Daydream Believer

I try to stop myself from typing in “Amtrak sleeper” in the Google Images search box. But it’s no use. I’m off on another daydream about what it will be like when I first step out of that cab a few months from now, at around 11 p.m., armed with nothing more than a backpack and a messenger bag, each full of things I’ve deemed essential for survival for the next fifteen days.

What will it be like to sit in the Amtrak station here in Pittsburgh in that last hour before I am no longer a train-virgin? How many other people will be there waiting with me? Will some of them be so used to this routine that they’ll be nodding off out of boredom? How will I not stick out like the newbie I am?

And what will it finally be like when I climb onto that first train, headed for Chicago overnight? I’ve chosen a simple coach seat for the first nine hours, despite those nine hours coming between midnight and 9 a.m. I wanted to save my money for roomette and bedroom upgrades later in the trip. Besides, I know I’ll be too keyed up that first night and won’t sleep anyway. Might as well sit in my roomy, comfortable coach seat (I finally found a benefit of being 5’1”), with this little laptop open, typing my eager thoughts about the train—the sights, the sounds, the smells (good grief, don’t let there be too many smells in coach, though!).

But today, more than three months before my trip, I open a browser and type in the word “Amtrak” and thousands of images start popping up. Many I’ve seen before, since I do this dumb sort of daydreaming at least once a week. Now that I’ve purchased the tickets and the trip is set, I suspect I’ll daydream my way through many lulls in my schedule in the ensuing weeks.

And I admit, sometimes I fall asleep at night trying to imagine what it will be like once I am cocooned in a tiny roomette, where I will wake up hundreds of miles from where I fell asleep.

Oh sure, I’ve done that on a plane. I’ve done that on a cruise ship. But soon, I will do this on my very first train trip—a dream of mine since childhood. What adventures await me? What misadventures? I’m ready for all of them.

Bring it on, Amtrak. I’m ready to see America.


Want to help a gal make her way across the country to write a book about it? You can get a copy of the book for only a coupla  bucks by backing me on my journey! Go here:


Fly the Friendly Skies? Talking to Myself Again

Overheard in the grocery store… Wait, no, overheard in my mind (sorry, I get the two confused). A conversation with myself…
“Linda, why on earth would you take a train trip across the country for two weeks, when you could fly across and back in a single day?”
“Well, Alt-Linda, I hate flying.”
“So do birds, Linda, but you don’t see them complaining.”
“Birds don’t hate flying.”
“Well, you get my point, though.”
“No, not really.”
“You actually hate flying?”
“No, I’m just faking all those heart palpitations and that vomiting whenever a plane trip gets closer. Like, a year in advance.”
“But why take a train? For two weeks? To essentially do nothing but take the train?”
“Think of the adventure, Alt-Linda! The romantic lure of the rails! The glorious susurrus of the train as it glides across landscapes far and wide!”
“Susurrus? You just made that up.”
“No, it’s a real word. Honest. Look it up.”
“I’d have to know how to spell it to look it up.”
“Well, it’s right here on the screen.”
“Not yet it’s not. You’re still transcribing this conversation. And it’s not even a real conversation. It’s just you talking to yourself. Again.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass. It’s going to be an adventure, Alt-Linda. I can’t wait!”
“You’re lucky this conversation is all in your head. I bet you can’t pronounce susurrus.”
“Shut up. Nobody’s talking to you.”
“Except you.”
I’m you. Well, you know what I mean.”
“Rarely, but let’s move on, Linda. So, let me get this straight. You’re going to pay these Amtrak people a lot of money—”
“I already did. They charged my credit card, like, a nanosecond after I pushed ‘Submit.’”
“Okay, so, you paid these Amtrak people a lot of money to sit in a big metal box on wheels that’s going to go careening across the country at nowhere-near-breakneck speed… for two weeks.”
“Well, yes, but…”
“And at periodic intervals you’re going to go to a different metal box on wheels—attached to the first box on wheels and a bunch of other boxes on wheels—to get expensive food.”
“It’s included in the price, though.”
“Which was expensive.”
“You’re completely missing the point.”
“And at other periodic intervals you’re going to lie down and sleep in your original metal box—in a teeny, smaller box inside the bigger metal box, a box so small that they’ll give you a crowbar to get in and out of bed.”
“It’s included in the price, though.”
“Which was expen—”
“Okay, okay. What’s your point?”
“We haven’t even made it to Chicago yet in this scenario. Do I really need a point?”
“But it’s going to be—”
“If you use the word ‘adventure’ one more time I’m going to smack you.”
“That’d be quite a trick.”
“Back to your flawed thinking: If you get bored in the teeny tiny metal box or aren’t hungry enough to go to the metal food box—”
“They have tablecloths in the dining car.”
“Oh, well, THAT changes everything.”
“I sense sarcasm.”
“I still don’t see your point.”
“My point, Linda, is that your definition of ‘adventure’ is rather low, don’t you think?”
“Potato, potahto.”
“You’re always bringing up food.”
“Only when I think about flying.”
“That’s a gross, disgusting play on words.”
“You’re the one who brought up bringing up food.”
“Back to my original point! Where’s your sense of adventure if all you’re doing is sitting in big metal boxes, eating food, sleeping, writing, and showering in tiny cubicles with flexible hoses recently used by complete strangers?”
“I’m bringing my Kindle along.”
“That’s it. I’m outta here. Taxi!”
“Don’t call for a taxi. Take the train.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“No, you’re out of my mind.”
“Oh, shut up!”

Already I’m Confused

I bought a money belt for the big train trip in May. I’m not sure if I already feel safer, or if I’m going to end up in a seedy hostel in California, bleeding in a bathtub with my pancreas harvested for money. (Joke’s on them, though. I’m diabetic. You couldn’t give my pancreas away on Craigslist, even if you tacked on a free Hatchimal.)

The money belt itself is fine, but it came with a little flyer labeled “Useful Travel Safety Tips.” I’m eager to read anything that even tangentially relates to this trip, so I sat down to read through their list of 50 helpful (and not-so-helpful) tips. I’ll elaborate more on these in an early chapter of the book, but here’s a glimpse for the voyeuristic among you:

“If possible, take a self-defense class.”

Great. This hadn’t even occurred to me. Do fistfights routinely break out on Amtrak trains? There’ll be a fight over the good seats in the observation car somewhere around Colorado, won’t there?

“Bring a portable door or window alarm.”

The first time I read that, I saw “Bring a portable door” and panicked that the trains might not have doors. Still, even with the rest of the sentence factored in, I find this suggestion a little disturbing.

“Be on the lookout for anybody who is offering to help you with your bags at a train or bus station.”

Because it would be horrible if a Red Cap actually HELPED me lug that suitcase up to my Roomette! The horrors!

These next four really are back to back on the flyer:

“Trust your instincts and use your intuition and gut feeling when dealing with strangers.”

“Make a local friend.”

“Try to dress like a local.”

“In some places, it helps wearing a fake wedding ring.”

I don’t even know where to start with these four. All I know is that, by the time I finished reading #7, I had so many questions that I was weeping uncontrollably.

  • What if my gut instincts tell me NOT to make a local friend?
  • To dress like a local in Los Angeles, do I have to wear an Ed Hardy shirt and Birkenstocks and grow a hipster beard?
  • Why can’t I just wear my real wedding ring? After all, it looks fake in the right lighting…

“If you get lost, do not look at your phone or a map in the middle of the street.”

… because you’ll get hit by a car. Duh.


There are 42 more of these gems in this flyer. After reading all these, I may not be able to work up the courage to get to the station, let alone get on the train.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

This entry originally appeared last week on the St. Davids Christian Writers’ Conference blog here:

St. Davids Writers blog – My Post

But it will remain relevant for at least the next 43 days or so…


So, I’m sitting in our old, drafty Victorian house, reminding myself that, during the spring and fall, it’s a lovely place to be – not too hot, not too cold, gentle breezes blowing…

But this is January, one of the coldest ones on record here in Western Pennsylvania, and half of the fifty-three windows in our house are missing the outside storm window. The twelve-foot ceilings look stunning on warmer days, but today they’re just taunting me. I know all the heat we’re paying for is hovering somewhere up around that twelve-foot-high mark instead of down here near my five-foot-high head.

I have proofreading to do. I have student papers to grade. I’m behind on my reading. And, I really should be writing.

But all of those activities involve sitting still in the house at these ridiculous “polar vortex” temperatures. That means three or four layers of fleece clothing, two pairs of socks, warm slippers, fingerless gloves (though I may switch to gloves with fingers or mittens if it gets much colder in here), and a space heater under my desk.  And don’t forget the lap blanket.

When I start to see my breath around the computer monitor, I get up and jog downstairs for another hot cup of coffee.  I sail right past the thermostat. I don’t want to see how warm it isn’t in our house. But, if things don’t improve, I may have to use the hot coffee to thaw out my toes. Can you get frostbite inside your own house?

Several Facebook friends keep posting how many days it is until spring … every day. Instead of being an encouragement to my soul, I find it a mocking, deliberate attempt to make me regret buying this house.

And then this morning, I wake to find my husband downstairs with every light in the house on. He’s traipsing up and down the cellar steps with a flashlight, and he’s got out the manual for the thermostat he hurriedly put in last year when the other one went kaput. With temperatures outside hovering around -5 degrees Fahrenheit, I don’t want to hear him say he has to replace the thermostat again. I brace myself for that hot-coffee bath I may have to take today. I put the phone number for the local burn unit near the phone.

He tells me that he missed a setting for two-stage heating when installing the thermostat last year. This house has two (count ‘em, two!) furnaces, and we had assumed that they just weren’t efficient enough to keep up with this cold snap. But no, what has really been happening is that one poor furnace has been on for days at a time with no let-up, because the thermostat was never telling it to use the second furnace when it needed to.

And let me tell you, it needed to.

So now, with the weather forecast now set to hit 41 degrees in the next few days, and with a touch of the thermostat’s touchscreen, we are finally warming up in here. I may be able to sit at my desk and write today without having to worry about my fingertips freezing to the pen like that kid’s tongue to that pole in A Christmas Story. That novel may inch closer to “The End” today after all.

Kinda makes you feel all warm and toasty inside, doesn’t it?

Figuratively speaking, I mean…

Hell on Wheels

Over the weekend, I found an old picture of a roller skating party I’d had back in 1973, at our local favorite skating rink at Bushkill Park in Easton, Pa. (I didn’t find the actual photo … I found it on my mother’s Facebook page. Times have changed.) After a discussion of the picture when I reposted it, I thought I’d put up the story I wrote about the skating rink for my first book, Head in the Sand … and other unpopular positions. I have sane individuals who can vouch for the truthfulness of the facts in this story:


It’s a story I’ve told my kids a hundred times. “Tell us about the skating rink when you were a kid, Mom!” They’re all grown now, but they still love hearing about that skating rink. What makes the story so much fun is that you just can’t make up stuff like this. I swear it’s all true, but I’m not sure the kids believe me in their politically correct, lawsuit-happy world.

In the 1970s, everyone in my elementary school had a skating party at the local skating rink—often around our tenth birthdays, which is about when I had mine. We all took the rink’s many quirks in stride, not knowing any better and not having the perspective of age or wisdom. Especially wisdom. So, none of us thought anything of asking the front desk clerk and owner, ancient and tiny Ma Long, for our size skates for each two-hour party rental, only to be handed a pair of skates that looked like something Cro-Magnon Man would have used had he invented the wheel a little sooner. The leather was always worn, the wheels were misshapen and some funky, faded color we couldn’t identify, and the laces were frayed and missing the aglets necessary to lace them up properly. I spent hours at birthday parties sitting in the anteroom of the skating rink, with skates already on my feet, trying to get those frayed laces through those dozens and dozens of holes in the leather. I can see us all now, lined up on the benches, licking our fingers and trying to use the spit to twist and twirl the lace ends to get them through those stubborn holes. Thinking about the germs we must have ingested doing this makes me ill now, in a retroactive sort of way.

Once our skates were on, we’d get up and sway and wobble our way to the railing, watching the other kids already skating around the wooden floor of the oblong rink. Getting into the flow of traffic was like merging onto the turnpike at rush hour in a Chevette with a burned-out clutch, but somehow we all managed to get onto the rink in one piece. I usually ended up doing a butt-kiss with the floor within the first trip around the rink, but at least I always had company. If I was lucky, I’d start a chain-reaction and ten of us would end up sprawled on the floor together, with everyone forgetting just who started it. It soon became clear that the inexperienced skaters had to find a way to cut across traffic and head into the empty center of the rink. But cutting across traffic was taking your life into your hands.

Two features of this particular rink stand out in my mind: the music and the bathrooms. The music playing over the antique speaker system consisted of only four songs: “Paper Roses” by Marie Osmond, “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” “Soldier Boy,” and one other song I have mercifully forgotten. This panoply of musical goodness was piped into our eager ears from four scratchy 45s playing on a tiny record player set up halfway around the far side of the rink in a small room that also contained a life-sized plastic reindeer and a chair. Why we never questioned this arrangement of objects still baffles me.

Ma Long left her post at the front desk and shuffled onto the rink, around the outside edge (to avoid getting whacked by overly enthusiastic ten-year-olds), and over to the record player to put the four 45s back up onto the spindle after the last one was done playing. And, at her rate of speed—wearing her wrinkled apron, three layers of cotton skirts, stockings, leggings, an old button-down sweater, and a pair of slippers that must have been family heirlooms by now—well, she barely made it back to the front desk before she had to turn around and shuffle back to the record player to pull the four songs back up onto the spindle again. I think the chair was over there for her to rest and catch her breath before starting back. I still have no idea what the plastic reindeer was for.

This wasn’t the oddest part of the skating rink. The crowning achievement of this rink’s design was its bathrooms. Someone in his infinite wisdom designed this rink with the bathrooms accessible only from the skating floor itself. So, if you were sitting in the anteroom still lacing up your skates halfway into the party and found you had to relieve yourself, you still had to skate your way onto the rink (no street shoes allowed on the rink floor!), into traffic, and whirr about 345 degrees around the rink counterclockwise before hitting the bathroom door. And, I do mean “hitting” the bathroom door because, in another brilliant architectural move, the bathroom doors swung outward onto the rink floor. Any child who had attended more than one party knew not to skate anywhere near those doors, for fear of getting slammed in the face. Which, by the way, happened frequently.

Those fortunate enough to make it to the door without getting a concussion had to grab the handle with both hands to keep from sailing right past the bathroom. This usually meant you’d end up hanging onto that door handle for dear life, with your legs having given out under you, your butt just inches from the floor. Once you got yourself upright again, it was no easy feat to get the door open while on wheels. And, what awaited you once you got the door open was a treat beyond imagination: The bathroom floor went downhill at a twenty-degree angle.

Picture, if you can, uncoordinated ten-year-olds letting go of that door handle and careening downhill on skates—improperly laced—toward the far wall at the bottom. Smack! The trick then was to grab the handles of each toilet stall and pull yourself back uphill to the first available stall.

You’ve never truly lived until you’ve used a toilet on roller skates at a twenty-degree sideways incline. You always ended up leaning into the downward wall of the stall while trying to be as delicate as possible going about your business. They should have made it an Olympic sport.

Once you found a way to get straightened back up and out of the stall, you somehow had to skate across the downward grade to the sinks. Putting four porcelain sinks in a downhill bathroom used by young girls on wheels was a stroke of marketing genius. How this place got insurance is beyond me. You had to grab one faucet to hang on and wash your hands with the other without accidentally turning your feet anywhere near the downward angle of the floor. I don’t know how many lives must have been lost when girls tried to clutch at the metal faucets or porcelain sinks on their way back down the incline of the bathroom floor.

And, of course, once you were done washing your hands, the worst part of the escapade awaited you: the long, desperate climb up the floor and back out of the bathroom. Clutching the faucets of the four sinks carried you only so far, and then you were left with about five or six feet of bare uphill floor and no more handles before you made it back to the door. Some brave souls clung to the wainscoting with their outstretched palms, but I was too afraid to attempt something so futile and risky. I always dropped to my hands and knees and crawled up to the door, grabbing the inside door handle and pulling myself up. And I have a funny feeling those floors didn’t get mopped all that often, so there went the whole concept of washing your hands.

The last part of the adventure was trying to open the door without killing someone. (Remember: The door opened outward onto the rink.) Most of us opened the door slowly . . . carefully . . . sliding out sideways without opening the door very far and hoping we didn’t get bombarded by oncoming skaters. Did I mention we were on wheels?

After an hour of this fun and frivolity, it was time to have the mid-party birthday cake and soda! All thirty of us headed for the anteroom and sat on the rickety bench chairs lining the wall, waiting for Ma Long’s assistant to shuffle past us in her own deteriorating slippers, asking us each what kind of soda we wanted. This assistant was rumored to be a woman, although she had the gravelly voice of a chain-smoker and wore a skirt and pants at the same time, along with a moth-eaten sweater or two. Or three. I don’t know why she bothered to ask what flavor we wanted because we all eagerly yelled, “Chocolate!” There’s nothing less nutritious and tasty than an old, cheap, generic chocolate soda that hasn’t been properly refrigerated, but we didn’t care. We never got this stuff at home.


Once we were stuffed with birthday cake and chocolate soda that had separated like oil and water, we headed back out to the rink for the second hour of the party. We avoided the show-off who could skate backwards and brought her own skates (with actual laces and those rubber stoppers in the front). We avoided skating anywhere near the bathroom doors. We went by the record player and the plastic reindeer and waved, secretly hoping the thing would wink or move. We veered away from Ma Long as she shuffled past us to change the records. And, if she was feeling as frisky as an eighty-year-old again, she might turn on the disco ball that hung at center rink and shout into the scratchy microphone, “Turn around and skate the other way!” The combination of the flashing disco ball and the sudden change in orientation made us confused and a little nauseous. There’s nothing safer than thirty queasy schoolkids on roller skates in a dark room with blinking lights.


Ma Long passed away many years ago, and I don’t know if the rink is still standing. Perhaps safety violations have caught up with it over the years as humorless parents decided you shouldn’t have to climb out of a bathroom on wheels or risk getting hit with a flying door. But I’m betting there’s still a case of that chocolate soda in the back room somewhere. Dust it off and pass me one, would you, for old time’s sake?


“Hell on Wheels” is from Head in the Sand … and other unpopular positions, published in 2010.