I generally like it when things go according to plan. I say generally because I have a high tolerance for unpredictability in some areas of life but very little in others. Travel is one area where I’m willing to fly by the seat of my pants, especially when I’m flying solo.
As the years have passed, I’ve become worse (better?) about booking some things last-minute. Travel disruption happens. You don’t make it to your destination in time, and you forfeit a night of hotel. In the age of COVID-19, you can expect travel disruption. Last year I had to cancel multiple trips and also deal with annoying last-minute changes for trips we did take. I didn’t like dealing with either.
I’ve started finding it easier to punt on the planning. It’s worked flawlessly.
Until now. Last week I thought I’d be able to easily book a last-minute ticket from SFO to our little regional airport. I’ve booked the SFO-ACV hop less than a week out multiple times. No one should be traveling midday on Wednesday, correct? Wrong. Totally wrong.
United wanted like 35,000 miles for the last-minute economy ticket. I’d expected to pay the typical 6,500 LifeMiles. Either bite the bullet and pony up enough miles for a transcontinental business class trip, or find a Plan B. I hate the idea of spending this many miles. Plan B it was.
Which was a second problem. Could I rent a car? Nope. Cars wouldn’t even price out for the one-way itinerary. Could I fly a different day? Maybe. This would be super frustrating, though, and only like 8,000 fewer miles. Bus? Train? Hitchhike? I’m running out of options here.
Amtrak to the Rescue
When you think Amtrak, I’m sure you’re picturing a train. Yes, they certainly operate those. But Amtrak home to Northern California means about 25 minutes on a train and 6+ hours on a bus. It’s not a fun trip.
Amtrak was selling tickets for the next day, for which I was extremely grateful. I could meet all my work obligations in the morning, catch BART to the East Bay, and then hop on the train. At $42, it was a bargain compared to United.
I’ve done the trek a couple times, so my stress level was zero. It’s extremely easy to make the BART-to-Amtrak transfer at the Richmond station. I made it there with about 40 minutes to spare, settled onto a bench, and pulled out a book. Then my day took a completely unexpected turn.
Rescued By Amtrak
Engrossed in my book, a questioning voice made me look up. A man was standing there. He appeared about 35, give or take.
“Habla espanol? That was not the question I expected, but I replied with the typical “un poco.”
He began to ask me about catching a train to Willits. If you don’t know where that is, you’re not alone. Fortunately for him, it is along the bus route I was taking home. I explained that he was at the right train platform, but that the Clipper card he pulled out wouldn’t work. He needed to buy an Amtrak ticket. I explained everything as best I could in Spanish, realizing that he didn’t understand or speak even a basic level of English.
I thought that would be the end of my help. But the more we chatted, the more I realized he was in a pickle. He was without data service, so he couldn’t buy a ticket online. I ditched my smartphone, so I couldn’t help him, either. We’d have to do so on the train.
Hopping on the Capitol Corridor when it arrived, we struck out buying a ticket from the conductor. This added all sorts of layers of confusion. Now we couldn’t buy a ticket departing from Richmond, as that train had already departed. Once we sorted out that we could buy a ticket for the following day and use it instead, his card was declined. I ended up buying his ticket with my credit card and he paid me in cash. Problem one solved.
Problem two was getting him on the bus in Martinez. According to the driver, the bus was full. Amtrak bus policy during COVID-19 is one party per pair of seats. If traveling solo, you’d end up with an empty seat next to you. His ticket was for the next day, so this meant he would not be able to board.
I took things up with the driver, asking if he could open a seat for him. He asked if we were traveling together. Having sat on the train and at the Martinez station together, I guess we were. My answer was yes. The driver seemed annoyed, but he scanned the ticket and let us both on.
“Me salvaste.” You saved me. This is what he said as we sat down. I guess I did, in a way.
Coincidence? Or Providence?
From one perspective, this was the most perfect of coincidences. A traveling Argentino without a working credit card or data-enabled phone, without knowledge of Amtrak, and who doesn’t speak English encounters a thoroughly non-Hispanic American who happens to speak an intermediate level of Spanish and is traveling on the exact bus route he needs that day.
Yeah. I don’t believe in coincidences of this sort, either. What was an initially an annoyance for me turned out to be an excellent day. This was exactly how things were supposed to go. I’m thankful now that I was “forced” into taking Amtrak.
Once the stress of travel arrangements were out of the way, we were able to talk at length. It turns out this was not his first time in the U.S. Yet he hadn’t managed to pick up any English. He was also heading out to an extremely rural part of Mendocino County, which I thought was crazy, and also has hopes to visit Europe this summer. We discussed travel, COVID-19, Buenos Aires, and many other things. We had dinner together at the rest stop in Ukiah. We exchanged cell numbers when he disembarked in Willits. I made a new friend. It is a trip I won’t forget.