Vacation 2015: A Look Back (Part 1)

This post looks back on a vacation to Rogers, Arkansas, for the 2015 Automobile License Plate Collectors Association International Convention. It included stopovers in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

“I’ve seen a lot…a lot of it I’d like to forget,” the older gentleman across from me chuckles.

He’s come from Eugene, Oregon, to see family in Bakersfield, the southern terminus of Amtrak’s San Joaquin route. Twice married and twice divorced, he admits he’s got so many grandkids he “can’t keep track of their names and ages.” He prefers riding the rails over the skies because “you don’t have to take your shoes off.”

A young woman looking to be in her early twenties sits forlornly one booth diagonal, smiling at us and occasionally chatting, elbow propped up on top of the seat, gazing at the scenery while her tatted up, muscled boyfriend is asleep across from her. In another nearby seat, a woman who appears to have lived hard is asleep with a fully awake baby on her lap; and three rows up several Mennonites play a card game called Rook! The sun begins a gentle descent beyond the hills, casting a warm golden light on a grove of trees, fields, and residences.

After our arrival, I’ll take a bus to LA, resume train travel to Kansas City, and drive to Rogers, Arkansas, site of the 2015 annual convention for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association.

While passing through New Mexico, I dine on salmon and garlic mashed potatoes with steamed vegetables in the dining car, complimentary since I booked a roomette. I’m seated with a retired couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they have a 10-acre farm with miniature horses, three cats, a rescue poodle, and a pair of turtles. The female turtle laid eggs right before they left. The couple also counts wild animals amongst their menageries.

The husband is tall, dressed in a yellow polo, and has an air of quiet pride about him. The lady wears an Easter-colored plaid collared shirt and has her blonde-white hair tied in a ponytail. He worked in construction and lost a tip of a finger to one of the horses during an accident. She was a college professor who still teaches about seven classes a year.

The conversation could hardly be more pleasant, especially considering my general tendency for solitude, and the meal is topped off with a container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream sitting in a bowl. We talk until the staff nearly has to kick us out.

At another meal, I share a table with a single retiree who’s been traveling via rail for 50 years. She says it’s “mostly the same” now as it was back then; there used to be China cups and flowers on the table, and there’s less manufacturing now.

In between conversations, I gaze out on the New Mexico landscape. We pass verdant desert plains dotted by homesteads, crumbling buildings, sheds, junked cars, wire fences and wooden posts, all giving way to brown, and orange hillsides speckled with dark green, stubby trees. The hills look like layer cakes with their horizontally-chaffed surfaces. It’s an altogether peaceful and pretty sight, especially if the light hits it just so.

At a “fresh air” stop in Albuquerque, I purchase playing cards and notice a young man taking a video of himself at the bus station. “Are you famous or something?” a lady behind him asks. He replies that he posts regularly on Snapchat and explains to her the difference between that and Facebook.

Every dining experience brings new tablemates. A couple from Chicago who had been in New Mexico on vacation talk about flash floods and Los Alamos, which was the site of nuclear bomb testing.

As I’ve now been on the train for 24 hours, I’ve come to notice some regulars. People start to feel a bit like family, even if you don’t talk to them. There’s a man with three teenage daughters, who play card games almost incessantly; an overweight mom in a Dodgers shirt with three kids who look nothing alike; a friendly middle-aged woman who chats with anyone who will listen; a bearded man always on his computer; and a quirky Southern couple with two kids, both of whom wear glasses.

Another couple has two sons, one of which asks what will happen if he pulls the emergency clip.

“Don’t do that,” his mother replies good-naturedly. “The train will stop, and the glass will come off and everyone will have to get off the train and they might be mad at you.”

“We might have to walk to Chicago,” the husband chimes in.

The Café Car is a haven for writing-minded, budget-minded, solo travelers like me. Back in 2001, when I took the train on a multi-city trip from California to the Windy City and back, I was in it for pretty much every meal on the train. I still recall with joy receiving a burger or other sandwich straight from the microwave, one end of the plastic wrap cut open to allow for ventilation. For some reason, I found this to be like a fantastic secret, that one could put that kind of plastic safely in the microwave. And however modest the sandwich by back-home standards – essentially, it was gas station food – it took on a deliciousness whilst on the train.

At this moment I’m just enjoying Skittles, though, and join in on a conversation between two women who are nearing retirement but were otherwise dissimilar. Marjorie is robust, leathery-skinned, very vocal, and laughed a lot; Cynthia, a third grade schoolteacher, has a more modest demeanor, a smooth face, and silver hair tied back in a ponytail.

The topics cover Venus and Mars meeting in outer space, license plate collecting, a bear in the kitchen, the “real” first discovery of gold (in New Mexico), old parents who can’t drive long distances anymore, the ideal sun setting in the area, Belize, William from the Café Car who has a great laugh, and much more.

Marjorie mentions several times she’s been drinking, and she talks about people who bring in their pet dogs to her veterinary clinic who are high on marijuana. “We just have to flush it out of their system,” she says. She also claims she can get just about any drug on the market with her veterinary license. She says that if I’m ever in San Luis Obispo to look her up in the phone book and she’ll buy me a beer.

Such is life on the train. Strangers sit next to strangers and get to talking. They become friends – temporary friends, but friends, nonetheless.

Sleep can be difficult on the train, even from the comfort of a roomette. The train picks up tremendous speed at night, while during the day it lumbers along, allowing passengers to soak up all the sweeping views train travel affords. I sleep better on this night compared to the others but wake up at 3 a.m. from an intense dream. I peek out the window onto the Kansas plains. Dots of scattered light stretch for miles over flat ground. We pass a town which I figure to be Haven based on my phone’s weather app, then more dots. I mutter a narrative into the phone while taking a video, wishing I could freeze time, create daylight, and go running off to explore.

We arrive in Kansas City at 8:00, and the train adventure officially gives way to the real adventure. Mentally refreshed but physically not so much, I walk around the nearly empty Union Station with the effect of sea legs. Soon I touch Missouri ground, a new state for me.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is full of interesting stories and artifacts, and pays homage to larger-than-life characters like Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Josh Gibson, as well as to lesser known players. It illustrates the societal and economic impacts across Black communities and the nation as a whole. I also enjoy the small baseball field with an All-Star lineup of statues by position, and the theater made out to look like a grandstand, with team pennants adoring the top row of the wall, bleacher-style benches, and a film that begins with a young African-American male dressed in a team uniform singing the National Anthem.

I have lunch at Arthur Bryant, one of several barbecue institutions in Kansas City. Pictures of famous individuals hang all over the walls, and the restaurant is a little dingy with a blue-collar feel. They prep the food in front of you, and my sliced pork sandwich is huge. It comes with an oversized portion of French fries, and I accompany all of it with a soda in a souvenir cup. A dousing of “Sweet Hot” sauce balances out the vinegary nature of the standard sauce.

Eastern Kansas is next on my agenda, and the landscapes from one state to the other blur seamlessly. After a drive through gently rolling green hills and farmlands, I arrive in Leavenworth, home of the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum.

Parker was born in Illinois in 1864 and moved with his family to Kansas at a young age. Friends recognized him as a diligent worker with an enterprising mind and helped him invest in a shooting gallery. He pursued other amusement devices but soon realized the ambition of owning a merry-go-round. He built his first carousel in 1892, and opened his own company in Abilene, Kansas, two years later. Location was key because he was the only carousel manufacturer not on the East Coast and could take advantage of a rapidly-expanding Midwest. In 1911, the factory moved to Leavenworth. The company survived the shortage of materials for carousel manufacturers brought on by World War I, and the Great Depression as well. It operated until 1955.

The crowning feature of the museum is Parker’s 118th carousel, built in 1913. Restored and fully operational, it contains 31 hand-carved, wooden figures, most of them horses. It is glitzy, bright, full of life, detail, and color. A photo nearby shows a child riding horse #19, Scout, in 1964. Five decades later I channel that same ride.

Amongst the highest expectations of the trip is the Kansas City Royals game. I’d long wanted to go to Kauffman Stadium with the pretty waterfall, and they are set to play the Toronto Blue Jays, my favorite team. As such I get premium seats, five rows and just to the right of home plate.

On the concourse, there are lots of cool activities for the kids (and kids-at-heart) like face painting, hair styling, a playground, and a miniature golf course. The stadium has a terrific Royals Hall of Fame, covering the players and teams who endeared themselves to the fan base right from the expansion year (1969), through the winning teams of the 1980s (including the ’85 championship team), and in the years since (including the 2014 American League champion team).

It’s a hot day – 90 degrees at first pitch – and the Royals start off sizzling, scoring six times in the bottom of the first. The Blue Jays are shut out through the first five by Edinson Volquez. I take several breaks throughout, and whenever I am up on the concourse there are fans sitting on the concrete, backs against posts, sweating and fanning themselves or simply staring straight ahead. A woman at the bottom of the stairwell almost collapses, and I see a man being carried away on a stretcher. I down three cups of Pepsi and one of lemonade.

The Blue Jays cross home plate eight times in the sixth. The Royals’ Paulo Orlando breaks a 10-10 tie in the eighth with a solo home run, and Greg Holland picks up his nineteenth save to seal the win. The Royals will go on to win the World Series, first defeating Toronto in the American League Championship Series.

Go to Part 2

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