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Amtrak Trip to Del Rio

Thursday, April 25, 2019. Wanda’s parents passed away two decades ago. Her father’s side of the family has always been pretty much unknown to Wanda. On her mother’s side of the family, only her Aunt Tia is alive and well. She is in her 90s with a large extended family of adult kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. Wanda tells me there are 54 descendants of Tia and almost all live in Del Rio, Texas.

Wanda’s dad was a pipeline welder and often worked overseas. When Wanda was 12 years old, her dad worked in Nigeria, Africa for a couple of years. The family moved, and Wanda spent eight months in Nigeria. She even had a pet spider monkey named Buster. However, her mom worried about the schools in Nigeria and sent Wanda and her brother back to the US to finish 5th grade and attend 6th grade.  Wanda ended up in Del Rio for 6th grade, living with Tia’s family. Wanda was so smart they passed her up to the 7th grade that year. Yes, it is very intimidating to live with such an intelligent woman - believe me; she keeps me on my toes. Ever since that year, her Aunt and cousins have had a special place in Wanda’s heart. 
 

I love trains, especially European trains. Today’s trains are so modern, efficient, and inexpensive. I rode some Amtrak trains out East a few years back, and I was impressed with them, too. Recently, I have been thinking about taking advantage of the 15-day Amtrak rail pass, which allows you to ride the rails for 15 days, up to 8 legs. That would let us go out West, through the Rockies, ride down the California coast, maybe go to the Grand Canyon, then back through the Rockies. Of course, we would stop along the way, find an Airbnb here and there, and do some sightseeing to take a break from the train. However, that’s still a lot of concentrated rail riding, and we aren’t sure if we are up to it. So, here’s a crazy idea. Why not check out riding Amtrak by going to Del Rio for a quick visit? It’s a day and a half train ride - long but not 15 days. It would be a good trial run, and Wanda would get to visit her Aunt Tia and her cousins. As a side benefit, the weather in Wisconsin is predicted to get cold and crappy for a few days. It will be in the high 80s in Del Rio. 

As it happens, the 421 Texas Eagle Train leaves Chicago and passes through Del Rio on its way to Los Angeles. Just one train - no connections. It leaves Chicago on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. We booked Friday, April 26 at 1:45 pm. The train “theoretically” arrives in Del Rio on Sunday at 5:49 am. Amtrak runs on schedule out East, but it is notoriously late everywhere else because they lease their trackage from freight- train companies and freight trains get priority. There are times that Amtrak has to stop and wait 20 minutes or longer for a freight train to clear a track section. We will spend five days in Del Rio then hop on the 422 Texas Eagle for the return trip.  

First, we have to get down to Chicago. Our new plan of action is to go to Green Bay and stay with either my sister or one of my nieces. We can visit, leave our car and fly standby down to Chicago. Since Wanda put in her 20 years at American Airlines, she retains all of her standby flight privileges as a retiree. The Blue Line commuter train goes from the Chicago O’Hare Airport to within two blocks of the Union Center Train Station where we catch the Texas Eagle. This plan is working out to be “too cool for school.”

To get to the Union Center Train Station is an easy commute on the CTA Blue Line rapid transit system from the Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The Blue Line is the Chicago "L" line which extends for 26 miles through the Chicago Loop and conveniently starts in the bowels of the Chicago O'Hare Airport.  The Blue Line takes a little over an hour to reach the Union Center Train Station for only $5 per ride, or you can get a variety of unlimited rides on trains and buses. The shortest is a 24-hour unlimited ridership for $10. There isn't anywhere in Chicago that you can't reach by train or bus. 

Friday, April 26, 2019. Boarding is scheduled at 5:39 am at the Green Bay Austin Strauble Airport. Our pre-scheduled Uber driver arrived at the pick-up driveway at 4:20 am. The security line at the airport was funny. Wanda filled up a big backpack with tons of "finger foods" for the trip. She had dried fruits, crackers, cheese slices, salami slices, little bread slices, those big fat Lumpy Bumpy oranges, tapioca pudding cups, ready-made Quinoa cups with a separate sauce, vacuumed-packed chicken salad spread, etc. She took most of the stuff out of the original packaging and repacked it into quart size and gallon size plastic baggies. Of course, the X-ray guy freaked. But they seemed to have a good time going through her backpack while she explained the upcoming train ride.

The plane was almost full, but we got on with just one seat to spare. Flying standby is always a white-knuckle affair. We dilly-dallied in O'Hare as we had hours to burn before boarding the Blue Line to the Union Station in the Chicago Loop. We split an omelet and coffee at Chili's in O'Hare as a fun way to waste an hour, but I had a cardiac arrest when I saw the $24 receipt. Please, take me back to Spain or Mexico. 

We arrived at the Chicago Union Station still early. To kill a few more minutes, we explored a nearby H-Mart to pick up a few bottles of water for the backpack. H-Mart turns out to be a popular oriental grocery store sort-of based on the Whole Foods model. They had a terrific deli and eating center, plus a sizeable Asian grocery section with the sparkling waters we were hoping to find.

 

Finally, we boarded the train around 1 pm. Being seniors, we not only got a 10% discount, but we also got priority boarding. This senior thing is starting to get real nice - retired, special privileges, and discounts. The only bad thing about senior-hood is the getting old part.

 

Notice that the passengers waiting to board the 421 Texas Eagle at Chicago's Union Station are all seniors. We got priority boarding.

Wanda freaked at the huge comfortable seats in the train. She was used to those crappy airliner seats. We set up what Wanda calls her nest. There is room to lay out all the little things she wanted to have at her fingertips. The electrical outlets' work and the footrests under the seat will be most appreciated when it's time to recline and snooze. Although WiFi is available on the train, we have a mobile hotspot that is always reliable. She was so comfortable that it was hard to get her to walk over to the Dome Car.  

I love the Dome Car. The fluffy swivel seats face the windows, and those windows give you a giant video screen to the outside world. Driving through the Illinois cornfields has always been a drag, so we weren't expecting much in terms of scenery. Surprisingly, the train route seemed to catch woods, rivers, and back-road greenery. It was quite beautiful. I think the Rockies would prove to be remarkable.  The Dome Car is my favorite spot on the train.

The train cruises around 80 miles per hour. Not lightning speed but not bad. The problem is those pesky stops, waiting for the priority freight trains. We got into St. Louis 20 minutes late. There is a scheduled 55 minute stop in St. Louis where they take on fuel and water, and let the smokers top off their depleted nicotine levels. It is nice to get out of the train and walk around. They cut the stop short, and when they left, we were back on schedule. Within 5 minutes, however, the train stopped for nearly an hour, waiting for freight trains to clear. Oh well, we were an hour behind. That would not happen in Europe.

You can easily get-off-your-ass and walkabout from the front to the back of the double-decker cars that make up the 421 Texas Eagle. Occasionally, they let you get out at a train stop. All-in-all, there is ample opportunity to stretch your legs. It is a very comfortable ride.

This was our first night time on the train. Wanda did a little research before we left. It was recommended to take a travel blanket and a pillow. We had previously gone to Target and picked up a couple of thin, easily packable travel fleece blankets. At Cabela's, I found a super packable blow-up pillow. At O’Hare, Wanda found a packable wrap-around-her-neck foam pillow. We were warned that the train is kept on the cool side, and it is. We both wore comfortable, loose-fitting, warm clothing for the evening.

 

The seats are huge with a mile of leg room. They recline far so they nearly become beds. With all the room, even fully reclined, the seats don’t infringe upon the person behind you. The blanket was essential and worked great. My pillow also was essential and worked great. However, my pillow was also perfect for lumbar support, and I liked Wanda’s neck pillow for my head. There were a lot of open seats, so I moved to an open double seat, reclined both and had a king sized area to find decent laying positions. All-in-all, it’s certainly not home, but we did OK.

Saturday, April 27, 2019.  I actually had a couple of train-related dreams last night. They were fleeting, and I don't remember much, but I am sure they were fun. By the time we got up and shook the cobwebs, we were in Texas. One of the bathrooms has a little lounge with a seating area. It is roomy enough to change clothes if needed and do a spit bath. Wanda brought these huge moistened towels made by Epic. She used one for her spit bath and laughed at how big it was. I used a much smaller wash rag sized moistened towel. It was serviceable. The sinks are way too tiny to try to wash your hair. I will look forward to a real shower when we get to Del Rio.

We tackled Wanda's finger foods for breakfast and washed it down with sparkling water. My sister, from Germany, got us hooked on sparkling water. They have been drinking it for decades. It is just starting to become prevalent in the US. Aldi sells an eight pack of 12-ounce cans for $1.79. That's a great deal. Anyway, once fed and watered, we walked around the train. That's the best part of being a passenger riding trains - being able to do a walkabout. Under the Dome Car was the snack bar. The booze was very expensive, but the coffee was far cheaper than the coffee we got at Chili's in O'Hare, so we decided to forsake the booze for the coffee.

At one stop, we picked up an interesting guy, who picked the empty seat across the isle from us. He liked making all sorts of snorts, wheezes, grumps, etc. At first, I thought he was struggling with a mental illness or something. But, his noises were actually kind of comical. Later, we got to talking with him, and he was a character - one of those so-called experts in all subjects and facets of life. He spoke of his roller-coaster ups and downs, including losing a fortune in the housing crash. After working through some amazing health issues, he was returning to California, a place he started in life, looking for a fresh start.

Before I could dismiss him as a wanna-be-know-it-all, he started talking to a 22-year-old East Texas kid who was going out to California for an internship in horse training. Wouldn't you know, the old guy didn't know precisely what ranch the kid was going to intern at, the kind of horses they specialize in, the name of the nearby river, and the name of the lady that owns the ranch, all while declaring he knows nothing about horses. The dumbfounded kid consulted his papers and declared the old guy even got the address correct. Smiling with that "of course I know what I'm talking about" grin, he went back to his comical noises.

We had a short rest-stop at Dallas. It was wonderfully hot, and Wanda and I had wandered quite a ways away when we heard the "all-aboard-we-are-taking-off-this-instant" whistle blow. We noticed that all the closed doors except one in the last car. We ran, desperately waving at the conductor to hold the door open. Whew! That was close.

The next long stop was Fort Worth, just a minute or two from Dallas. This time we synchronized our times with the conductor. We had one hour, so we left the train station and walked around the neighborhood. 
 

We synchronized our layover times with these friendly and professional Amtrak staff, at the Fort Worth, Texas rest stop. 

A couple of blocks away, we saw the Cowtown Cycle Party. Now, this was something novel and fun. It was a large half trolley-sized pedal powered oblong bar on wheels. The bartender stood in the middle of the wrap-around bar. He has a draft beer handle and a steering wheel. The patrons sat on solid bar stools around the outside of the bar. Each stool is equipped with bicycle pedals. All the patrons pedal for power and the bartender steers. There is an electric assist but the patrons, to get anywhere, really must pedal.

For $39, you get a two-hour tour of Fort Worth's most exciting taverns. When we saw them, they were cruising up to a craft distillery. If the tavern stops weren't enough, you could bring your own beer. Each bar stool also had a cooler to BYOB. If that still isn't enough, the bartender could draw you a draught. The patrons we saw were pretty lit up and begged us to join them. It was hard to say no, but having almost missed the train in Dallas, we played it safe.

Notice the beer tapper, the steering wheel, the coolers by the feet, and, of course, the bicycle pedals.

A one hour stop at the brand new modern Fort Worth station wasn't long enough. After reboarding, we sat and sat and sat. Eventually, we heard the announcement that we were waiting for a late connecting train from Oklahoma. Unfortunately, after the Oklahoma train came and went, Texas Eagle 421 still had to wait for several freight trains to clear. Wow! I wish Amtrak would get their own tracks. 


After Fort Worth, the scenery became lush, green, and beautiful. It was time to head to the Dome-Car for the rest of the evening and watch America roll on by.

After dark, we returned to our seats for another challenging night. Breaking up our sleep cycle tonight will be a train switch-and-reconfigure in San Antonio around midnight along with the annoying thought of having to be ready to get off the train in Del Rio at 5:49 am. The Del Rio stop is one of those stop-kick-off-and-go stops. Giving me even more heartburn was the fact that from 11 pm to 7 am, they enforce a quiet time that includes no intercom announcements. What if we oversleep? How will we know which stop is Del Rio? These questions and more kept me from sleeping.


Surprisingly, we arrived in San Antonio only one hour late. With all the overnight track stoppages, I thought we'd be a week or two late. 

Here is how the Texas Eagle works. The 21 Texas Eagle is the daily Chicago to San Antonio route, however, on Friday, Monday, and Wednesday, the 21 magically turns into the 421 and continues all the way to Los Angeles. But, when does the Texas Eagle 21 turn into the Texas Eagle 421? Is it always the 421 on those three days, or is it only when the train reaches San Antonio on those three days? It's not all that important until you try to read the complicated train schedules. They liberally mixed 21 and 421 in a confusing mess, plus they throw in a lot of throughway scheduling. What are throughways, you ask?  

Throughways are in addition to bus routes and set up to extend a train route. For instance, the train does not service Baton Rouge. So, they have a contract with a bus company to meet the New Orleans train and pick up the passengers ticketed to Baton Rouge. The Texas Eagle has about a dozen throughway routes throughout their scheduling. But, I digress from our San Antonio stop.

Once in San Antonio, the passengers of Texas Eagle 21 detrain at their ticketed final destination. The Texas Eagle 421 passengers are then herded outside for a half hour so the attendants can get the cars prepared for night travel including a cabin clean up and reorient the seats if heading in a different direction. It was just after midnight when we reboarded the train and immediately fell asleep. I woke up around 4 am and noticed we were well on our way so I woke Wanda to remind her to set the alarm for 5:30 am and then drifted back to sleep. 

At 5:30 am, it was pitch black outside and in the car. We got up and haphazardly organized our carry-ons in the dark. I noticed that the interesting guy across from us was restlessly sleeping - upside down. His feet were where his head would be and vice versa for his head. His noises were much more subdued but still going strong. 

At 5:49 am, we were down by the door to find the Conductor was not here to open the door. Since the train probably left San Antonio on time, as there was a long layover in San Antonio allowing the train to get back on schedule, and with Del Rio being the first stop after San Antonio, we figured that we'd reach Del Rio as scheduled. It was still dark outside so we didn't have a clue where we were until Wanda fired up Google Maps and noted we were still 45 miles out of Del Rio. 

We returned to our seats and monitored the train's position on Google Maps until 5 miles out. The Conductor arrived at the door within minutes. He told us that he first went to our seats to round us up, but when we weren't there, he figured we were already at the door. We now know how stops are handled when the intercom is off-line.


Finally, at 7:12 am, the train stopped and gave us 15 seconds to disembark. Sure, there were a lot of things about the train that could be improved, and there were plenty of inconveniences, but, gosh, I loved the views, the walkabouts, the rolling swaying clickety-clack, of it all.

After dark, we returned to our seats for another challenging night. Breaking up our sleep cycle tonight will be a train switch-and-reconfigure in San Antonio around midnight along with the annoying thought of having to be ready to get off the train in Del Rio at 5:49 am. The Del Rio stop is one of those stop-kick-off-and-go stops. Giving me even more heartburn was the fact that from 11 pm to 7 am, they enforce a quiet time that includes no intercom announcements. What if we oversleep? How will we know which stop is Del Rio? These questions and more kept me from sleeping.


Surprisingly, we arrived in San Antonio only one hour late. With all the overnight track stoppages, I thought we'd be a week or two late. 

Here is how the Texas Eagle works. The 21 Texas Eagle is the daily Chicago to San Antonio route, however, on Friday, Monday, and Wednesday, the 21 magically turns into the 421 and continues all the way to Los Angeles. But, when does the Texas Eagle 21 turn into the Texas Eagle 421? Is it always the 421 on those three days, or is it only when the train reaches San Antonio on those three days? It's not all that important until you try to read the complicated train schedules. They liberally mixed 21 and 421 in a confusing mess, plus they throw in a lot of throughway scheduling. What are throughways, you ask?  

Throughways are in addition to bus routes and set up to extend a train route. For instance, the train does not service Baton Rouge. So, they have a contract with a bus company to meet the New Orleans train and pick up the passengers ticketed to Baton Rouge. The Texas Eagle has about a dozen throughway routes throughout their scheduling. But, I digress from our San Antonio stop.

Once in San Antonio, the passengers of Texas Eagle 21 detrain at their ticketed final destination. The Texas Eagle 421 passengers are then herded outside for a half hour so the attendants can get the cars prepared for night travel including a cabin clean up and reorient the seats if heading in a different direction. It was just after midnight when we reboarded the train and immediately fell asleep. I woke up around 4 am and noticed we were well on our way so I woke Wanda to remind her to set the alarm for 5:30 am and then drifted back to sleep. 

At 5:30 am, it was pitch black outside and in the car. We got up and haphazardly organized our carry-ons in the dark. I noticed that the interesting guy across from us was restlessly sleeping - upside down. His feet were where his head would be and vice versa for his head. His noises were much more subdued but still going strong. 

At 5:49 am, we were down by the door to find the Conductor was not here to open the door. Since the train probably left San Antonio on time, as there was a long layover in San Antonio allowing the train to get back on schedule, and with Del Rio being the first stop after San Antonio, we figured that we'd reach Del Rio as scheduled. It was still dark outside so we didn't have a clue where we were until Wanda fired up Google Maps and noted we were still 45 miles out of Del Rio. 

We returned to our seats and monitored the train's position on Google Maps until 5 miles out. The Conductor arrived at the door within minutes. He told us that he first went to our seats to round us up, but when we weren't there, he figured we were already at the door. We now know how stops are handled when the intercom is off-line.


Finally, at 7:12 am, the train stopped and gave us 15 seconds to disembark. Sure, there were a lot of things about the train that could be improved, and there were plenty of inconveniences, but, gosh, I loved the views, the walkabouts, the rolling swaying clickety-clack, of it all.

Sunday, April 28, 2019. Meet Wanda's family.  Wanda's cousin, Rosalinda, and husband, Abe, met us at the train stop. I felt so bad, as they arrived at the train stop at 5:49 am and waited until 7:12 am for the train to roll in. They took us to their house where Wanda and I took a luxurious shower to get ready for a family breakfast.

Del Rio is a small border city of 35,000 at the confluence of the Rio Grande, and the spring-fed San Felipe River located about 150 miles west of San Antonio. Laughlin Air Force Base and the Amistad Dam are the main economic engines. Cuidad Acuna is the Mexican city just on the other side of the border. At a population of 215,000, it dwarfs Del Rio. 


This trip was two-fold: 1) Experience traveling on a train. 2) Visit Wanda's family in Del Rio. As I stated on the first page, Wanda and her brother lived with her Aunt Amparo and Uncle John for a year while in the 7th grade - so Del Rio and the family are very special to Wanda. They are a wonderfully unique and tightly knit family. Wanda's 91-year-old Aunt Tia (as Wanda affectionately calls her), is the heart of the family and still lives in the house where she was born. Of the eight children, seven live in Del Rio, and five live in the same subdivision with four sharing back yards. Only the eldest son lives 150 miles away in San Antonio. Sadly one son has passed away, but he, too, lived his whole life in Del Rio. Even the family grandchildren fill the local schools. Talk about stability!

Wanda warned me that our time in Del Rio would be spent meeting an endless parade of Aunt Tia's descendants of friendly, generous, fun, and amazingly interesting folks. To keep everyone straight, I jotted down a crude family tree. 

The family parade started right after our shower. Cecelia, and her husband, Richard, hosted a big family welcome breakfast. They share their backyard with Rosalinda and Abe, so it was a short walk. Richard whipped up a terrific buffet-style Tex-Mex breakfast. He had everything from make-your-own breakfast burrito fixings, to big fat Belgian waffles with real maple syrup, whipped cream, and fresh fruit. The centerpiece of the burrito fixings was beef tongue cut in small strips and grilled. It looked like regular taco steak meat. I would have never known what it was had they not told me. The story goes that initially in Texas, beef tongue was popular with the masses because it was inexpensive. That is until the elite discovered it, thereby making it an expensive delicacy. I hesitantly tried it in my burrito and had to admit that it was tasty. But, still, tongue????
 

Wanda's family is 100% Hispanic, and the Mex part of the breakfast of guacamole and refried beans were perfect. The tortillas were fresh and hot. The salsa had a kick. The eggs were fluffy. The papaya was sweet. I could go on and on. Richard assembled the spread, plus took care of all the cleanup. It was an inspiration watching his non-stop hyperactivity, and I made sure to give him kudos for his efforts. I ate until I could barely move. It was only a portend of the food and social experience to come.

 

Once I could move, we got a tour of all the cousin's homes on that block. All were beautiful, modern and airy with high ceilings, cool tile floors and walls decorated with Catholic articles, Saints and family photos. 

After the tour, Wanda and I went back to Rosalinda and Abe's home to take a quick cat nap. With two restless nights on the train, and with our tummies nice and satiated, we could barely keep our eyes open. I was asleep before my eyelids even got halfway closed. I think Rosalinda and Abe also snuck in a nap.

Meet Wanda's Family

 

Aunt Tia. The family laughs at Wanda's affectionate name for her Aunt Amparo. Her real name is Amparo and Tia is Spanish for Aunt, so technically Wanda's endearment of Aunt Tia actually means Aunt Aunt. After we all got a kick out of that, Wanda insisted that Aunt Amparo was always going to be Aunt Tia to her - so there.

Aunt Tia: On top of the pyramid is Tia Amparo, the matriarch of this amazing family. She was married to Juan (Uncle John) for 51 years. Juan passed away in 1997. Uncle John was a jack of all trades, but his main job was a professional mover. With the Air Force base being next door, moving transferring-families in and out of the Laughlin Airforce base was a lucrative and steady job. He was also an air traffic controller while in the military, an auto mechanic, carpenter, electrician, plumber, and all around Master Craftsman. 

 

Amparo was a full-time professional housewife for a household of eight kids (plus two more for a year). She loved her world. We became aware that on school days Aunt Tia made 80 tortillas every morning for a sit-down breakfast, had lunch ready for all 11 of us because there were no school cafeterias at that time, and Uncle John liked to have supper ready by 5 pm. She says that she misses all the cooking that she used to do.

Tia took up the guitar sometime around the year 2000, when she was in her 70s. She learned quickly and joined an all-lady Mariachi band. The picture of Aunt Tia in her Mariachi band outfit taken earlier in her performing career, probably in the early 2000s. When I last visited 15 years ago, she played for me and I really enjoyed it. On this trip, I played some delta blues tunes for her and she got a big kick out it.

The house we were visiting is the same house Aunt Tia and Wanda's mother, Nancy, were born.  Over the years, the family carpenters remodeled, repaired, and added on to the old homestead a zillion times. They assured me that there are at least two original 2 x 4s left in the house.

Aunt Tia, a victim of two strokes, is getting frail. She requires a fair amount of care and all pitch in to monitor her health, happiness, and safety. Still, Tia is alert, chatty and loves to reminisce. She seemed genuinely happy and thankful for our visit.  Aunt Amparo is a warm, wonderful person and worth the trip to understand the family story and see the faded photo albums. 

ROY: The firstborn son. The first time I met Roy was in 1993. Wanda and I were visiting New Orleans and Roy, who was living in New Orleans at the time, was hosting a spectacular Super Bowl party featuring a massive pot of freshly boiled shrimp and crawfish. He asked me where I lived, and I replied calmly, "Stevens Point, Wisconsin." He blew me away with his next question, "Do you go to the square?"  I incredulously cried out, "How do you know about the square?!" It turned out that as a teenager, he was a seasonal migrant farm worker that would come to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to pick cucumbers. His crew went to the bars at the farmers' square in Stevens Point on Saturday nights. Cheez, what a small world?!

Later, he became a union organizer of federal workers. He quickly rose to become the National Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). From cucumber picker to Union big shot - the epitome of upward mobility. He retired quite a while ago. 

TERESA: Next in line is Tere. On her birth certificate, she is named Teresita (pronounced Te de see tah), or little Teresa. In grade school, she grew quickly and became the biggest girl in her class and no longer little Teresita. Around 7th grade, entirely on her own, she changed her name to Teresa. 

Tere retired from a long career as a medical transcriber at the Laughlin Air Force Base Health Clinic. Her husband Robert Charles was a phone company lineman. I asked Robert if there is any call for landlines anymore? He laughed and said he had to learn about fiber optics. 

Teresa's backyard has access to the back yards of Mario, Rosalinda, and Cecelia. Tere was the first of the siblings to build in the subdivision. The others soon followed. All the houses were either designed, built, and/or remodeled by the carpenters in the family. 

CECELIA: Third in line is Cecelia. She is a retired school district employee that included a stint as a special-education teacher. For a while, she was in charge of all the special educational IEP's (Individual Educational Plans) for the district. Richard, her husband, still teaches math to 5th graders. I asked what math operations are being taught to 5th graders. He said that the emphasis these days is on story problems to promote reasoning - cool. Richard is looking forward to retiring soon.

Cecelia's oldest daughter, Christie, stopped by for a short visit after work. She is a Federal public defender right in the thick of the immigration mess on the border. It was interesting talking about her work. And yes, Trumpian policies have caused her caseload to explode.

ROSALINDA: It seemed like most of the family called her Linda, although I heard Rose, an occasional Rosa, and a smattering of Rosalindas. Of all the family members, Wanda was closest to Linda, both when she lived with the family for a year, and later when corresponding. Linda and her Husband, Abe, hosted our stay for the five days we were in Del Rio. Linda is a retired after 37 years as an office manager.

Her husband, Abelardo (pronounced Ah be lar do), or Abe, or just plain A.B., had an interesting career that started as a teacher, then advanced to school administration, then retired as the director of IT for the school district.

Abe is an excellent storyteller and conversationalist. I could listen to his war stories about school and jury duty for hours. Although retired, he is very involved with his son's (Abe III), internet-based, head-hunter business. Another son, Johnny, is a corporate big shot with IHOP. Abe is also an active Lion's Club member with a zillion plagues in his office to prove it.

Abe is an excellent storyteller and conversationalist. I could listen to his war stories about school and jury duty for hours. Although retired, he is very involved with his son's (Abe III), internet-based, head-hunter business. Another son, Johnny, is a corporate big shot with IHOP. Abe is also an active Lion's Club member with a zillion plagues in his office to prove it.

Linda and Abe briefly moved to San Jose, California, their first year together. Linda was miserable being away from the family. Abe knew he had no choice but to return to Del Rio. When we first arrived at their house, I couldn't help but notice a gorgeous Corvette in the carport.

Abe's eyes twinkled when I inquired about it and twinkled, even more, when I asked if he ever opened-it-up. Those long straight desert Texas highways just beg for 120 mph. 

We found out that Abe is an early riser and a great cook. We woke up to coffee and breakfasts of guacamole, hot griddled tortillas, a filling made from a rotisserie chicken, Spanish rice, and pinto beans. Even our send-off meal of grilled hamburgers with guacamole and topped off with fire roasted whole toreadors peppers was most pleasant and appreciated. 

JUAN, Jr. "GUNGO": Sadly, Gungo (pronounced Guun go) passed away several years ago. Fortunately, I did meet him when Wanda and I visited Del Rio 15 years ago. He was our tour guide at the time and took me into the Mexican city, Acuna, just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio three times.  

Gungo was Wanda's age, but being a guy, he was more of a buddy to Wanda's brother when the two of them lived with Tia.   

By all accounts, Gungo was the most talented of the family carpenters, and the story is that he designed and built over 300 homes in Del Rio.

He had a significant hand in all of the siblings' homes. I wouldn't be surprised if he were the person that inspired two of the younger brothers to go into construction. His memory continues to have a strong place within the family lore. 

MARIO: Mario is one of the sweetest human beings that DNA has ever produced. That is saying something coming from a family of insanely lovely folks. Mario and Tere traded off taxiing us around the area, taking in the sites, updating the family story for us, and taking Wanda to her old haunts. Mario managed the local "What A Burger" restaurant until he was lured away by HEB Grocery. HEB Grocery, named after Howard Edward Butt, the founder, is based out of San Antonio. It has 350 stores in Texas of which Mario proudly states that his HEB outperforms the Walmart in Del Rio. He states that he is anxiously waiting to retire. 

Mario's wife, Santa, is another sweetheart. She goes to Acuna, Mexico, every Wednesday with her girl-friends for shopping. The border crossing between Del Rio and Acuna, with the Trump administration messing things up, takes up to 3 hours. Mario told Santa about our love of paletas, and she picked up some wonderful Mexican paletas just for us. 

Mario drove us to his daughter's brand new home, one of the few houses not designed or built by a family member. We met Krystal and her husband, Christopher, an energetic firefighter and paramedic. Mario's granddaughter, Heidi, is three years old and nearly deaf. She received cochlear implants that miraculously are giving her full hearing as I noticed that her speech is excellent. Interestingly, Heidi has a magnet implanted in each side of her head. Her cochlear devices sit on either side of her head, held in place by magnets and bling like a pretty barrette. Just ingenious!

 

I mention this because our 4-year-old-niece, Keisha, was also born deaf and just had her first cochlear surgery before we left to Del Rio. Her hearing recovery, if successful, may not be as dramatic as Keisha only has one hearing nerve to tap. Still, we are all hopeful that she will gain access to at least a small window into the hearing world.  

GREGORIO: Greg is the quiet one, with a warm, infectious smile. He followed Gungo's lead into construction and designed and built the additions onto Linda and Abe's house. WOW! The entire house looks and feels like it was all original without an addition.

 

Greg's specialty, however, is woodworking and cabinetry. Mario took us for a surprise visit to see Greg at the woodworking shop.  He is good friends with a retired woodworker that has a huge woodshop filled with specialized machines not being used. Fortunately, Greg has full use of the shop. Presently, Greg is building a complete set of custom kitchen cabinets that he will box up, ship to Hawaii, and fly out to Hawaii to install in his other cousin's condo in Hawaii. Apparently, he can do all that cheaper than can have done locally.

Greg, and his wife, Edna, also live in a gorgeous home just across the street from Linda and Abe and Mario and Santa. However, Greg's house is the only one in that subdivision that doesn't have backyard access with the other siblings. We met their oldest daughter Kathy. She doesn't look a day over 18 but has four kids, including a 17-year-old.

Later, Mario took us over to see Greg's son's new law office.  Father and son gutted a space in an old hotel building and built the office and beautiful conference table. before we left, Greg's pretty young wife lead us to the back storeroom where a small incubator was heating a bunch of duck eggs in various stages of hatching. One duckling had hatched and was just hours old.

EDDIE: I think Eddie would bristle at being called the-baby-of-the-family, but he is the youngest. Eddie talks about his older brother, Gungo, with reverence. As proud as he is about his carpentry skills and accomplishments, he proclaims that he can only aspire to match Gungo's abilities and never match his output. 

Eddie bought and gutted the old house behind Aunt Tia's. He walked me over to show me that he added two large dormers to the second story. One was a shed dormer while the other was a beautiful half hexagon dormer. He also rebuilt the stairs, removed walls and replaced with load bearing microlam beams, opening up a lot of space. Eddie installs a lot of bathrooms and is starting to specialize in converting showers to handicapped accessible.  

Eddie is a tool pack-rat. He has just about any tool imaginable. He easily has 25 cordless drills of all sizes, a jackhammer, a John Deer tractor with a detachable backhoe, lasers, a stucco mixer, saws of every kind, color, and description,  3 or 4 giant metal tool chests, and paint sprayers. It just goes on and on. The yard is full; the garage is full, yard sheds are full, even his bedroom is full. He admits that on occasion he has purchased a tool only to find that he already had 4 or 5 of them. But his work is professional, and he always has projects and jobs to work waiting for him. 

We met his son, Albert and his daughter, Briana fleetingly. The current plan is for Albert to take it over the partially remodeled home in the back of Aunt Tia's while Papa Eddie guides and teaches him to do the finishing work. Albert has already completed the tile work in one of the bathrooms, and it looks great. Brianna is in school in San Antonio. 

We spent a whole evening out at Eddie, Jr's brand new house. Junior and his wife, Katrina, met while in the Air Force together for four years. Junior is a 12-year veteran having lived all over the map, including Alaska. Now, discharged from the Air Force and living as a family, they settled down in - Del Rio. Junior has a great job as a government service worker at the Air Force Base while Katrina works on their new home and takes care of their children.

But, Eddie's passion is music equipment, especially all things guitars and amps. He is an encyclopedia of equipment knowledge. I had a blast going over equipment while jamming guitar licks together.

 

It's fair to say that Eddie Jr has as much music equipment as Eddie Sr has tools.

This little narration doesn't come close to capturing the love and cohesion that permeates this family. Linda devotes most of her week caring for Aunt Tia while everyone else takes their turn to fill in the gaps. They don't approach that obligation as a burden, but as a joy and an honor to serve Mom. When a family member needs to remodel or repair their home, the carpenters in the family kick around ideas until a plan develops, and then they tackle it. The frequent family meal get-togethers are normal - they weren't just for us. Everyone genuinely admires the accomplishments of each other and all of their kids. And while we were there, they absorbed Wanda and me into their orbit as if we had always been there. Wanda's family in Del Rio was a piece of living human culture that was just as awesome to experience as any historical site, wilderness experience, world-class beach, or medieval-gargoyled building we have ever visited.

Del Rio, Texas

A friendly little border town.

 
 

Friday, May 3, 2019, Del Rio is Texas border town. In the current anti-Hispanic-immigrant political atmosphere ginned up by Trump, I was acutely sensitive to any ripples that might emanate from a border clash or a brown invasion. But the town was quiet - no streets swimming in drugs, no violent gang activity, no rapes. Just some, "I guess, good people." Actually, a lot of good people. A lot of good Hispanic people. In fact, I only saw Hispanic people, and all were exactly what any reasonable person would expect - friendly, kind, helpful.

So, has anything changed? The border crossing between Del Rio and Cuidad Acuna now takes up to 3 hours, when it took mere minutes 15 years ago at our last visit. There are approximately 50 maquiladoras, factories of foreign companies attracted to the 100% union-free status. As the seventh largest binational metropolitan area along the border, with an integrated workforce of 32,000 individuals that live in one community and work in the other community, their commutes are now far more complicated. But, as I stated, Del Rio is an exceptionally peaceful, safe, and laid-back little city. 

Tere and Mario graciously ferried us around Del Rio's tourist areas including many sites Wanda remembered as a Seventh Grader so we could record them. 

AMISTAD RESERVOIR: We started by going to the Amistad Reservoir. Much of the area surrounding the reservoir is a Federal Park. The park office had just moved, so it was a challenge to find it, but we finally tracked it down and picked up maps and tips from the attendant. The Reservoir is gigantic and formed by the Rio Grande and Pecos River. Its primary use is for irrigation and recreational use is secondary. Consequently, the water level fluctuates dramatically. Right now it is 26 feet below the normal level. We learned the Reservoir fluctuates wildly. In 2010, the reservoir was completely full only to reach a record low in 2015. The reservoir had been steadily rising since 2015, until this year. Currently, it is 26 feet below normal.

The reservoir is smack in the middle of a desert. It is rugged country, with Creosote bushes, all kinds of prickly cactus, Agave plants, and every thorny twig known to exist. I got stabbed more than once trying to get close up photos.

Using the maps, we went to an area that has several nature trails. Tere was skeptical about all the walking, but she kept up admirably, even in her skimpy sandals. By the end of our visit, I think she was ready to tackle the Appalachian Trail. 

The locals know this small pond formed by the dam as the "Blue Hole." When Wanda lived in Del Rio during her 7th grade, it was a swimming hang out where kids would jump off the bridge.

Near the Blue Hole swimming area is the San Felipe Park. This is the spring-fed San Felipe River which flows right through town and was instrumental in Del Rio's origin. Being spring-fed means that it runs all year long. In fact, the river roars out of the ground only 8 miles from Del Rio. The city has developed a long river walk along its banks. It is clear and runs fast, attracting kids to frolic in several choice spots. The town's main park sports two of these swimming spots: 1) The Blue Hole. At the park, the river splits off into several branches forming islands that the city included in the park. One branch is dammed to form a small but deep clear swimming hole. A footbridge across the pond provides a prime jumping platform. 2) Further down the river, where the river branches reunite, is a section of fast running water called The Pig Pen. Tere explained the name, but I didn't catch it, and I forgot to ask her again. I do know that it didn't have anything to do with pigs in the river.

As tranquil as this scene is, the river is prone to flash flooding every 50 years. In the 1930s, the river badly flooded the town.  In 1998, this picturesque little river took 17 inches of rain and deposited it in 400 homes and businesses in Del Rio, causing 11 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. FEMA ended up buying and tearing down many homes along the river, but a surprisingly large number of folks remained. I guess they figured that they'd get another good 50 years before it happened again. 

 

The 1998 flood was a monumental event in the city's history. It is talked about and referred to over and over. There are plaques with narratives, museum displays, family stories, and signs showing the properties bought out by FEMA after the flood.  

VAL VERDE WINERY. We checked out the Val Verde Winery. Started in 1883, it boasts being the oldest continuously operating winery in the entire state of Texas. With all that experience, we expected great things from their grapes. They had what looked like four acres of grape vines.  After taste testing, we bought a bottle of delicious Rose wine. All their wines were excellent. They grow about 1/4 of their grapes, mostly for their near brandy "Port" wines. 

ACEQUIAS. We noticed a network of small canals or channels running along many streets. At each street intersection, were steel blades that slid up and down to either block water when down or let it through when up. Tere explained that these used to be farm irrigation channels fed by the San Felipe River in the old days. However, even after city blocks replaced the farm fields, the system remains operational. 

Later, we talked to Greg Jr about the system. He is an active user of the acequias. The cost of water in Del Rio is prohibitive. Watering a lawn can cost hundreds per month. If you buy into the system, you pay $250 per year. Every three weeks you can flood your thirsty yard in several inches of water and let it slowly soak.

WHITEHEAD MUSEUM. On our final day, we visited the Whitehead Museum. This funky museum was dedicated to Del Rio's history and had a particular focus of Judge Roy Bean (1825 - 1903). Judge Bean wasn't exactly a Del Rio native but was deeply woven into the local area's legends. After a lot of wandering around which included Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and finally, Texas; and a lot of nefarious dealings; Roy Bean ended up in a tiny settlement, in a very remote area on the Pecos River, near Del Rio, because he knew the railroad was coming. 

As the legend goes, Judge Bean opened up a crude saloon, and in spite of being a scoundrel, he was appointed Justice of the Peace - there just wasn't anyone else available. Of course, the authority went to his head, and when the railroad came, he was in a perfect spot to exploit his position. His saloon doubled as a courtroom when needed. He made up laws as he saw fit, and his judgments were always self-suited. Over the entrance of his saloon/courtroom, a sign said, "Judge Roy Bean, The Law West of the Pecos."

 

My favorite section was a scene of his saloon. Judge Bean was serving a customer that was on a layover, waiting for the train. The customer bought 35 cents worth of food and drink, using a $20 gold piece. When the train whistle signaled, "All aboard", the customer started to ask for his change. Judge Bean ignored him. The customer got more and more agitated, needing to get on the train quickly. Judge Bean finally said, "I know you gave me $20 and I gave you 35 cents worth of vittles and drink. I owe you your change. But, you are making such a ruckus about it that I am fining you $19.65 for disturbing the peace." That just about says it all.

The entire museum consisted of an eclectic assembly of buildings and displays on a 2 1/2 acre landscaped corner lot. The displays were well set up, with many artifacts typical of the times or the scenes being depicted. Of course, the flood of '98 was well represented. A corner of a large building was devoted to this game-changer event. There were albums filled with photos, maps showing the extent of the flood, and a video of the extensive damage around every nook and cranny of the community, informally shot by a local guy with his own video camera. He also narrated the video.

 

Another area presented a 1911 aviation event that happened in Del Rio. The Hearst publication empire offered a $10,000 prize to fly coast-to-coast within 30 days. In 1911, just 8 years after the Wright Brothers maiden flight, Galbraith Perry Rogers accomplished the feat, but not within the 30 days. One of his stops was in Del Rio, and it was a school-closing, city-wide extravaganza. Overall, it was a fun museum. If you stop and read everything, it would take about 3 hours. And it is worth reading everything.
 

Of course, a trip down memory lane wouldn't be complete without a peek at the place that started it all for Wanda. This unassuming corner building in downtown Del Rio during the 1950s was a cafe where Wanda's mother worked as a waitress. It was in this cafe that she first met Wanda's dad. To think that spark resulted in Wanda is pure magic as far as I'm concerned. 

AMTRAK TO DEL RIO

Return to Wisconsin

Sunday, May 5, 2019. Around 11 pm on Thursday, we took a shower, put on our comfy train clothes, and packed. Abe gave us some going away presents: a bottle of Val Verde Red Wine, a genuine Val Verde corkscrew, a Zapata t-shirt, and four cans of fire-roasted peppers. What a neat surprise. Zapata, a leader in the Mexican revolution, coined the phrase, "It is better to die on my feet than to live on my knees."  

 

We really appreciated how he hung in there all night long as we waited for a very late train.

Our train was scheduled to arrive in Del Rio at 1:02 am and depart at 1:03 am. Of course, we figured the train would be late but thought it prudent to be there on time. Around 12:30 am, just as Abe was getting ready to give us a lift to the station, a violent but impressive strobe-light show of lightning commenced. At least 2 or 3 bolts seemed to originate right in the car. On the way to the station, we received an email alert that the train was running nearly an hour late. No big deal, we had previously seen a nice looking station building at the Del Rio stop. We thought that the worst case scenario would be to wait in the station. 

OK, that wasn't the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario was that the station was closed, and the sky opened up in a biblical deluge. Then we got another email alerting us that the train was running 2 hours late. However, it warned us that trains could make up time, so don't go far. Yeah, right! Abe took us back home, and we all bagged out on his Lazy Boy chairs with Eddie Murphy's, Going To America, droning on the TV. At 3 am, we got another alert. The train was to reach Del Rio at 4:28 am, but don't forget, trains can make up time. After another dozing off, we got another departure update for  5:28 am. Wow, they are really making up time - NOT!

A little past 5 am, Abe took us back to the darkened station. As soon as we arrived, the train made up some more "negative time," and was due at 5:39 am. Finally, at 5:48 am sharp, the train rounded the bend and scooped us up, barely stopping. On the bright side, the storm had worked its way east of us, and the air was crisp and clean with a beautiful sunrise in the making. We appreciated Abe sticking with us all night long. What a great guy! We could only imagine what it would have been like to wait outside, with no shelter or even a bench, during the all-night drenching. 

As absolutely ridiculous as all that was, once on the train, life was good. What is it about trains that are so cool? I already listed the gentle sway, the walkabouts, the generous seating, the dome car, etc. It's all that, and something more. Maybe it's simply the romance of it all. Perhaps the rhythm of the train resonates with my rhythm. Oh well, that's just getting way too deep. Once settled in our spot, we fell asleep. 

As soon as the grogginess cleared, it was back to the dome car. I listened to an audible book about General Grant on my iPod while watching the countryside slip by on my giant world-screen to the outside world. Again, I was pleasantly surprised at the beautiful path that the train was taking. As General Grant was slogging through the Vicksburg area, we were rolling our way through Texas. When I had my fill of General Grant, I turned my cell phone's mobile hotspot on and listened to podcasts on Stitcher Radio on the iPod. I love NPR's, This American Life program, and got caught up on past episodes. Then there's RadioLab, Reply All, Reveal, Science Vs., the Moth, Wait Wait, Fresh Air. Riding the train does provide uninterrupted time. 

 

This back half of the dome car had booths. The front half had plump swivel chairs. All cars, including this one, had AC outlets to charge electronic devices. The train's WiFi, however, was intermittent. Our cell phone mobile hotspot works fine, but, with phone services being so stingy with data, you really must forsake data-sucking videos and Facebook if you don't want to be shocked by a higher phone bill.

By now, the train had given up on any pretense of making up time. We were six hours behind and would remain so the rest of the trip. We knew we weren't going to make it to Chicago in time to catch the last plane to Green Bay on Saturday afternoon. Wanda canceled that flight online, re-listed on a Sunday flight, and made reservations at the O'Hare Quality Inn - no big deal, we are retired.

I had gotten relatively good at sleeping on the coach seats. For the second night on this leg, I garnered all my experience to set up my space; find an empty double seat, put both seat backs down and raise both leg extensions, and grab my pillow and travel blanket.

It was almost comfortable, but not entirely. The double seat isn't big enough for me to stretch out. Where the softer seat met with the harder plastic leg extension, a particularly uncomfortable ridge formed. Wanda and I both feel that we still need to refine our bed-space-in-coach further, but we believe that we are close.

On Saturday morning, we enjoyed breakfast in the dining car. For dinner and supper, you have to make reservations, but breakfast is first to come, first to get served. We knew it was expensive, but I had heard a few passengers rave about the quality of the meals and Amtrak brags about their world renown coffee. It's time to do some research.

The dining car is elegantly laid out with large windows, big booth seating, fine china and silverware, and starchily dressed waiters. Because of limited space, they ask all patrons to double up on seating, so we shared our booth with another friendly retired couple. 

We checked out the menu, and it was expensive, with the steak supper topping out at $25. But there was a tasty variety of satisfying sounding breakfast meals, and the atmosphere was just right. We ordered an omelet dish to share, two coffees, and an orange juice. The amply-stuffed omelet came with seasoned diced potatoes, perfect bacon, and a fluffy croissant. Yes, the bill was $18, but it was still cheaper than Chili's ridiculous $24 bill at O'Hare for the same thing minus the orange juice.

The couple that we sat with turned out to be fun and informative. They were from the Chicago area and are frequent train riders partly because she is terrified of airplanes but mostly because she is a true train aficionado. Her husband, however, rides the train only if they book a berth in the sleeper car. 

When we mentioned that we were toying with the idea of doing the 15-day rail pass to go out West, she practically adopted us. We made a date to meet in the dome car where she promised to give us an itinerary for such a trip. When we did meet, she had already written down a list of trains to ride and places to stop off and explore. She has ridden every train West of the Mississippi River. Once she did the 30-day rail pass and pooh-poohed the thought of us only going for 15 days. She listed great places to stop, B'n'B's to stay at, and sights to see. I took her pages of suggestions and carefully placed the treasure in a safe zippered pocket of my sling bag.

About 50 miles south of St. Louis, we began to follow the swollen Mississippi River. When I say follow, I mean the tracks were inches from the river. We saw flooded fields, houses, and barns. Another foot higher and these tracks would be under water. Whizzing along, practically in the river, seemed like water skiing at 80 mph. 

At 4 pm, we heard the public announcement saying in appreciation for our patience a free meal of beef stew is available in the diner car to all passengers. The dining car was half full when I arrived. Again, they doubled up the booths to make room for the expected onslaught of passengers.

 

At my booth was an experienced train rider from Los Angeles visiting his daughter in Chicago. I asked if the train always runs behind schedule. He cracked up and told a story of being 27 hours late on one of his cross country trips. For his patience on that trip, he received a $300 Amtrak voucher and two free meals.

The beef stew dinner was terrific. We were served extra tender sirloin tips with mushrooms and gravy, smooth mashed potatoes, a big homemade roll, and our choice of apple or cranberry juice. 

We were scheduled to reach Union Station in Chicago at 1:45 pm. When we pulled in around 7 pm, we detoured to the H-Mart for an Asian rice dish, and then got on the Blue Line to O'Hare. From O'Hare, it was a short shuttle ride to Quality Inn and a real bed - delicious! 

 

The next day, my sister, Donna, picked us up at the Green Bay airport around noon. She welcomed us home and took us to El Tapatio, a Mexican restaurant and grocery store. One of her former student's family owns the establishment. We were pleasantly surprised to see familiar Mexican dishes on the menu that we have only experienced when traveling through Jalisco, Mexico. I never get tired of Mexican cuisine. At the attached Mexican grocery store, I picked up a gallon can of whole jalapeño peppers, the same one that Tia Amparo recommended. 

I knew that Donna rode the train way back in the old days, but on the way to El Tapatio's, we found out that while in college during the 50s and 60s, she rode the train 36 times between California and Wisconsin. Our dad worked on the Soo Line Railroad, and he could get Donna free tickets, much like how Wanda and I can fly standby because of her 21 years at American Airlines. Donna loved the train and understood how it captured our imagination. 

Lastly, a quick 90-minute drive landed us back home. Our cat, Bandit, played coy at first, but quickly gave in and has been affectionate ever since. Yes, it's good to be home, but where to next?