August 10, 2012

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by Ted

Given the adventures with Nora this last year, I've greatly minimized my travel. I had two big trips this summer: San Diego two weeks ago for the IEEE Power and Energy Society General Meeting, and now to Minneapolis to attend my advisor's yearly summer workshop on energy systems education.

For this second trip, Anders and I took the train back through North Dakota and Minneapolis. This is something I'd always wanted to do since we've been in Oregon, but the prospect of taking a toddler on the train was not appealing. But with Nora in Christy's care, Anders and I struck out.

We started in Albany, OR on a Thursday morning, went up to Portland, then Seattle, then all the way east to Devils Lake ND arriving early in the morning on Saturday. In total it took us about 40 hours to get to Devils Lake. Anders stayed with his grandparents and cousins for a few days, while, after a brief visit, I continued on the train to Minneapolis.

I have very mixed feelings about Amtrak. On one hand I do really appreciate the extra space and the more relaxed atmosphere compared to air travel. But it also seems like such a ramshackle operation. The trains always seem to be at least several hours late. They also seem understaffed. The ridership is a interesting: a mix of elderly couples, large groups of what may be Amish or Hutterite, backpackers, and a smattering of sketchy characters. Even at a large, busy station like Minneapolis, the place is a mess: the bathrooms are falling apart, there's barely any staff, ancient sun-faded posters hang lonely and crooked, announcements are inaudible and confusing. On a wall hung a dented and deformed cheap poster frame (dorm room quality) with a cardboard backing and a route map taped awkwardly to the cardboard with hastily applied packing tape. Many things in the stations and on the train are duct-taped. Of course not all the stations are in rough shape. Some are quite nice. But it is clear on the whole that Amtrak could really use more funding and/or new leadership.

It's frustrating because I think it really could play a valuable role in cross-country transportation. Air travel has become even more tedious and unfriendly. Trains provide more comfort, especially for the elderly and families. Why not add a play-pen car for kids? An IKEA smoland on wheels? If the trains were timely, well-run, and well-supported with good en-route resources for families, the elderly, and backpackers, wouldn't it be successful? I don't see why it wouldn't. Some people say the US is just too big and sparse (e.g., compared to European countries), but I wonder if it wouldn't work as air travel becomes more congested and hectic over the next decades.

Anyway, we had a great time in North Dakota. Anders got some good play time in with his cousins on both sides of the family. Margie and Cliff threw a family party to recognize all the birthdays, anniversaries, and accomplishments, which was fun and very thoughtful.

I had a good time in Minneapolis. I was able to catch up with many of my friends and colleagues. My one overnight there I stayed with Barb, which was delightful. Thank you Barb! After the conference, I hung out for the afternoon on campus: first studying and watching a Neil de Grass Tyson lecture for a few hours in the engineering library, then sitting outside in the shade on a beautiful summer day writing in my notebook. I then took the bus over to the West Bank for dinner at True Thai with my good buddy Mike. Then over to his house to watch a few episodes of Metalocolypse, then to the train station. A perfect afternoon.

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