Traveling By Amtrak

017Friday, July 21, 2017 is the happily anticipated day for the beginning of our trip to Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish is the chosen destination for my annual anesthesia conference this year. The plan is to combine my husband’s love of trains with our need to travel there by boarding the only long-distance passenger train service left in the US, Amtrak. Since Amtrak goes right through Whitefish, this will work splendidly for us.020

Hubby and I arrive at our daughter’s house in Chatfield by 5:45pm. She will deliver us to the depot so that our car does not sit there unattended for nine days. We are on the road and headed towards Winona by 6pm. The heavy rain from the day has stopped and the sun is peaking out. The train is to arrive by 7:47pm. We hear the whistle in the distance and it comes chugging around the corner right on time. Hugs are shared and we turn to search for our assigned train car. Car number 730 is midway along the towering berths awaiting us. We board and trudge up the narrow staircase to the upper floor of a sleeper car. In the small space, two seats face each other. It is a very compact space with little extra room for storage. One suitcase fits nicely under the seat but our big suitcase begs to be stored downstairs in the main luggage area.024

We are told that our supper is at 8:30pm and will be announced when they are ready to seat us. An announcement is made around that time but the speaker does not seem to work in our room and we cannot understand what is being said.  By 8:40, we decide to check out the dining car which conveniently is located right next to our sleeping berth. We have almost missed supper as we are the last ones to be seated. I am not very hungry anyway as I was not expecting to get food this late on the train. Because of this, we ate before we left home. It is just as well as it takes forever to have our order taken and then another forever until the food comes. I look at my order of tortillas and say, “That is not what I ordered.”

“I’m sorry,” the waitress responds, “I will get you the right order.” By now it is 9:30pm and I am not much interested in food any more. I am more concerned about the effect of trying to sleep with a full stomach. Just to be polite, we wait until the food comes, take a few bites, and head back to our small home. While we wait for our car attendant to come and make up our beds, our attention is drawn towards the fireworks exploding above the skyline just outside our window at our St. Paul stop.

Making up our beds involves pulling down the upper bunk which is two feet wide and six feet long. Hubby gets the bottom bunk which is just a little longer and three feet wide. There is little room for anything once this is done except going to sleep. I climb the little steps to the top bunk and shimmy onto the bunk. There is no room for sitting up and I am cold. Thankfully, we have both been provided with two pillows and two blankets. This is not like my bed at home but is quite comfortable compared to the sleeping in the seat option. We have been told to sleep with our heads toward the back of the train in case of an emergency stop so our feet take the brunt and not our all-important heads. It is a little like trying to sleep in a hammock – gentle swaying and rocking. If I was a child, it would rock me to sleep but I am an old woman who needs everything quiet and still to sleep. At one point, I hear rain pounding against the side of the train as we travel through MN and I wonder if we are in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. We both get up to the bathroom around 2 am and then I lose some time in my brain so I must sleep some. This is the ideal way to travel. It is quite relaxing – no paying attention to driving-  eating in a restaurant, sleeping in a bed, and reading while all the while hurtling towards our destination.


Grain Elevator in Montana

The sun is shining when I open my eyes again. I peer at my watch and conclude that it is 7:30 am. As we both are getting our shoes on, the 6:30am announcement for breakfast comes over the intercom. Oh dear, I guess I looked at my watch wrong. Well, we are up so we might as well head for breakfast. I pull the call button before we head for the dining room to have the car attendant take down our bunks. My order of hot chocolate turns out to be orange juice but once that is straightened out, the French toast is quite tasty. This waitress needs a different system for keeping track of orders but overall the food is scrumptious.

We return to our room an hour later to find our bunks still not taken care of. “Would you mind doing ours next?” I ask the attendant.

“I turned off the call button because you said you were not ready to have me do it yet,” is her response.

That’s strange. I don’t remember even seeing the attendant this morning. “We never talked to you this morning,” we respond.

“I thought sure it was you. You must think I am terribly confused,” is her comeback.

Confused yes, but not a big deal. After all, this is an adventure.

Our next trek is back through the dining car and three more coaches to the observation car while our room is being prepared for the day. The North Dakota landscape speckled with herds of beef cattle flashes by. When we return, our room is ready for us to spend a relaxing morning reading and watching the landscape streak by, with occasionally interspersed walks through the train and outside at the 30-minute stop at Minot, ND.

Before we know it, lunch is being served. We are paired with a couple from Iowa who is taking 21 young people on a mission trip to an Indian reservation near Glacier National Park. One meets lots of people with interesting lives at meal time. And this time, lunch orders go off without a hitch.

The rest of the afternoon drags as miles and miles of flat Big Sky Montana wheat fields and barren lands fly by. I take a nap which kills a little time. Soon it is time for supper. We choose the 5:30 pm time slot due to fear of not getting done in time to get off the train at 8:47pm when we are due in. This meal, we are paired with another couple from our sleeper car who reside in Florida. They have many travel adventures to share.


Piled wheat at an elevator

Before long, we start to notice the mountains rising on the horizon to the west. Then there are stops at East Glacier, Essex, and West Glacier. The sun is casting long shadows over the mountains as we crawl along the mountain side. At times, one can look out and straight down into the valley and the river below. We finally approach Whitefish and grind to a halt. “We are waiting for a train that is in the way to pass through before we can pull into the station,” the train engineer informs us. We have collected our baggage and impatiently wait by the door as the opposing train clatters by going the opposite direction. And then we slowly roll into the station. My body moves in rhythmic swaying as I stand on the curb waiting for the hotel van to pick us up. 26 hours of swaying back and forth has left its mark and that sweet soft bed in the hotel room looks so inviting.

Our week in Montana exploring Glacier passes far too quickly and before I know it, it is time to think about heading home. I keep waking up during the night because I am afraid the alarm won’t go off. I finally roll out of bed at 5:50 am. The air is crisply cool as we walk to our rental car. The valet man tells us that the train is only five minutes late. The first order of business is to top off our rental car gas tank and drop off the car at the train station.

We settle in the waiting room but soon notice a long BSNF train is parked on the main track at the Whitefish station. He, obviously, needs to move before we can board a passenger train. Restlessness sets in as the minutes stretch endlessly into time and we move outdoors to the platform. Maybe, we think that standing outside will make the situation unfold faster. It is a beautiful, though cool morning to stand on the platform and wait. The posted arrival time comes and goes and still the freight train does not move. Eventually, a train employee walks back along the train and jumps up between each car to adjust something. Finally, forty minutes late, the freight train releases the brakes and slowly pulls away. I hear my cell phone chime. Who would be texting me? Ah, it is Amtrak letting us know the train is behind schedule and will be arriving at 8:03. I think I already figured out it is late and it had better hurry if it is going to be here in three minutes as it is already 8 am. Pretty soon, we see the headlight come around the curve. Maybe there is still hope.858

Figuring out which car is ours becomes the problem. We finally find a conductor who says,” Car 830 is the last one on the train.” We trudge through the mass of humanity going in the opposite direction. No one is at the door. Do we enter? Do we not? We finally get on. “Go immediately to the dining car if you would like breakfast.” We walk and we walk. Since we truly are in the last car of the train, it is quite a long journey to the dining car. Time to walk off some calories.

After breakfast, it is time to go back to our sleeper car. No one has scanned our ticket. We could be getting a free ride for all they know or so I think. They never do scan our ticket but when we mention this to the car attendant, he says, “You are in the system so I know you are here.” Ah, big brother is always watching.

We continue to be an hour behind throughout the day.  We spend the day enjoying the scenery. There are endless fields of wheat being harvested. I read until I finish my book, then catch up on my writing, and finally, I go searching for my computer cord in the suitcase downstairs so that I can read a kindle book from the computer. Of course, the computer locks up for a couple of hours as it thinks it needs to download and update systems which it cannot do without an internet access. In frustration, I finally am able to break its cycle by turning it off several times in a row.

We do not cross the border into North Dakota until supper time. This creates a quandary as the time zone also changes at the border. Do we go to supper on Mountain Time or Central time? We have a 6:45 pm supper reservation. Finally, we ask the car attendant. “Go to supper on Mountain Time,” he says. That means we are really eating at 7:45 pm central time. That is a little later than I would like but there is not much we can do about it. Both of us decide to have the steak topped off with a desert.

I know that this is a mistake as soon as we get back to our car. I am hoping for a few hours after supper before bedding down for the night but it is already going towards 9 pm and the attendant has a goal of all the beds being made up by ten. I have delusions that I can sit and read in the top bunk but there is no space for such an endeavor. Getting into the bunk almost causes me to have a panic attack as the car is reversed from the trip out. This means I need to try to slide my feet in from the head end and scoot down. That wouldn’t be so bad except that there is no head room.  I finally master this feat of gymnastics and decide now that I am in, I should just stay put. I wonder how the really old people manage on a top bunk. I am slightly nauseated from needing to lay down so soon after eating, but I do drift into a lullaby sleep, being rocked back and forth by the motion of the train. I had decided that I would not even try to get up during the night to go to the bathroom but by 3 am, that resolution needs to go out the window. I have realized that if I take down the strapping that keeps one from rolling out, I can actually get my legs out. The trick is to hit the steps without crashing first as there are no grab bars or any surfaces to grab onto for support. Considering the circumstances, the sleeper at night does offer better sleep than a coach seat would have.



Lake Pepin – along the Mississippi

Sunday morning greets us with bright sun at 6 am. We decide to roll out at 7. The thought of traipsing the length of the train to the dining car to make reservations, then traipsing back to wait for our call (which we can’t hear in our car anyway), then making a third trip to actually get our breakfast is overwhelming this morning. Instead, we opt to go downstairs in the dome car for some yogurt, donut holes, and orange juice. We have some nuts and a granola bar in our sleeper. That will have to do until we get off. The train pulls into St Paul right on time so it looks like we will make our 10:11 scheduled arrival time in Winona in spite of being an hour late all day yesterday. We are more than ready to step onto the little step that leads to the sidewalk to be greeted by our daughter. Ah, there is no place like home.




Interview at Christian Television Network

041Beep Beep Beep! My husband’s cell phone cuts through the silence of the still dark upstairs room at my cousin’s house. I stumble around trying to find a light switch. Soon, we are dressed and our clothes tucked into our suitcase. The hallway is dark and we feel along the wall looking for the elusive switch. No light peeks under the doorway downstairs and I wonder about my cousin’s promise to get up and make us breakfast at this early hour. The downstairs is still clothed in darkness and we gingerly tiptoe towards the front door.

Then the room is bathed in light. “Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry. My alarm didn’t go off. I was going to make you breakfast,” declares my befuddled, flustered cousin who is still not quite awake.

“It’s OK,” I assure her. “A little cold cereal and fruit will be fine.”

Soon we are seated, enjoying a very adequate breakfast of “grown on their tree” grapefruit, cold cereal, and bagels. By 6:30 a.m., we are on the road headed for Largo, Florida and the Christian Television Network (CTN) where I am to have an interview regarding my second book, No Longer A Child of Promise. I am both excited and nervous.253

The Google directions that I printed out before leaving home efficiently and correctly guide us up Interstate 75 to Interstate 275 to US 19. The directions finally tell us to “take the exit toward 150th Ave N.” That seems simple enough. Then they instruct us to “merge onto US Hwy 19 N” and “turn right onto 142nd Ave N.”

“Why do I want to get back onto Hwy 19? We just got off of there,” declares my hubby.

I have no idea what to say. This makes no sense to me either but that is what the directions say. The cars continue to fly by us at 60 miles per hour from all directions. How does one make a split second decision in less than a second? The traffic is not tolerant of these Midwestern country folk.

I can feel the tensions rising. My husband motions with both hands extended in the air. “Which way do I go?”

“I don’t know,” I shriek. “This makes no sense. Just get back on Hwy 19.”

As we think about this, there is no way we are going to find a 142nd Ave after the 150th. We decide to get off again at the next exit. We turn right. We turn left. Now we are in a Walmart parking lot with NO idea where we are or where we are going. Why do I feel like I have just been spun in a blender? Maybe, we should have paid for that GPS for the rental car? There is nothing to do but to stop and ask for help. A clerk in the Walmart store informs me that 142nd Ave is on both side of US 19 but it is cut in half by the freeway. “I think the address you are looking for is on this side,” She says.

010Armed with this information, we start out again in our VW Beetle aimed in the right direction. We soon find 142nd Ave and turn onto it. That is a first successful step in this goose chase. The numbers are going up so that is good but soon we are stopped in our tracks. There is US 19 ahead of us and no, we cannot cross it. Great!

“Which way now?” questions my hubby.

I don’t think I have been this frustrated and confused for a long time. Maybe, I am just too old and too countrified for this city driving. I take a deep breath and try to think about this logically.

“Let’s just go down this frontage road and see if we can cross over at that next road up there,” I conclude.

I can see cars coming under the freeway in the distance. Since the number we are looking for is in the 6900 block, we should be able to turn left under the bridge and follow that road to 69th St and then make a left back to 142nd Ave. I think the theory is logical but we are met with a “No outlet” sign once we make our turn. Can I tear my hair out now? I am glad we have extra time. This is totally exasperating. All that is left to do is go back and catch the frontage road on this side of the freeway and follow it to 142nd. Hurrah!! It works and we find our destination. 705By now my muscles are tensed and my stomach is in a knot. Take a few deep breaths, I tell myself. We are here in plenty of time. I can do this. To watch the interview on utube, click on link below.



The Short Prequel to My Published Books “If You Leave This Farm” & “No Longer a Child of Promise”

Mary Ellen's Life 001I was born in Pennsylvania in the 1950s to parents who belonged to the conservative Mennonite church. My mother was a nurse, an extremely unusual pursuit for a Mennonite woman in those days, and my father was a wanna-be farmer. I do not remember the house in which I was born as we soon moved to a small farm in York County. There my father began our family’s farming career. We attended a Mennonite church located about 20 miles from the farm.

My earliest memories are of gathering around the supper table in the evening and my father reading a passage of the Bible to us. However, I do not remember discussing it. Sometimes, we passed around a small box with scripture cards and we all chose one to read. Sunday morning was a time of frantic hurrying as we rushed to get to church on time. In spite of that, I remember always being late. I loved Sunday school and there I learned the stories in the Bible and about God’s unconditional love for us. During the summer, there was Vacation Bible School. In the early years, Mama always took us to VBS though not at the church we regularly attended. I am not sure why. Once a year, our church held “revival meetings.” These meetings consisted of nightly services that lasted for a week. Different speakers were brought in and the way of salvation was proclaimed. Even as a young child I was moved by these services and they highly influenced me. Even today, when I hear the song, Just As I Am, that goes like this, “just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidd’st me come to Thee, Oh Lamb of God, I come!” I am deeply moved and the stirrings of those days come back to me.

Me about 6 or 7 years old

Me about 6 or 7 years old

One day, when I was 9 years old, I came upon by oldest brother and my father kneeling by a hay bale in the manger of the dairy barn. My brother was crying as he said the sinner’s prayer with my father’s help. “I want to do that too,” I said. And so, that day, I officially accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I wish I could say that now that I had made my profession of faith, my life would be simple and carefree.

I continued to grow physically and in my faith. I wanted to follow Jesus and serve Him. I was baptized and joined the Mennonite church at the age of 10 years. My parents, though, in spite of their verbal adherence to the Mennonite faith, in many ways did not subscribe to the faith that we belonged to and I came to realize many years later, placed huge stumbling blocks in the path of our assimilation into Mennonite culture. I think this was the beginning of the sense of shame in who I am that I have carried most of my life. We only went to church on Sunday morning or for special meetings. Dedicated members were expected to attend Wednesday night prayer meetings and Sunday evening services as well. But we were busy farmers and my father did not have time for that. I remember well about this time also being refused my request to attend VBS in the summer. I loved VBS but we were now becoming old enough that we could help around the farm. My father’s priority of work over every other activity was beginning to express itself. I, of course, did not recognize that tendency for as a child, he was my father and I simply repressed those few things that I did not understand. I loved my father and loved being with him and working with him.Mary Ellen's Life 007

We were all eager to follow his lead when he made the decision to remove us from school to work on the farm. My brothers were removed from school at the age of 14 and me at the age of 15. Around this time is when my father started looking at buying land “out west” and moving all of us there to farm together. I had no objections. It sounded like a wonderful adventure to me. Here is where I want to say to parents, your job as a parent is to teach and prepare your child to follow the bent that God has given your child. It is not to determine their course in life that fits with what you want to happen. My father came from what is called a patriarchal family in which the children are simply extensions of the father. This sets the family up for huge tensions and heartache later when the young person wants to follow his or her own path in life.

Book Reading in Gibbon, MN

002 038 (2)On April 13, my husband and I drove to Gibbon, Mn for my Book Reading/Signing there. It was a beautiful sunny spring day. I got my directions off of Google Maps and soon gave up following them. They directed us through twists and turns I never did find. If they had just said, drive up Hwy 52 to Cannon Falls and go west on Hwy 19, I could have handled that. But no, they had to make it complicated with every little turn of the steering wheel printed on the paper. Why do they feel they need to do that? To confuse old people like me?

I discovered that I have never been through that area of Minnesota before. It was a little over a 2 1/2 hour drive with travel through flat, fertile farmland – a magnificent sight. We were both struck by the small populations of the towns we went through but in spite of that, there were huge agricultural and other businesses in each of these towns. The sign outside Gibbon stated that population was 750. Oh no, I am thinking. I am not going to have many at my reading. I was pleasantly surprised at the approximately 30 -35 people who showed up and were truly interested in my presentation. I had a truly enjoyable time meeting the wonderful people of Gibbon. Now just a few pictures from around Gibbon from my husband, the amateur photographer.

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Book Reading at Charter House


Today was my first time at doing a book reading. Just a few weeks ago, I had asked, “What is a book reading?” “Reading from a book,” said a friend. OK, I think that might be obvious but nobody wants to just sit and listen to someone drone on and on. So there must be more to it than that. After a search of the trusty internet and some reading about such appearances, I came up with a plan. I would introduce myself and give a little background on my book. Then I would read three short segments from the book followed by a little information about myself. I would finish off my appearance by reading three more segments and then answering questions. This turned out to be an outstanding plan.

I was expecting to sell books at my book reading so my first shock of the day was being told that it is against the policy of the principle owner of the senior living center I was to visit to solicit. OK, so how is this supposed to work if I can’t sell any books. I decided to take just a few books along and go with the flow. Since this was my first book reading, I could use the practice in a non-threatening setting anyway. The activities director was friendly and led me to the room where I was to make my appearance. I did set up my poster board display and laid out a few books. Soon, people began to wander in. By the time I started, 30 -40 people had assembled. Everything went better than I could have ever hoped. The people listened intently, identified with my story, and had many questions to ask at the end. I definitely had their attention. And there always seems to be one person in the crowd who has an uncanny connection to my past. This provided the “frosting on the cake” at the end. I had a really enjoyable time presenting my story and chatting with the senior citizens, a group I will, in the not too distant future, be a part of. And, I did end up selling three books too.

Your Questions Answered

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The most common question asked of me after people read my book is “When is the next book coming out? I want to know what happened to your brother, Joe.” At first I wonder if I should feel offended that they don’t care about what happened to me but if they are asking me this question personally, they basically already know what happened to me. Since answering the second half of the question would spoil the next book, I have decided that I maybe need to come up with a realistic, legitimate answer to the first half of the question. I have asked Joe to write something for me about his journey that I can include in my sequel with the goal of being able to finish writing it this coming winter and to have it in my reader’s hand by next July. There is my answer – look for the sequel by July 2015. Now I have to keep my word.

The most unusual question I have gotten is, “Why didn’t your older brother, Paul, stand up to your father and help you and Joe?” An interesting question and not one that I have ever entertained before. He did have the status of the favored son but neither Joe nor I saw Paul as having any more power to change things with our father – maybe because Paul himself never recognized the power he actually had. Paul never stood up to our father in any aspect of his relationship with him. He was simply passive- aggressive. If Dad said no, Paul just went behind his back and did what he wanted anyway. And he never had any need to get off the farm and do other things. Maybe he learned early that to challenge Dad was useless or maybe his desire to farm and to eventually have the farm overrode any normal underlying desire to be a person in his own right.

Maybe not a question but the biggest assumption that I have had to deal with that causes misunderstanding in promoting my book is that those who are helping me with promotion all make the mistake of wanting to say that  this is a book about growing up. It is not. It is a book about being a young adult and struggling to become what an adult should be under a father who cannot let go of his role as a parent  and in that role, feels it is his right to have his “children” do what he wants. My childhood was “normal” by most standards. The problems begin in adolescence.

My Weekend Experience Promoting My Book

September 13, 14 – Our 23rd wedding anniversary and the perfect weekend to set up my first attempt at displaying my book at a public event. We decide to celebrate our anniversary by staying at a Bed & Breakfast in Pepin, Wisconsin. At the same time, we will set up a booth at the good old-fashioned Laura Ingalls Wilder Days being held in Pepin that weekend. I will promote my book and my husband will display pictures for sale that he has taken. A beautiful weather weekend, though chilly on Saturday morning – just above freezing.lake city 2013 344

Our introduction to the Bed & Breakfast by the host on Friday evening includes an orientation. “I will bring coffee and sweet rolls at 8am,” she says. “If you want breakfast, there is a diner down the street.” I am confused. What part of Bed & Breakfast do I not understand? Am I expecting something unreasonable?  We arise at 6:30am on Saturday morning and set up our booth in the chilly morning air. The fog hangs over Lake Pepin making a beautiful scene. I return to the Bed & Breakfast at 8am, hoping that what is provided will be enough for a morning start. It is for me but my dear husband needs a visit to the BP station for a sausage sandwich.

Two days of sitting in our booth and watching people meander by yields the sale of 5 books and 1 picture. I give away a slew of promotional cards as well. We are not sure if our venture can be considered a success. One can never tell especially after our daughter’s phone call.
PersonalandCrosses2013 0275 pm on Sunday, my cell phone rings. Our daughter, who, along with her boyfriend has been house sitting the dog and 2 cats during the weekend, calls. “Mom, why did you lock the cat in your bedroom? She has been in there all weekend.” “You didn’t miss her until now?” I respond. This is “great.” I can imagine the mess. “I cleaned the poop off your bed,” continues my daughter, “but I don’t see any pee.” A flip back of the covers when we arrive home reveals rivers of reeking pee all the way down to the mattress. How many loads of wash does it take to wash 1 bed pad, 2 sheets, 2 blankets, and 1 quilt? And can this all be accomplished in the 2 hours before we want to sleep?