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Scuttle and Hootie's train trip, 2003
December 5, 2013 - Burt Angeli
March 9, 2003
“Traveling by train: Daring duo survives trip to Las Vegas”
By BURT ANGELI
The high school sports season can be long and tiring.
I wouldn’t trade my job for anything, but one is prone to rash decisions with early hours and late nights.
It was dinner time at an Iron River restaurant when I looked over to photographer Terry VanHaute, who was eagerly awaiting his hot beef plate with two scoops of mashed potatoes.
“Hootie, we’re going to do something crazy.”
“Have another bowl of pea soup,” he responded.
“Nope, we’re taking the train to Las Vegas.”
With that statement, Hootie’s jaw dropped and I mapped out the details. We leave as soon as the final sport of the winter ends. In this case, basketball.
Ever since my mother herded the five of us on a train from Green Bay to Chicago some 40 years ago, I’ve always wanted to ride the rails again.
Terry is a “train nut” — you’ll see what I mean later — and had never been to Las Vegas and wanted to see the Hoover Dam.
Amtrak helped out with a two-for-one passenger rate. We slashed costs another $600 by passing up the sleeping car and staying in our reclining chairs for two nights.
We also limited ourselves to one meal on the dining car per day and brought along water, peanut butter, bread, crackers, cookies, chips and candy in the suitcase.
Pop on the train cost $1.50 for a 12-ounce can with a glass of ice. Boy, do we know how to travel.
We left Milwaukee on a Sunday morning bound for Chicago. After a couple hour wait in Chicago, we were off for California.
It was somewhere around 2 in the morning, my back had stiffened up like an ironing board and I looked outside the train car window to see Topeka, Kansas.
“Tell me again why we did this?”
Answered Hootie, kept awake by a door that refused to close: “If Saddam rode this train he’d surrender in a hurry.”
At the crack of dawn, I heard a couple from Minnesota arise.
“Mother, do you know it’s my birthday?”
“Really, how old are you?”
“Don’t you remember? I’m 46, 20 years older than you.”
We heard this mind-numbing conversation — the daughter wondered if magnets kept the train on the tracks and Hootie nearly lost it after that comment — for about 1,500 miles. They were going to California to see Uncle Harold.
Good luck, Uncle Harold.
Our car attendant Jay — not to be confused with the conductor — works one day a week. Will Amtrak survive?
“I always wonder if I’ll have to get a real job,” said Jay, who didn’t give an enthusiastic response to Amtrak’s future.
Our destination was Needles, Calif. With Amtrak not going directly into Las Vegas, we vanned 100 miles from Needles.
With the arrival at 1:18 in the morning, my job was to keep the van driver awake. I exhausted by stories about the Scuttles’ three dogs when he got into his life.
The van driver was a retired auto worker from Detroit with a penchant for Harley Davidson motorcycles. He mentioned the one occasion he tried to drink up a bar.
“One road went home, the other to another bar. I went to the bar,” the van driver recalled. “My bike hit a curb and I fractured my elbow among other parts.
“I blew a .28 at the hospital.”
Now that he had everybody in the van ready to bail out, we motored into the valley to see a spectacular view of the Las Vegas lights.
For the next four days in our rental car, I drove and Terry looked for road signs. It’s a wonder we got anywhere.
Our countless phone calls to chauffeur-lapidary-chicken connoisseur-Las Vegas expert D. Roy Carollo got us around town.
We saw Caesar’s Palace on the Strip, downtown Vegas, Red Rock Canyon, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Hoover Dam — Terry was stunned by its size.
Dickinson County native Ralph Calcaterra — Las Vegas’ most talked about hotel magnate next to Steve Wynn — called our headquarters to welcome us. Only his busy schedule kept him from buying dinner.
It wouldn’t be a Las Vegas trip without an audience with sports authority Mel McKinney, Ralph’s right-hand man and resident manager of the Tod Motor Motel.
Mel explained his broken ankle and surgery, telling how he left the hospital that day against doctor’s orders.
There’s more to his story and our chat could be a separate column, but Terry left muttering that “Mel could be the funniest guy I have ever met.”
His wife, Diane, is so lucky to have him.
It wasn’t long before we were back on the van to Needles and the final leg to our trek. The train was scheduled to leave at 1:22 in the morning.
Make that 2:30 because the train was delayed after crunching a car. I plopped on a comfy couch in the Amtrak building at Needles.
Hootie, paying no mind to chilly temperatures, raced repeatedly to the tracks with another guy to photograph freight trains.
I opened one eye, shook my head and nodded off until our train arrived.
I actually enjoyed the return train trip. We talked to plenty of people, several who traveled with us on the first stretch.
Scott, a self-described naturalist from Buffalo, Wis., traveling with his wife, Laurie, and young son, Andrew, came back from the desert where he spotted 17 different types of birds.
Scott’s from Minnesota; Laurie’s from Wisconsin. They asked if I had any idea what is was like for them on Packer-Viking game days?
“War in the shack?” I observed.
We lunched with a lady who hails from the catfish capital of the world. I believe she said Baltzer with an accent that sounded all Mississippi.
An ambitious family from California — husband, wife and two bright kids — planned to see landmarks in Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C.
I told the mother of chatting with the parents of a geologist working in California. That state could crumble into the Pacific in one year or 100.
“That’s OK,” she replied. “I’ll take my chances with an earthquake over the cold weather and snow in Michigan.”
She had a point. I wished her well in the future.
We made one length stop in Kansas City on the way back to Chicago. For the next 30 minutes, I walked about cavernous Union Station wondering how this place must have bustled years ago.
The scenery out West was awesome. I said a couple thank yous to the pioneers who didn’t give up when running into rough terrain and weather in New Mexico and Colorado.
By the way, Hap, it’s spelled A-l-b-u-q-u-e-r-q-u-e.
I read books on former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, another Robert B. Parker “Spenser” mystery and Stanley Weintraub’s “MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero.”
According to Weintraub, General MacArthur didn’t do much right in Korea except for Inchon.
One great line from the book reports Time magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan asking a Marine “If I were God, and could give you anything for Christmas, what would you ask for?
Answered the frozen soldier, “Gimme tomorrow.”
I felt the same way on the train after a second night sleeping in a chair. I winced.
Hootie seemed to have a perpetual smile for the entire 4,000 miles and countless wrong turns in Las Vegas.
Quipped Hootie, “Some day we’ll look back on this trip and say ... why?”
We lucked out in Chicago, catching an early train to Milwaukee and getting home three hours earlier than expected.
I may not take another train ride for another 40 years. My mother was a saint and wonder woman for riding a train with five kids.
Thanks to the kindness of our wives along with Albert H., D. Roy and brother Rex, we both realized long-held dreams.
I rode the train. Hootie saw Vegas and the Hoover Dam.
Until next time. All aboard that’s going aboard.
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