Sure enough, I did not sleep well last night. I ended up going to bed around 4:00 a.m., but didn’t fall asleep until about 4:30 a.m.. Bright orange light seeped in through the windows where the curtains didn’t come all the way down, and the air conditioner from the rooms next door kept turning on and off, along with the refrigerator, etc. Still, I imagine I would have fallen asleep sooner if I hadn’t been so hyped up.

Part of what made my night so restless was agitation and worry: I had to be on the Amtrak at 10:00 a.m., which meant I had to check my bags onto the train by 9:30 a.m., and sometime before then, I needed to check out from the hotel, call a cab, and get a ride to the station. The only thing was, I had no idea how long it would take for the cab to get there (promptness was not a quality that online reviewers had associated with Charleston drivers), and how long in advance I needed to call. I tried to phone the Black Cab company before going to bed, but it was closed.

Finally, I abandoned my fractured sleep around 8:30 a.m. and called the Black Cab company, only to be told that the fare for taking me ten minutes to the Amtrak station (because of my starting locale) would be over $50. So I thanked them and hung up.

I disputed over who to call next, but finally settled on the Yellow Cab company, which had a 2 out of 5 star rating on Yelp. I scheduled a taxi ($7 estimated fare), repacked my suitcase, and went downstairs to check out.

The lady at the desk asked if I needed a shuttle, and I said no, unless it went to the Amtrak. She said that it did. How I wish the lady last night had told me that! It would have saved me several hours of fretting. To be fair, I don’t think I mentioned my destination when I inquired about a cab.

Gratefully, I called to cancel my taxi and hopped on board the shuttle, which was not only free but also ready to go. Once again, I was the only passenger. The driver was a congenial black man named Freddie who had just gotten back from seeing the last of his nieces graduate high school. We talked a little about her plans for college, and how different (and more difficult!) the post-admissions process was from the time Freddie had attended college on a full scholarship. We shook hands as we parted at the station, and I stepped through the doors toward the next stage of my journey.

I had chosen to take Amtrak instead of flying the rest of the way for two reasons. First off, Florence had only a small regional airport, and US Airways was the only airline that flew into it. It would have cost me more to fly US Airways from Charleston (SC) to Florence (SC) than it did for me to fly Southwest from California to South Carolina. Furthermore, Southwest lets you take two checked bags and two carry-ons (one normal, one personal) for free, whereas US Airways requires you to pay $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second. Ridiculous! As you’ll shortly see, taking Amtrak was by far the better option in terms of ticket fare ($31), baggage (three checked bags free, and two free carry-ons) and time (the train ride was supposed to be 1.5 hours + 0.5 hours early arrival, whereas the airplane ride was 0.75 hours + 1–2 hours early arrival).

I was feeling happy as I stepped inside the station, pleased with how the transportation to the Amtrak station had worked out. I saw a really long line wending almost out the door, and one really short line as well. The long one was for checking baggage and the short one was for buying tickets. I had forgotten that it was Memorial Day, and so the place was really crowded.

I bought my ticket for $31 (even though it was $21 online only a couple of weeks ago, and $23 last night. I thought it would be the same price, but live and learn, I guess. I figure it counted as the cab fare I’d saved) and then squeezed into the baggage line. It was about 9:25 a.m. at this point. The minutes ticked by, and the line barely moved. Twenty minutes ’til, quarter ’til, 5 minutes ’til. I was one person away from the window when the lady closed the shutters and said the train was coming and she wasn’t going to take any more bags. What?!?

My stress had been increasing steadily as the time had approached for the train to arrive, and now it shot through the roof. What was I supposed to do? Should I wait for her to check my bags onto a later train? Delayed checking would mean I would have to return to the Florence station to get my bags at a later time (an inconvenience for certain, since I didn’t have a car), and what if checking them now made me miss getting onto the train myself? The next one wouldn’t leave for another twelve hours….

The lady never came back, and the family behind me suggested that I just take it all onto the train with me. “Can I do that?” I asked anxiously. We were only supposed to have two carry-ons of a certain dimension, and I had four bags, two of them fairly big (although since one of my little bags held my laptop, it technically wouldn’t have counted against my carry-on limit). They said sure, and not having much of a choice, I wrestled my luggage outside.

For those of you who don’t know, an Amtrak train is a series of inter-connected cars that you can move between once you’re inside. Even so, you’re still supposed to board the train at a specific car depending on your destination. The platform I was on had numbers (but no signs) along it corresponding to these destinations, but my ticket didn’t show a number for my destination, and it was a bit of a hassle trying to figure out where to stand.

The train was fifteen minutes late (see, lady, you could have checked my bags!) and as I waited to board, I rehearsed my arguments for allowing me to take on extra luggage in my head: “The people inside just told me to take it on with me,” etc. When my turn came, the conductor didn’t even question me, just had me step into the train while he handed up my bags to me one at a time. (I wasn’t allowed to carry them up into the train myself. Liability issues, I’m sure). Later on, I was glad that I hadn’t checked my bags, as my ticket said there could be a 30–60 minute delay in getting them back once I reached my destination, but for now I was merely relieved.

I placed my suitcases in the overhead racks, feeling as though I were taking too long. (It probably didn’t help that I would constantly step aside to let people with less luggage go by). One gentleman finally assisted me with putting them up on the shelf (and later with getting them back down), which I was grateful for as I’d been neglecting my push-ups of late and didn’t have quite enough muscle to do it myself.

I had been placing my luggage in the first available space, which was right above a seat reserved for people with disabilities. That meant I couldn’t sit there, or if I did, I would be subject to ejection if someone else needed it (no quips about my personal handicaps, please!) Fortunately, a black lady a couple of seats down asked me if I wanted to sit by her, and I gratefully complied.

The scenery was pretty unvarying for most of the ride, but beautiful. There were a lot of really thin green trees with broad branches, and several corn fields. At one point the trees fell away and we were riding through the treetops — the train went really slowly for that part. I was feeling very tired but ate a candy bar and immediately perked up. That’s what I get for just eating peanuts in the last 24 hours.

The way they check for tickets on Amtrak is the assistant conductor writes your destination on a piece of paper and sticks it to the rack above your seat with the side facing out that says “Check ticket.” Once the conductor checks your ticket, he flips the paper around to show your destination so that he can remind you when to get off (unlike BART, California’s Bay Area transit system, no announcements are made as to stops).

The conductor warned me about my station half an hour before we actually got there, so I was on the alert the whole time. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that my digital cell phone does not get service in South Carolina. Apparently analog does, though, as everyone else’s cell phones kept chiming with messages throughout the trip.

We pulled into Florence around 12:00 p.m.. It was less of a hassle getting off the train with all my stuff than it had been getting on, though I failed epically at making it through the train station doors. Finally free of the automatic prison (do you know how hard it is to manually open an automatic door when it closes on your suitcase?) I chose a place in the shade to sit (I had been getting cold on the train, but it was quite hot and humid outside) and patiently waited for my ride to appear.

Continue with Part 2 — Day 1: Welcome to TFA