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By Amtrak to 'Camp Meeting'

[By Allen Brougham] . . .

From the September 2004 issue of the Bull Sheet

Deerfoot Lodge is a Christian camp for boys located on Whitaker Lake several miles north of Speculator in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was my pleasure for three days in late August 2004 to reacquaint myself with the camp I had attended as a kid. While I have continued to support its ministry, I had not been to the place in 48 years. What a thrill!

The occasion was a celebration of the camp's 75th anniversary, a reunion for past participants, and a transition in leadership from its retiring camp director to his successor. I had learned of plans for the celebration more than a year ago, and I jumped upon the chance to get signed up.

All along I had planned to drive to the place, only casually thinking of the train as an alternative. But a few days before the date of the event, I said: "Why not?"

The train, of course, had been the ideal mode of travel when the camping program was established back in 1930. Even in 1956 - when I went there - a number of participants (but not I) took the train to Amsterdam, there to be met by an associate who would drive them the 50 or so miles to the camp.

So now, in 2004, I decided to live the historical experience of getting there by train - albeit with a rental car from the train station. But rather than making my transition at Amsterdam, I opted to book my travel to Albany. There, I reasoned, more flexible and dependable schedules were available, and getting a rental car might be less of a challenge.

A potential snag developed in that the Republican convention was scheduled to open in New York on the same day as my return trip. Amtrak passengers were duly advised that security concerns could delay service through Penn Station. Moreover, most trains that normally accepted passengers without reservations would now require them.

I had an Amtrak timetable showing schedules and connections, and I opted for the going trip leaving from Baltimore on train 172 at 7:47 in the morning, connecting in New York with a 28-minute connection to train 281 leaving at 10:45, arriving Albany at 1:15 in the afternoon.

I also logged onto Amtrak's website to see how that method might reflect an updated schedule. But the website showed neither train. In fact, the available trains shown on the website were somewhat less than suitable. At this point I began to reconsider the wisdom of taking the train at all, but I called Amtrak's 800 number (which I would have had to do anyway, being that I would use my retired employee discount privilege card). Eureka! I had no trouble at all booking via 172 and 281. The website's routing program was evidently in error. So much for that part of technology!

The reservation clerk even transferred me over to Hertz so I could arrange for a rental car in Albany. Hertz told me all I had to do when I arrived in Albany was to call a local number and a car would be brought to the station for me. Great!

Train 172 left on time from Baltimore and remained that way into New York. Curiously, it was nearly empty. Train 281 from New York to Albany, by contrast, was nearly full, and I had to settle for an aisle seat. At least it was on the river side, which I had been looking forward to since I had never before ridden the route through to Albany in daylight.

We were 25 minutes late into Albany, and it was here that I learned that arrangements are not always so seamless as they are supposed to be. For starters, none of the payphones were working properly. I got a dial tone, but upon dialing the number I had been given to reach Hertz, nothing happened... Finally, a friendly Amtrak conductor let me use her cell phone. I got through to Hertz, but I was told they do NOT bring rental cars to the train station - I would have to take a taxi to their office across the river in the downtown area. So I went out to the front of the station. No taxi. So I waited, and waited. Apparently, in the time I had spent wrestling with the stupid payphones, the taxis that had queued for the train I had arrived on had since vanished. I fretted that I could be stranded a lot longer - and the Hertz place would close at 5 o'clock - but after about 20 minutes a taxi did show up.

I got back to the station three days later in plenty of time to catch the returning train. I booked my journey on train 260 due to leave at 2 o'clock in the afternoon with a 45-minute connection in New York to train 189 back to Baltimore. With my ticket in hand I waited. But then I got paged. Train 260, I was told, had been annulled. Ouch! The agent said he would have to re-ticket me on train 286 due to leave at 3:15, with a later connection in New York. This might not have been so bad, except that 286 was marked up as running 30 minutes late. More delay! So I asked the agent: "What about train 48?"

Train 48, the Lake Shore Limited, was itself running late - but it would be leaving Albany at about the same time as the train that had been annulled. Could I ride on No. 48? Its New York section does not accept local travel south of Albany (I knew that), but under the circumstances, it would surely make sense to let me ride it - space permitting, of course.

Oh, no, NO, I could never ride THAT train, the agent said. The Albany stop was strictly for discharge. The gate keepers, guards on duty, and crew members would never let me board. (Railroad logic at its finest!)

By 2 o'clock - the time I had originally planned to leave Albany - I could see the Lake Shore Limited from the station window. There it was: its now-detached Boston section (#448) on one track, the New York section (#48) on another.

Meanwhile, train 286, the one I was now ticketed to ride, would not be in for another two hours. So I simply waited... Wouldn't it be great if the tooth fairy were to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that it would be all right to get aboard No. 48, en route to New York? But that would never happen, would it?

Ten minutes later, I was aboard No. 48, en route to New York.

I got an aisle seat on the river side of the train. Smoothly and swiftly we moved down the Hudson Valley - with its majestic view of the river, its boats, barges, picturesque lighthouses and stately homes - as seen from the route's premier train.

At Yonkers we had an extended stay for a security sweep. An officer with an explosives-sniffing dog came through. No exceptions were taken. In all, we were delayed by just over 20 minutes for this and some congestion due to track and station work on the Metro-North portion of the line.

When we got to New York, it was just a couple of minutes past the time of No. 189, the connecting train I had originally planned on taking to Baltimore. But maybe it would be late!

As I was ascending the steps into Penn Station, I could hear an announcement for a train going toward Baltimore. It was not No. 189, but an even earlier train that was running even later.

The conductor, when I explained that my ticketing had been the result of a service disruption, allowed me to get aboard.

Indeed, just nine minutes after I had arrived in New York, I was leaving toward Baltimore. Now THAT is a GREAT way to make a connection...

In fact, I got back to Baltimore only 20 minutes later than I had originally planned.