking forward to the long trip myself – much less working out the logistics of driving into the city and finding parking, or staying in New Jersey and coordinating a train ride in with all of my gear. If I’m going to be on a train anyway, why not go whole hog?
Flying was also an option, but the time it takes to set that up, plus airport transportation on both ends (again, with my several bags of gear) makes it an unappetizing solo trip. My guideline has often been if it takes 5-6 hours to drive, that’s just as, if not more efficient, than flying.
So, I hearkened back to a recent train trip I had taken with my wife to Philadelphia to see a concert and do some historical sightseeing. That was a great deal of fun, so why not repeat it? The train schedule for the Cardinal, which runs from New York to Chicago and back, lined up nicely with the Mountaineers’ game, so I made the reservations (much less than it would have cost for a flight or gas and parking) and got ready to depart.
Boarding and riding a train has about 1% of the hassle factor of flying. You can handle your own bags if you want, although checking bags is available. There’s no security screening. You can get to the station five minutes before the train arrives. The worst seats on a train are as good as first class on a plane – plenty of space and room to recline, two different footrests and leg supports, power outlets at every seat. Plus, you can stand up and wander about whenever you want, although the skill of maintaining balance on a moving train – especially one navigating the valleys and gorges of southern West Virginia – is something that has to be developed.
So, I arrive on Friday morning at the Amtrak station in Charleston with gear in tow, and get my first surprise. Awaiting the train is a group of some 30-40 ladies, all dressed nicely and chatting up a storm. Are they all going to the game? Well, no. Turns out they are heading to The Greenbrier for a day of shopping and lunch at Draper’s Cafe. Seems like a good time is in the offing, so I talk with a few of them about their itinerary as we await the train’s arrival.
One note here before we go any further. The Cardinal is often late. That’s partly due to the fact that much of its route through Southern West Virginia is single track – that is, there’s no place for trains going opposite directions to pass each other. When that happens, one train has to pull off on a siding and wait for the other to pass, and sidings are somewhat few and far between. Freight trains have priority, so you’re likely to have a bit of a wait at some point on the trip. But hey, there’s always food and drinks of all types available, and the scenery is great.
And by great, I do mean great. You go through a rock canyon with tumbling whitewater, across the bridge below the iconic Hawks Nest lookout, and through the New River Gorge. You see glimpses of history in the old train stations in coal boom towns of the past. Then you pop out into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and get rolling vistas of farmland before the final legs in the metro corridor of the Northeast. It’s a total slice of Americana.
As we head toward The Greenbrier, we pass by the federal prison camp at Alderson, a minimum-security lockup. Several of the inmates outside wave at us as we pass, and the train engineer gives an obliging toot. Martha Stewart was once ensconced here – wonder if she came out to wave to the hoi polloi?
Arriving at White Sulphur Springs, the women’s group disembarks, and the train quiets. Except, that is, for someone shouting in their cell phone. That’s one other drawback to this trip – while there is WiFi on the train, it comes in via cell service, and when you are tucked in to the bottom of the steep valleys on the first part of the trip, the service comes and goes. I debate offering the tip that shouting into a cell phone doesn’t improve the connection or make your voice travel any further, but instead opt for my noise cancelling headphones and enjoy the view.
Food and drinks, as mentioned previously, are available, with full dinner service for those opting for business class. I’ve gone economy on this trip, but can still get a decent selection, along with some good craft adult beverages. There’s a full cafe car that is a great place to meet people if you want to talk and pass some time. For some reason, it’s easier to do that on a train than a plane.
As we make the bend north through rural Virginia, a number of different animals on farms come into view. By the end of the trip I’ve seen cows, steers, goats, llamas, alpacas, sheep, horses, chickens and roosters. For sure, you don’t see that on a plane!
Coming into Charlottesville, the makeup of the train riders changes. There are a few through passengers such as myself and the couple that boarded in Indianapolis that is headed to the Garden to see the Pacers and Knicks play Saturday night, but now there are a number of college students from the University of Virginia boarding, as well families heading into D.C, Philadelphia or New York City for the weekend.
As we head for that corridor, we make a stop in D.C. to change locomotives. All trains northeast of the nation’s capitol are pulled by electric, not diesel, locomotives, so there’s a stopover for a switchout. Savvy passengers hop inside Union Station for some different food options.
Arriving in New York City, another benefit quickly emerges. The train comes in to Penn Station, which is right underneath Madison Square Garden. What could be more convenient? Except that I arrive right as the New York Rangers are winding up a home hockey game, so I’m caught in the crush of people sprinting to make their trains out of the city. Rather than fight the crowd, I move over to let things thin out.
West Virginia’s basketball game against St. John’s is set for 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, but the less said about that the better. WVU gets off to a horrendous start and despite a rally, can’t get over the top for a win. That makes, as always, for some tough questions and writing in the postgame. It also usually sets up a grumpy return trip, but for some reason the train ride lifts my spirits. I can also work on the train, unlike in the cramped confines of an airplane or a moving car, which fires up my motion sickness. So, I’m able to punch out the weekend’s work before I make it back home.
On the return trip, we have a holdover in Charlottesville for a brief time. Most stops at stations are just a minute or so – enough time to get on or get off, and then you are rolling again. At Charlottesville, though, a designated smoke break has been called. I get off to stretch a bit, and see a lady holding an enormous pizza box. Is she getting on with that? Nope – someone on the train has called ahead an ordered it to be delivered to the station. She says her pizza place gets several such orders like this, and I file that information away for future trips.
Just then someone comes down from another car to pick up the pizza, which is as big as one of the wheels on the train. It turns out to be former Mountaineer football player Mark Plants, who is heading back to his home near Charleston after a family trip. We compare notes and catch up, and I compliment him on his savvy ordering strategies.
After that, evening comes and it’s sleepy time on the train as we complete the reverse journey. The only negative to the train station in Charleston is that there’s no parking available to leave your car in while on your trip. Still, there’s a side benefit – pickup by whoever is giving you a ride just a few steps off the train, with no baggage hassles? Sold.
Clearly, the train isn’t always an option. But when it’s there, and time isn’t of the essence, I’d highly recommend it.