Mo & Terry Smedley
Appalachian Autumn (2008) Tour
Last Part: Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig
We left Alexandria Friday morning on an Amtrak Northeast Regional train for the brief (20 minute) ride into Washington.
From Washington Union Station, we set out to explore the National Mall area while we waited for our late afternoon departure for Chicago. When you travel in a sleeping car on Amtrak, you have access to lounges in Washington, Chicago, and Portland where you can store your luggage while you explore the city.
We walked past the Washington Monument to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which we had not previously visited. We spent about two and a half hours in this museum, but could easily have spent several hours more. This is really a "must see" for visitors to Washington. The museum occupies four floors, and takes you on a journey through the history of European Jews from the early 1900s through the WWII period. The exhibits pull no punches - there are graphic images and personal accounts from the ghettoes, concentration camps, and killing centers.
Three exhibits in the museum stood out for me: Film interviews with Holocaust survivors relating personal experiences, an exhibit simply called "The Shoes", that contained thousands of shoes taken from new concentration camp arrivals spread deep across the floor, and a scale architectural model of a death camp, showing thousands of arrivals descending to the "showers" and being herded into the gassing chambers. That last exhibit made me physically ill - to see the killings reduced to a scale model of an efficient industrial exercise is horrendous beyond comprehension.
The museum visit was emotionally draining to say the least. We were both pretty quiet for quite a while after leaving the museum. Photographs are permitted only in the Hall of Remembrance, but I didn't take any - somehow it seemed quite intrusive to take a picture of an area set aside to remember victims and survivors of this inhuman activity.
From there, we crossed the Mall for a very brief visit to the new World War II Veteran's Memorial. We were on a really tight time budget, so we could only begin to explore it. The Memorial is ingenious in design, and blends quite well with the area between the Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, and Lincoln Memorial.
About 4PM, we boarded the Capitol Limited train for our overnight trip to Chicago. We were traveling with two other people from our tour (Mary Grant and Paul Cors), and in Washington Union Station we ran into Sid Saltzstein with whom we had traveled on a previous Rail Travel Center tour. The Capitol Limited trip was uneventful, except for our sleeping car attendant who demanded time management like a Drill Sergeant - beds were down at 8PM whether you were ready to retire or not, and all car occupants were up at 6AM (which was 5AM Chicago time!!) so he could make the beds at his leisure before arrival. The mandatory uniform rising time made for long lines in the shared bathrooms downstairs. I've never had that kind of sleeping car attendant experience before - I was quite unimpressed.
After an on-time arrival in Chicago on a very cool, damp Saturday morning, we set out for a little on-foot exercise before boarding. We walked to the Lake (Michigan) shore, through the Museum Campus, and back through the new Millennium Park that lies between Grant Park and Navy Pier. I think you'll enjoy the pictures from Millennium Park - there was some very nifty outdoor art. On our way back to the station, we stopped at our favorite Elephant & Castle restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed some HOT French onion soup to warm us up from the cold, damp weather.
We boarded the Empire Builder about 2PM, and departed right on time for our long Westward journey. What a difference a car attendant can make - on the Empire Builder, our attendant (Paul) greeted us with our choice of Champagne or sparkling cider (we opted for cider), were offered cookies as an evening snack, and Paul checked in periodically to see if there was anything he could do for us. All of which makes this a very "civilized" way to travel.
I've felt for some time that Amtrak lacks service standards, or perhaps just lacks enforcement of them - service varies all over the map depending upon the individual attendant or conductor, and there appears to be no onboard monitoring or supervision.