This travel insider offers a peek behind the scenes of the Amtrak Auto Train
Somewhere north of Orlando, Florida, and south of Georgia, Sylvia Longmire rotates her right forearm to reveal 15 rows of three-letter abbreviations inked onto her skin. I'd first glimpsed the tattoo while we were waiting to board the Amtrak Auto Train in Sanford, Florida. Several hours later, with nowhere to go and not much to see, I ask her for a closer look.
The tattoo, she explains, is a log of her travels written in International Standard country code, such as CUB for Cuba and PRY for Paraguay. She then redirects my gaze to the arm of her wheelchair, which is covered in tiny flags. The stickers represent the nations she has visited since trading in a cane for the chair 5 1/2 years — and 49 countries — ago. "I get twitchy if I'm home too long," says the 45-year-old Florida native, a former Air Force officer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005.
The train trip to Lorton, Virginia, will not end up on an appendage — only foreign travel qualifies — but Longmire will still collect boasting rights for the 17-hour, five-state journey. In the fall of 2018, she entered Amtrak's Take Me There contest, a social media campaign the corporation created to help demystify overnight train travel through the stories of diverse travelers. "Many people have never taken a long-distance train before and may find it daunting or difficult," said Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman. The company wanted to avoid a glitzy promotional approach. "We wanted real stories."
Longmire's was one of six winning entries to beat out 8,000 other submissions, including several from influencers with more than a million followers. (By comparison, her blog attracts 25,000 people a month.) In return for free travel on the Amtrak route of their choice, the victors — who include a Florida woman with autism and a Seattle couple devoted to sustainable practices — had to 21st-century-journal their experiences: Their photos, videos and written entries appear on their personal social media accounts and #AmtrakTakeMeThere on social media platforms. The day before her departure, Longmire posted a teaser wearing an Amtrak baseball cap and an irrepressible smile.
Longmire picked the Auto Train for pragmatic reasons: She lives near the Sanford station and had some business in Virginia. Plus, she could bring her kitted-out van on the train. After medically retiring from the military with the rank of captain, the mother of two became an advocate for travelers with limited mobility, creating the website and travel agency Spin the Globe. For her dual role as Amtrak ambassador and accessible travel insider, she's carrying a mobile photo studio stocked with a tripod, a Bluetooth remote shutter, Photoshop tools and iPhone lenses, such as a fish-eye attachment she'll use later in her roomette.
In the waiting room, Longmire realizes she has forgotten a critical piece of equipment. She asks Amtrak district manager Keith Olofson if she can borrow a tape measure. "Measurements are everything," she says. "It may be easy-peasy for me to sleep, eat and use the toilet, but someone in a huge rehab chair may not be able to squeeze through the aisle."
Before the 4 p.m. toot-toot, Olofson leads Longmire on a tour. He starts in the loading area, where employees park passengers' vehicles on auto-rack rail cars that resemble duplex garages. Olofson takes a detour to his office, where he presents his guest with a gift. Thomas the Tank Engine, in balloon form, joins our posse. On the platform, we walk and roll alongside the train, whose gleaming silver skin reflects our images. "I read that this is the longest train in the country," Longmire says. Olofson nods in confirmation, adding, "It's the longest passenger train in the world." We stop outside Longmire's cabin, and she excuses herself for a self-portrait.
Olofson introduces us to our cabin attendant, Chris Desper, who tells us to call him Big Chris. The 6-foot-7 employee with the bow tie and linebacker physique folds himself in two and mugs for the camera with Longmire. The pair hit it off immediately. "I am here to spoil and love you and move this thing for you," he informs her. We don't doubt that with adrenaline coursing through his veins, he could lift the train like Superman.
Desper escorts us onto the train and down to Longmire's cabin. She surveys the land: toilet and sink, table and chairs, bed-in-hiding. "It's smaller than I expected, but there's enough space to turn around," she notes. She peers into the mirror. "I can see myself. That's rare." (Typically, vanities are positioned too high.)
Desper goes over the schedule. We will make only one stop: About 12:30 or 1 a.m., the train will switch out engineers in Florence, South Carolina, and the smokers will hop out for a quick puff. He hands us dinner menus. Since the dining car is upstairs (as is the lounge and coach class), Longmire will have to eat in her room. She orders the salmon and wild rice, with chocolate lava cake for dessert. We tell Desper when to make up our beds that evening and when to deliver breakfast the following morning — both on the early side. Then we wait for the train to lurch north. "Oh, we're moving," Longmire says.
We gaze out at the passing scene, a natural inclination when presented with a window and motion. "I've driven this route a million times," she says. "Until you get to North Carolina, it's pine trees, pine trees, pine trees." Despite the monotonous landscape, she snaps a selfie against a backdrop of blurry green. We pass a white egret standing in a body of water fringed by grassland. We both miss the photo op. We resume our conversation as the sky darkens and Florida flickers past.
We wake up in Virginia, though "wake up" is a charitable description after a sleepless night. Our heads slowly swivel as we cross the James River. The train cuts through Ashland, causing the town to come to a momentary standstill. We start preparing for arrival. I slide Longmire's backpack over the wheelchair handles and grab my bags from my cabin. We disembark and wait in the station for her loading number to come up. Of 97 vehicles, her van is called third to last.
"I know I didn't sleep, but I had fun," she says. "It's not ideal for everyone, but at least it's a possibility as an alternative to air travel." The attendant drives up in her van, and she piles in and peels off, free until the lure of train travel calls her back.