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Title: It took me 96 hours to ride an Amtrak train from coast to coast... I'd do it again in a heartbeat
Source: Business Insider
URL Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/amt ... w-york-chicago-seattle-2019-10
Published: Oct 17, 2019
Author: Graham Rapier
Post Date: 2019-10-17 14:42:19 by Willie Green
Keywords: None
Views: 210
Comments: 20

  • Amtrak is easily one of the slowest ways to travel from coast to coast, but I did it anyway.
  • The journey was delayed by more than 24 hours thanks to a missed connection in Chicago.
  • Still, the sights were so beautiful — and the conversations with fellow passengers so enjoyable — that I'd repeat the journey every time I travel, if I had the time.

Over 96 hours, I saw more of the US than I had ever seen before as I traveled through cities and towns of all sizes, across windswept plains, and through some of the most beautiful mountains imaginable.

But stepping onto my first overnight Amtrak journey, I thought I was a seasoned veteran. Mere hours into the four-day journey, I quickly learned that wasn't the case.

I've taken the train between New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, more times than I can count, and even ventured out of the Northeast Corridor for a few longer journeys. But compared with many other passengers on this trip from coast to coast, I was still a novice in every sense of the word.

My companions on this 96-hour, 10-state journey from New York to Seattle — especially my fellow sleeping-car passengers — were well versed in surviving a multiday trip by rail. Nearly every person I met had been on a sleeper before, and they were prepared to pass the time.

Unfortunately, I was not as ready.

I departed from Business Insider's headquarters on a Tuesday afternoon and loaded up with plenty of snacks, tons of reading material, hours of podcasts, fully charged batteries, and high hopes.

My journey officially began at New York's Pennsylvania Station, one of the most hated buildings in the city, if not the world.

It's the busiest rail terminal in North America, with 16 Amtrak routes as well as commuter rail to upstate New York, New Jersey, and Long Island.

There are lots of ways to cross the country by train. The journey I chose isn't the longest by route miles, but it is one of the most popular.

The Empire Builder, as it's known, crosses 10 states, through some of the most beautiful — and desolate — parts of the country. I chose this route over the others simply because it passes through four states I had never seen.

The first half of my journey was scheduled to depart at 3:40 p.m. I had an assigned car and room number, so unlike on some trains, there was no mad dash to get a seat. Still, I found myself in a line.

Why does Amtrak love lines so much? I'm not sure. Nevertheless, a friendly staff member began walking us to our platform about 10 minutes before our departure.

Each train car had an assigned attendant, who helped me find my room and later came through to explain everything about the room, how dining worked, and all the other rules of the train.

James pointed out the luggage rack in the ceiling, which I was thankful to find, given that suitcases barely fit in the small room.

I was surprised that my tiny room included both a toilet (which doubled as a table) and a fold-down sink.

The sink drains only as you fold it back into the wall, and it splashed all over my stuff when I used the faucet.

As we headed up the Hudson River, I settled in to relax and watch the sunset.

Overnight, we'd pass through upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, before rolling into Chicago the next morning.

It's worth noting here that I was in a single-level Viewliner sleeper. Amtrak operates these on the East Coast because its taller Superliner trains can't fit through the more than century-old tunnels in Baltimore, New York, and other cities.

At Albany, where the train had to switch from modern, electrified power to a diesel locomotive, we had about a 20-minute break to stretch our legs, get a snack, smoke a cigarette, and pick up more passengers.

I headed inside to check out the station.

My dinner reservation wasn't until 8:30, so after stretching my legs in Albany, I settled in for some more reading until my time slot was called.

The rooms, while small, were surprisingly spacious! I was able to fully stretch out my legs onto the second seat (though had I been sharing this room, things would have been quite cramped).

I had reported on some big changes on (some of) Amtrak's dining cars east of the Mississippi, so I was mentally prepared going into dinner — and that proved to be a good thing.

I found an open seat next to Hal, many decades my senior, who was on his way home to Montana from a family reunion in Vermont, and Peggy, also an Amtrak veteran of many more years than I've lived, who was headed to California to visit her son.

There are basically two types of people who ride these long-distance trains, Roger Harris, Amtrak's chief commercial and marketing officer, said in an interview a few days before I set off on this journey.

"They have very, very different characteristics," he said. "People riding coach tend to travel a few hundred miles, while people in sleepers tend to be much more end-to-end. There are people who get on in Albany and get off in Cleveland, or get on in Cleveland and ride to Chicago."

Those intermediate markets, sometimes called "city pairs" by people in the industry, are a big focus for Amtrak going forward.

The Creole shrimp and sausage left much to be desired. I'm no gourmand in my home kitchen — but for these ticket prices, I could see why people were unhappy.

The food was clearly microwaved (or quickly reheated in some capacity) and wasn't even served on a real plate. The "specialty dessert" was a prepackaged brownie.

"1-800-USA-RAIL!" the lone (and very busy) dining attendant quipped to an unsatisfied passenger. "I didn't make the changes."

Luckily, the food got better on the next train, where the white tablecloths are likely to remain — for now at least. (More on that in a bit.)

"West of the Mississippi, these trains are typically two nights," Harris, the Amtrak executive, said when I asked him whether the changes might expand westward beyond the initial rollout.

"They're typically a 48-hour train to the West Coast," he said, "so the onboard service is a more important part of the journey, and people have more dining events while they're traveling. It's more complicated than on the East Coast, where people generally get on in the evening, have a meal, and then get off in the evening."

After the dining car emptied out, I headed back to my room to settle in for the night. James asked if I wanted to use the top or bottom bed (yes, people pack two-tight in these rooms) and showed me how to make it up.

I grabbed another breath of fresh air in Syracuse, New York, where we arrived around 10:15 p.m., about an hour behind schedule.

I joked about this safety net as I crawled into bed, but one big bump in the night later and I was thankful it was there to keep me from falling six feet to the train floor below.

Sleeping aboard a train was surprisingly difficult. The bed was comfortable enough, and the blankets warm, but every train that passed with its whistle blasting caused me to toss and turn. I spent half the night watching stars, something I can't often do in New York.

I went to breakfast — an unreserved affair compared with dinner — around 10 a.m., after we should have already arrived in Chicago. But we were in Waterloo, Indiana, hours from our destination.

Breakfast was about the same quality as dinner. To be fair, I have a banana and a granola bar each morning — even a microwaved sausage-egg-and-cheese sandwich is an upgrade.

Worried I would miss my connection in Chicago, I went back to my room and contemplated life and the status of rail travel in the United States, and tried to get some work done. My train from Chicago to Seattle, meanwhile, left without me.

Finally, we arrived in Chicago, a full five hours and 49 minutes behind schedule. Plenty of other people missed their connecting trains too, but no one seemed to be very disappointed. After all, we were (mostly) here for the journey — and we knew it would be a slow one.

Amtrak stations largely fall into two basic categories: beautifully restored stations built hundreds of years ago, and derelict shacks. Luckily, Chicago's is the former.

I joined a line with many of my fellow delayed travelers and plotted how I could waste 24 hours in Chicago. Luckily, Amtrak had many of our trips already rebooked, and a customer-service agent went down the line passing out updated itineraries, as well as hotel and food vouchers.

On an unplanned hiatus from my journey, I decided to explore downtown Chicago, a city with great importance to America's railroad history.

Twenty-four hours behind schedule, I headed back to Union Station for attempt No. 2 to board the Empire Builder to Seattle.

Unfortunately for the beautiful station, Amtrak, again, loves lines. I followed the signs to find a snaking line of unhappy travelers leading to the boarding gate.

Once the door opened, we headed to our train. Like the train on the East Coast, there was no rush, but this many people with luggage heading down one narrow platform made for chaos, to say the least.

Whoever was scanning tickets at the platform entrance was directing people to the wrong doors, a conductor said, adding to the confusion.

This leg of my journey — like most trains west of Chicago — was on what Amtrak calls a Superliner. These taller, double-level train cars offer quite the view (and can carry many more passengers).

But I soon discovered I had lucked out: the accessible bedroom was mine.

The attendant later said these rooms are bookable two weeks out from a trip if they're still empty. I got this instead of a coach seat because the bedroom wasn't booked. Whew.

Relieved by not having to spend two nights sleeping upright, I unpacked my stuff and got comfortable in my new room.

The accessible bedrooms are one of two accommodations that take up the entire width of a train car. I also had my own toilet inside, while other travelers had to venture down the hall to shared restrooms.

As on my first trip, a dining-car attendant came to take my reservation. I again chose the latest option.

I also had a choice of two seats in this spacious bedroom, depending on which way I wanted to face.

This was conflicting enough in the first room, but now I also had to choose which side of the train to look out! Admittedly, sitting on the toilet wasn't as comfortable, so I mostly stuck to the side with actual chairs.

Through Wisconsin, one of the aforementioned states I had never visited, I saw a landscape that was mostly what I had expected: rolling hills and farms.

As the sun began to set, we rolled into Milwaukee, our second stop and the first outside the Chicago metro area.

This train also had an observation car, which I was eager to use as an escape from my room.

Somewhere between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, my dinner reservation finally rolled around. I headed to the dining car and followed the instructions to wait at the door to be seated.

It was immediately clear from the tablecloths and Amtrak-emblazoned cutlery that Peggy was right: This meal would be much better than the one on the previous train.

Dining on Amtrak is an interesting affair, unlike any restaurant I've ever been to.

Each passenger fills out this form, which appears to have general categories for menu items, like "poultry entree" or "healthy menu option." I assume these let the company track what's being ordered, while allowing for some flexibility.

"They've said computers are coming for the entire 12 years I've worked here," the waiter said when I asked whether the forms were eventually scanned into a computer or somehow tallied.

There were a lot more choices on this train too. But alcohol, unfortunately, was not included in my reservation.

I eventually settled on the "land and sea combo," because, let's face it, I'm never going to pass up a steak.

Out the window, we caught brief glimpses of the Mississippi River. Two of my tablemates, Thomas and Mimi, from Switzerland, were very confused about how we were crossing the famous river this far north, so we pulled out a map and discussed geography.

Dessert was so delicious that I forgot to take a photo, but take my word for it that the cheesecake was moist, flavorful, and topped with fresh whipped cream.

In a sugar coma, I settled back into my cabin as we rolled into our last smoke break of the day in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As Harris, the Amtrak executive, mentioned, Minneapolis is one of the big hubs along this long journey. I saw plenty of people disembarking and plenty more boarding as we set off for North Dakota and the rest of the West.

I opted for the bottom bunk on this train so that I could see out the window (despite the darkness). It was slightly more spacious than the first train, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.

At some point in the night, we hit a nasty storm, despite being so early in the season; it bombarded much of the upper Midwest. My window was mostly caked with ice, and the landscape had changed drastically since Minnesota.

There's nothing more warming than a hearty breakfast, and pancakes did the trick.

These pancakes were some of the best I've ever had: perfectly fluffy, slightly crisp around the edges, and not dry to the point that they merely soak up syrup like sponges. It's no surprise that they were out of pancakes the next morning — that'll teach me to sleep late.

At this meal, I was pleasantly surprised to meet people younger than me. Two women from Pittsburgh were headed to Seattle, where one had just accepted an internship at Boeing. We talked about planes for a bit before parting ways.

I've lived in New York for the better part of a decade, but snow is still extremely exciting, so I headed to the observation car to stare at the frozen landscape.

Seats were in high demand here, but after a few minutes of pacing back and forth, I managed to snag a seat.

Downstairs, there were snacks for sale by Miss Oliver, the lounge-car attendant. When making announcements, she sang little jingles for us. I was partial to her Tina Turner cover.

By Minot, North Dakota, it was time for another crew change.

Once again, I took the time to stretch my legs with the smokers. Across the street, a small coffee trailer was open and eager to see us. A conductor said they rely on the daily train arrivals for business and are prepared every time.

Somewhere near the border between Montana and North Dakota, things started to look like I expected them to. That is to say: It was desolate.

The landscape out here, mere miles from the Canadian border, is dotted with dozens — if not hundreds — of small farming towns.

Some of the smaller stations don't see many passengers. That's probably because this one in particular still features a vintage Amtrak logo that was retired nearly two decades ago.

Malta, Montana, saw 3,570 passengers in 2018, with most of those coming from Chicago.

One thing I didn't expect to see along the route was so many railroad museums.

We must have passed at least a dozen small homages to America's railroad history at stations throughout the journey. Here, in Havre, Montana, a beautifully restored locomotive from the Great Northern Railway sits next to the station.

Now defunct, the railway was the northernmost transcontinental route in the country, carrying the original Empire Builder train in 1929.

Salmon was my dinner choice for the second night. It wasn't the best fish I'd ever had, but still an excellent meal.

I again sat next to Thomas and Mimi, who told me about their travels aboard the Orient Express from Milan to Istanbul, as well as on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. Those trains are now next on my list.

I cannot overstate the amount of farming. It was at this point that I fully understood the line "amber waves of grain."

I was getting pretty restless. Eager to get to Seattle (and off this train), I settled in for an early bedtime (and more reading).

There were no pancakes this morning because I slept in. I opted for an omelet and grits. Not bad!

Because service was over for the trip, I managed to get a small tour of the kitchen and service area.

These dumbwaiters carry food for hundreds of meals every day from the full kitchen and grill on the lower level to the upper deck, where they're served to hungry passengers.

We turned a corner out of the mountains, and there it was at long last: Puget Sound.

I shed a small tear as I spied the Olympic Mountains peeking above the sound. We were so close I could almost taste it.

I stepped off the train at 1 p.m., nearly three hours after our scheduled arrival.

"Have you ever arrived on time?" I heard a fellow passenger ask a crew member as we departed. They just shook their head.

Seattle's King Street Station, like Chicago's, is beautiful.

Google Maps says this journey would have taken just 42 hours to drive, compared with my 96 hours on a train.

Sure, it took a little bit longer. But if I had the time to do it, I'd cross the country by train every time.

As Peggy, my first dinner companion, said the first night, "you just can't see anything from 30,000 feet."

Some 3,000 miles later, she couldn't have been more right.


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#1. To: Willie Green (#0) (Edited)

I enjoyed reading this article, choo-choo-Willie.

I wish he posted some sort of cost summary for his 4-day trip. I'm sure I could spend some time at Amtrak to try to figure out a ball park figure.

Do you have any idea? Thanks again.

EDIT: I just visited the original link and saw bunches of decent pics with his article, but no price or cost listings.

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-17   21:43:16 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#2. To: Willie Green (#0)

It took me 96 hours to ride an Amtrak train from coast to coast... I'd do it again in a heartbeat

I read the story with great interest, Willie.

I'm not sure I believe Graham Rapier when he says he'd do it again in a heartbeat.

He had way too many disparaging things to say about his trip.

You can bet that Roger Harris was cringing just a little when he read this article.

watchman  posted on  2019-10-17   22:26:41 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#3. To: Willie Green (#0)

Amtrak offers Veteran, military member discounts

Veterans can enjoy a 10% savings on rail fares across the entire Amtrak network. Enjoy onboard amenities such as a Café Car, WiFi, power outlets and spacious seating for a comfortable ride on your next trip.

To take advantage of this offer, select “Military Veteran” as your traveler type on the booking widget online. The 10% discount will automatically apply to fares when qualifying travel is selected.

Weird coincidence; I just checked my email and found the above. Here's the link:

media.amtrak.com/2014/12/...-on-program-for-veterans/

I notice it is an older news item.

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-17   23:44:38 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#4. To: Fred Mertz (#1) (Edited)

Hey Fred!

I visited Amtrak's website and looked for a 1-way NYC to Seattle on " The Empire Builder" on Oct 28 and got ticket prices ranging between $473 and $833 depending on accommodations...

And I noticed that there are other trains making the same trip with fares ranging between $276 and $887, once again, depending on accommodations.

Having looked up Amtrak fares before, none of them are cast in stone... A lot seems to depend not only on what time of the day you want to leave, but also what day of the week... Just the same, I think that probably $800 or so isn't too bad for a 75+ hr trip including a "Superline roomette" where you can at least have a little privacy & lie down to sleep... Assuming you don't want to sleep 3~4 days in a business class seat, even if they do give you more leg room than the airlines & can get up and walk around whenever you want... sleeping in a reclining chair can be a little grueling when you get older... But if you want to go with the cheapest fare, I suppose you can still swing it that way...

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-18   20:43:27 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#5. To: Willie Green (#0)

so you can afford to put your life on hold for four days and risk those missed connections

paraclete  posted on  2019-10-18   20:45:26 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#6. To: Willie Green (#0)

Thanks for posting Willie ! Interesting read !

Are you going to try it ?

Si vis pacem, para bellum

Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." (Will Rogers)

"No one ever rescues an old dog. They lay in a cage until they die. PLEASE save one. None of us wants to die cold and alone... --Dennis Olson "

People that say money can't buy you happiness, have never paid an adoption fee

Stoner  posted on  2019-10-18   21:05:54 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#7. To: Willie Green (#4)

Just the same, I think that probably $800 or so isn't too bad for a 75+ hr trip including a "Superline roomette" where you can at least have a little privacy & lie down to sleep.

That seems very reasonable to me. I'm sure it doesn't include meals and booze, but good information to know.

Thanks again, Willie!

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-18   21:36:22 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#8. To: Fred Mertz (#7)

Yeah, not really competitive with airlines for transcontinental travel if your looking for cost efficiency (High Speed Rail's best niche is for trips between cities that are 150 to 600 miles apart... and auto/highways best for shorter trips)...

But if you're just looking for a leisurely way to travel cross country & take in the scenery as it passes-by outside the window, $800+ ain't too bad for a "mini-vacation"

Heck, if you wanted to, you could probably stretch it out a bit longer, getting off the train here & there for a night or two, do some touristy stuff, and then get back on a different train to continue your journey to the next destination... Not a bad way to cross-off some sight-seeing destinations from your bucket list.

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-20   13:38:41 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#9. To: Stoner (#6)

Are you going to try it ?

Well I'm living in Houston nowadays, so it makes practical sense for me to wait until they build the Houston-to-Dallas high speed rail... They're supposed to start construction next year and finish up by 2026... So that gives me motivation to get up every morning and keep watching the sunrise for a few more years....

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-20   19:19:50 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#10. To: Willie Green (#9)

Well, good luck. Hope you make it.

When I was a kid, my Mom & I would ride a train to Cincinnati to her sisters. Not overnight, but was an enjoyable trip. Still remember eating in the dining car. Food was not bad. Very pleasant trip.

Si vis pacem, para bellum

Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." (Will Rogers)

"No one ever rescues an old dog. They lay in a cage until they die. PLEASE save one. None of us wants to die cold and alone... --Dennis Olson "

People that say money can't buy you happiness, have never paid an adoption fee

Stoner  posted on  2019-10-20   21:42:03 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#11. To: Willie Green (#8)

But if you're just looking for a leisurely way to travel cross country & take in the scenery as it passes-by outside the window, $800+ ain't too bad for a "mini-vacation"

I'm giving it some thought.

Only question is where does one shit, shower and shave?

I saw that you shit where you eat picture.

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-24   11:41:17 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#12. To: Fred Mertz (#11)

Only question is where does one shit, shower and shave?

Well that all depends on what level of service you choose to travel, Fred...

Here's an Amtrak webpage that explains some of the different accommodations that may be available... For instance, you may choose to sleep in a tiny "roomette" which is just large enough for two adults, but no restroom or shower... (There are restrooms & showers in the same car that you share with other passengers)

Or you can upgrade your accommodations to a "bedroom" which is a little more spacious & has its own shower & toilet.

Similarly, there are a variety of dining options available, depending on your accommodations... Of course you can always go eat in the dining car, but it looks like on some trains, they might even bring you your meals to you in your 1st class bedroom (I'm sure you gotta pay through the nose for that level)

But it also looks like they're pretty flexible if you want to bring your own food/drinks aboard in a picnic cooler if their menu items don't appeal to you or seem a little pricey...

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-25   9:14:21 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#13. To: Willie Green (#12)

Thanks again Willie.

You da Man!

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-25   15:21:10 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#14. To: Fred Mertz (#13)

Glad to help, Fred...

If you're not in a big hurry, it certainly looks like a relaxing way to travel...
Plenty of room compared to getting packed in like sardines on the airline...

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-25   16:13:58 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#15. To: Willie Green, Fred Mertz (#14)

If you're not in a big hurry, it certainly looks like a relaxing way to travel...

I'm thinking about taking my next trip to Seattle from Toledo by train. I checked prices - Coach seats all the way about $300, just over 85 hours.

For a few bucks more business class seating, still cheaper than flying. Don't know if I can swing the $700 or so for a stateroom though.

Last time I took any train was back in 1974, from Bangkok to Udon Thani Thailand.

Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen.
The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.
Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

Deckard  posted on  2019-10-25   16:26:00 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#16. To: Willie Green (#14)

I'm going to investigate it. I told gf about my thoughts and she's all for it.

I think a seven day trip out west and back would fit the bill. I see there are tour companies packaging trips, but I'll probably save some shekels doing it myself.

I'd keep my beady bubbles peeled to the scenery during daylight hours for maximum effect. I've driven west with my eyes on the roads. This sounds like fun.

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-25   16:28:24 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#17. To: Deckard (#15)

Last time I took any train was back in 1974, from Bangkok to Udon Thani Thailand.

I've been on trains and subways before, but never for relaxation and scenery and enjoyment.

Last one was a bullet train in China 5 years ago. Everything was a blur ;^)

Fred Mertz  posted on  2019-10-25   16:32:28 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#18. To: Deckard (#15)

Maybe you can book a berth for just 1 of the 3 or 4 nights when you're on the road... Cheaper than having a bed every night, but still gives you a break from sleeping in the seats the whole way....
I'm not certain, but if they have the space available, they might even let you upgrade while you're traveling... (of course if they're all full-up in advance, then your stuck in you seat anyway)

But just another way to try to save some $$$ and still get a little luxury comfort for at least one night one your journey!

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-25   21:44:53 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#19. To: Willie Green (#18) (Edited)

Maybe you can book a berth for just 1 of the 3 or 4 nights when you're on the road...

That's a thought, maybe on one of the longer legs of the trip.

I'm not certain, but if they have the space available, they might even let you upgrade while you're traveling... (of course if they're all full-up in advance, then your stuck in you seat anyway)

Yeah I checked on that - as long as berths are available you can upgrade along the way.

To be honest, I never would have considered a long journey by train until I read this article and checked the prices - Thanks Willie, I'll start making a playlist for my trip, beginning with these:

There must be thousands of train songs and different versions of them out there. One more I like:

Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen.
The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.
Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

Deckard  posted on  2019-10-25   21:58:17 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


#20. To: Deckard (#19)

There must be thousands of train songs and different versions of them out there.

Well,yeah... You did miss a few of my favorites....

Willie Green  posted on  2019-10-26   9:40:37 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  


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