The wind howled through tree branches with an intense vigor, rattling the windows. Inside, homes were dark and powerless despite the glare of the sun outside. This was #Windmegeddon, an unlikely name dubbed by overly enthusiastic meteorologists for our latest Nor’easter, and it stalked the Eastern Coast of the United States, from North Carolina into New England.
The call had come the day before. “Can we spend the night at your house after our train arrives at the train station? We are concerned about the drive home to New Jersey tomorrow.” My relatives traveling up from Florida on Amtrak’s overnight Autotrain were on their way. They would arrive at the Virginia station, not far from our home the following day, at an estimated 8 AM.
“Of course you are welcome to stay with us,” I replied heartily. “Family is always welcome!”
“Is there weather coming?” I asked my hubby. He flipped on the TV and sure enough, the local weathercasters attempted to tone down their extreme giddiness/concern with the anticipation of high winds in our area the following day. From our home up through New England, they predicted serious wind and cold winter weather.
Instead of arriving at 8 AM Friday morning, the auto train did not arrive until 7:35 PM Friday night. If you’re doing the math, that’s nearly twelve hours later. In the meantime, schools, businesses, and many homes were plunged into powerless darkness. School was cancelled. Trees and power lines were down. I fretted as I watched the clock, exchanging infrequent emails with my relatives. The train’s progress was slow if at all.
When they finally arrived, night had fallen and powerless parts of the region were plunged into a chilly blackness. We were fortunate to have power and heat in our home. We knew that we would need to drive to the train station and drive both cars back. Between the wind and the unfamiliar location, my tired New Jersey relatives were in no shape to drive to our house. Navigating in the day they could have managed, but not in the dark, late night. After they called to report that the power was out at the Amtrak station and they had no idea when their car would be offloaded from the train, we went to the train station even though we didn’t know how many hours we might have to wait.
We arrived at 9 PM without issue until a half mile from the train station, where all the power was out. The traffic light leading to the station was dark. The normally brightly-lit train station loomed in the darkness. Through the glass walls, two small emergency lights struggled to illuminate the large space. The stranded passengers stood at the windows, silhouetted against the weak light. It was otherworldly. It reminded me of books I’ve read about a post-apocolyptic world. No power. Darkness. Cold weather. Wind gusts of to 70 miles per hour. My imagination took off. It was crowded inside and I imagined the panic and helplessness that the Autotrain passengers must have felt. There were a few workers outside in reflective vests and flashlights. Cars were slowly exiting the train, their headlights piercing the darkness.
We parked and entered the train station in search of my relatives. When I pulled my phone out to call them, there was no service. I rolled my eyes. How appropriate that we were in a dead zone. It fit in with the creepiness. We approached the motion sensor doors of the train station. Passengers had crowded inside the vestibule (why?) and they pushed the doors apart so we could enter. Once inside the vestibule the travelers grimaced and clutched their collars around their necks against the cold draft. The passengers managing the doors muscled them closed behind us as we crossed the threshold into the dimly lit train station. Why crowd around the entryway? Would proximity to the door somehow affect how quickly their car came off the dark trains?
My husband and I exchanged an uneasy glance.
“What do we do now? Go back out and call?” I suggested, noting the sheer number of passengers. They seemed like prisoners. Trapped.
“We look for them,” he said, and we navigated through the horde of tired travelers and their suitcases, luggage carts, and overstuffed Disney World tote bags.
These passengers had been on the train for over 24 hours. To say they were exhausted was an understatement. Worn out, they sat on benches, draped over their luggage carts, sprawled on the floor, crowded around outlets. Picture an airport in a crisis, but darker and more creepily lit.
The PA speaker clicked overhead (powered by fear?), “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. This is worse than a nightmare…” Even the Amtrak staff making announcements was overextended.
We gazed at the faces of the hundreds of weary travelers as we stepped over their cords and tote bags. We looked and we looked and we walked and we walked. Up and down, around and through the knots of people. Just as I was considering exiting the building and finding a cell signal, I spotted them tucked away in a corner of the station. I called out to them and they looked up, quite startled to have been spotted. Relief replaced their surprise as they greeted us with hugs. Their newfound friends looked us up and down–fresh-faced and definitely not train travelers–clearly wondering about us. My husband and I exchanged another glance. Would leading my relatives out of the tense station incite a mob? We weaved slowly through the people to the door, feeling as if we were leading some sort of jailbreak. “Maybe we should just keep it down,” my husband suggested in a whisper. “We don’t want to upset anyone.” The tightly huddled masses at the front door reluctantly cleared a path for us–more grimaces and clutching of collars–and pried the doors open again. Through it all, my relatives kept saying things like, “I can’t believe you found us,” and “Things have just been so crazy. Everyone is so exhausted.”
We walked the short distance in black of the night towards our car. We knew their vehicle had not come off the auto train yet so we drove just a short distance away to grab a bite to eat. Even though Burger King may not have been anyone’s top choice, it was a sight for sore eyes when we arrived in the brightly lit strip mall. The smell of hot, fried food enveloped us as we pulled the spatula-shaped handle of the Burger King door.
After a brief refueling with light and food, we left the lights behind us and reentered the eerie train property. My relatives were struck by the creepy vibe of the silhouetted passengers within the station. Instead of returning to the prison-like atmosphere inside the train station, we waited in the heated car. My husband enjoyed the challenge of identifying every vehicle as it descended from the train while we chatted pleasantly. The locomotive engines were providing power to operate the multilevel ramps to offload the vehicles. Would this take 10 minutes or three hours? Or longer?
Finally, their car came off the train. Recognition. Excitement! The ticket was retrieved from the bottom of a handbag, we picked up the car, and we exited the parking lot together, leaving the creepy post-apocalyptic atmosphere behind us.