Sunday, December 03, 2023

All Aboard! The Perfect DC Train Adventure

[Composed: 8/27/2023]

Shira and I wanted to take G on a train adventure, but we wanted to make sure it was scaled for a toddler. Our plan: take a 'real' amtrak train from Alexandria's Union Station to Washington DC's, Union Station. We figured the 25 minute ride would be enough to entertain the little guy without getting old. Once in DC, I suggested we visit the nearby Smithsonian National Postal Museum. From there, we could Amtrak, Metro or even Uber back to our car.

In the fine tradition of train travel, as we approached the Alexandria station, we got word that our train was running an hour late. This turned out to be a good thing, as across the street from the station is the iconic George Washington Masonic National Memorial. The memorial has about a thousand steps, interesting architecture, beautiful views and a number of busts of George Washington. G, tackled it all like a pro. He even knew who GW was; I'm certain that's due to my Sister-in-Law's influence (had there been a bust of Yoda, my brother's contributions to my nephew's education would have shined as bright). He climbed the countless steps without complaint and enjoyed spotting planes and trains from the high vantage point.

We then made our way back to the Alexandria station, where G and I sat briefly in the lobby on hard wooden benches. The station has been restored to its 1905 configuration and waiting there does feel like stepping back in time. We then joined Shira on the platform where we watched a passenger train heading out of DC arrive. G, and frankly I, was entranced by the frenetic activity as the train arrived. Stools were put in place, doors flung open and passenagers got off and on. G and I walked down to the front of the train, where the driver engineman opened his little window, waived at us and told us that a freight train would be arriving shortly.

The freight train did not disappoint: it was massive and sped through the station like a rocket.

Finally, our train arrived and G (with some help from Shira), bravely boarded. We found our seats and before we knew it, we were under way. While the trip is only supposed to be about 25 minutes, I realize that typical toddler's attention span is measured in seconds. I figured G would quickly tire of sitting in the seat, and I hoped we'd have a chance to poke around the train (look, it has a bathroom!) and maybe even find our way to the cafe car for a snack. I even brought some playmobile pirates to entertain us should we need another distraction.

All of this turned out to be unneccessary. When the train started moving, G fixed himself in front of the window and was rivetted there until we arrived in DC. The conductor came by and greeted us warmly, giving me some extra seat-check tags as a souvenir of our trip. G was non-plussed; he was locked in on the landscape zipping by.

In short order, we arrived at DC's station. We made our way off the platform and towards the main part of the station, though stopped in a passage way that crosses over the tracks to survey the scene. There we chatted with a station worker who explained that North of DC the tracks are electrified, so they need do an engine change from diesel to electric. We watched as the engine at the front of the train was driven off and a new one backed into place. I wonder if it's worth staying on the platform next time and trying to catch this switcharoo up close and personal. G again showed incredible patience as we watched all this unfold before us.

One advantage to arriving at DC's Union Station is that there's a food court in the basement of the station. That means we could easily re-fuel before heading into the Smithsonian. In my memory, the food court was a bustling, trendy place to grab a meal. What we found was far more drab and utilitarian. But, it was food none the less. We got G a pizza - technically a crape with cheese and tomato sauce. But he enjoyed it none the less, and we warded off the possibility of being cranky due to lack of food.

One of the most glorious moments of the day came when we walked outside of Union Station, and as promised, directly adjacent to the building, was the Smithsonian Postal Museum. Shira was impressed. I'd promised toddler friendly access and I'd delivered.

Following this moment of glory was a moment of panic: we walked into the Smithsonian, and while the interior was absolutely gorgeous, it was far from kid friendly. The first sign we saw directed us to a stamp gallery. I'm sure the stamp gallery is a thrilling place; just not for a 3 year old. Years ago we'd been to the Postal Museum and I remember it being fun and kid friendly. Maybe I was wrong.

Thankfully, we stuck with the museum another couple of minutes, and when we turned the corner, found an escalator down to a large room filled with planes, trains and automobiles. Hurray and whew.

What the space lacked in size, it more than made up for in sights that were perfect for G. There was a display of mailboxes that he could deliver mail to, a mail train-car he could explore, planes hanging from the ceiling and even a semi-tractor trailer he could "drive" and talk on the CB radio. We flitted from exhibit to exhibit, and they were perfect for G.

We finished up our Postal experience by buying and writing out some post cards.

To save a bit of time, we opted to take the metro home rather than Amtrak. By this point, we were all tired and didn't want to push our luck. We got back to the Alexandria station without incident, and G got more time aboard a train. We finshed up our adventure by snacking on gummy bears (G's favorite!) on the way home.

The day was an overwhelming success. Both G and I crashed with much needed naps. Mission accomplished!

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