I picked up the phrase “traveling mercies,” some years ago from the pastor who eventually performed the wedding ceremony for my Beloved Husband and I. Traveling mercies go beyond “safe travels,” because they acknowledge that sometimes everything doesn’t go smoothly on a trip. Traveling mercies wish that when things do go wrong that there are friendly and helpful people who will take care of you, give you aide, and perhaps give you laughter.
This past weekend, I traveled up to Connecticut to go to the University of Hartford undergraduate commencement. Most of the chemistry and chemistry-biology majors in the class of 2013 had taken general chemistry with me in their first years, and watching each of them grow and progress has been one of the delights of being a professor. I wanted one last opportunity to tell each one how proud I was and to be part of this ceremony that each had work toward for four (or more) years.
On the afternoon of my departure, I blithely mentioned to one of our DC staff members that I vastly preferred taking the train over flying. The train might be an hour longer, but it was so restful and relaxing. Who knew that I was jinxing myself?
I arrived at Union Station to catch my Amtrak train a mere 10 minutes prior to departure after boarding was already well underway. I figured my Beloved Husband would be proud since his ideal timing is arriving just before the door closes behind him. I’m obviously getting pretty casual about this whole train business. It doesn’t hurt that the station is less than 10 minutes from work, another bonus of traveling by rail.
We trundled up the track towards the first stop at New Carrolton, and I dove into my book. Unfortunately, at that point we stopped. Eventually, we reversed back to Union Station where they established that our engine was not going to make the trip. They were able to change the engine, and we set off again, a mere hour behind schedule. It’s important to get into a Zen mode when traveling by train since there is a considerable amount of slop in the schedule. I was cheerfully ensconced in the quiet car, and I didn’t really notice the time passing by.
Then we arrived at Penn Station in New York City, and we were informed that there had been an “incident” in Bridgeport, and the train wasn’t going to go any further. (Traveling mercies- I wasn’t on either of the trains that derailed!) I naively stood in two different lines to try to get some advice on alternate plans, but patience was not in abundant supply for the local personnel. I happened to know that it was possible to get a bus from NYC to Hartford, so I went up to the street level and looked around. I was somewhat rattled at this point, and in spite of the odds being 50-50 that I could take off in the correct direction, I knew that there was actually a 100% chance that if I chose to walk, I would go exactly 180 degrees from where I wanted to. So I decided to hop in a cab and go to Grand Central Station.
On the occasions when I’ve gotten unexpectedly stranded, my first thought is to do an inventory of who I know who lives nearby. Traveling mercy- one of my fellow Fellows is a native New Yorker, and he answered my, “Help!” text immediately. When I arrived at Grand Central and realized that Grand Central is only trains, he replied, “Yep, you need to go to the Port Authority.” He’s a man after my own heart, and he not only gave me the address where I needed to go, he also inundated me with data in the form of city bus route options, screen shots of bus schedules, and anything else he could think of that might be helpful.
The incident at Bridgeport turned out to be two trains that collided and derailed, and the regional buses were doing everything they could to pick up the slack. I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus at 9:28 (chanting “Print! Print! Print!” at the machine) and ran off to find the gate. It said “52” on my boarding pass, but that turned out not to be a gate at all. A resourceful NYC entrepreneur obviously knew of this information gap and had stationed himself conveniently to ingratiate himself to lost travelers who needed directions. He asked for a tip, but I’ll still count his presence as a traveling mercy that was worth five bucks!
So I sprinted to the correct gate- only to find multiple merged lines and absolutely no direction. The 8:30 and 9:30 buses both left at 10:15, but since each bus all afternoon had been oversold by a few seats, I was one of about 10 people who didn’t get a spot on my bus. My next real shot was on the 11:30 bus, and I was glad of it since the 10:30 bus hadn’t yet left when my bus left on time at 11:30 PM. I felt it was a traveling mercy that I got a bus ticket at all, so I was not about to complain.
Traveling that late at night meant that we had smooth sailing to Hartford and we made excellent time, arriving at 2:30 AM. I had planned to get a cab when I arrived, but there were none in sight when I got off the bus. Traveling mercies- one showed up almost immediately, and I got there just before the people behind me. And traveling mercies- my BH took the dog for his early morning walk the next morning and let me go back to sleep.
My BH and I didn’t get much quality time together over the weekend between his commencement and mine, but we did go out to dinner and see the new Star Trek movie. That was worth the trip right there!
Commencement was wonderful on Sunday, and it was heartwarming to be greeted by so many people who had missed me. I won’t actually be returning until August, but I have enough requests to do lunch to last for months after I get back. It was also absolutely worth the trip and the challenges to see my students graduate. I started a tradition a few years ago to take a picture of the graduates and the faculty at Commencement, and we’ve been hanging the pictures on the wall in the Chemistry Department. I was very pleased to make sure that this year’s picture was taken and will be added to the collection.
My original return train departure from Berlin Connecticut was scheduled for 5 PM, which was plenty of time to work around Commencement, but since Friday’s derailment had ripped up the tracks between New Haven and New York, my train wasn’t running on the Connecticut leg. Traveling mercies- my BH had chatted with one of his colleagues at their Commencement the day before, and his friend suggested picking up the Metro North commuter rail in Danbury and taking it down to New York. So that’s what we did. Commencement even got out early enough that I was able to take my picture, do hugs all around, and change my clothes at home before we needed to depart. It got a little stressful when traffic slowed down to a crawl on several stretches in I-84 to Danbury, but with traveling mercies, we made it to the station with about ten minutes to spare.
From there on out, the traveling mercies were abundant. I had no problem making the Metro North connection in South Norwalk, and once I reached Grand Central Station, I had over an hour to walk to Penn Station for my Amtrak train. I even went in the correct direction out of Grand Central!!! (although there was a considerable amount of analysis that went into the preparation for that decision.) I had neglected to bring an umbrella since the weather report had been for clear weather, so I was grateful for the traveling mercy that it was simply misting for my walk.
As I walked, I rather enjoyed the silliness that I had even a brief time above ground in New York since usually all I see is the train tunnels. Having surreptitiously checked the map on my phone for landmarks, I was enjoying a mental chorus of, “Give my regards to Broadway! Remember me to Herold Square,” which was on the way, when I looked up and saw an even better landmark. Macy’s! Look it’s Macy’s! How cool am I? Although my suitcase was light, I elected not to go shopping in favor of ensuring that I would make it to Penn station on time.
I did so well at Penn Station that I even had a little time to call and chat with my sister. My Amtrak train left on time, and as I was trying to get a seat in the quiet car, I ran into a fellow Fellow, and I was able to sit with a friend. My last challenge had been arriving back in Union Station before the last Metro train left for the night since the Metro is infinitely cheaper and faster than taking a cab. We got in early, and I only had a six minute wait to get a train.
Was the crisis in New York on the way to Connecticut fun? No, definitely not, but I was buoyed by the support of friends via text and Facebook, for the kindness and commiseration of strangers, and for being given the resources to find a way home. My family has picked up the habit of wishing each other “traveling mercies,” and I offer it to everyone who reads this post as a hope for your own experiences. When everything doesn’t go quite right, may you have blessings and good people to help you along the way. Traveling mercies.