What if I told you that the best steak I’ve had in the past several years was on Amtrak?

Or that after arriving by rail in northern Florida, I visited the best used bookstore of my life?

And that same night, I attended the best of several concerts I’ve seen by a legendary guitarist?

Hmmm: Best… best… best….

Well, it’s been said that the goal of all travel writing is to make the reader deeply jealous. So see how you feel about this trip:

Year by year, a Virginia friend and I have been working our way through Amtrak’s 14 long-distance trains (i.e., overnight, with sleeping cars). I’d also been urging this same pal to catch a concert by Steve Hackett, guitarist for Genesis in the seventies, when he and I were rabid devotees in the way only teenage fans can be.

So I jumped when John suggested a three-day jaunt on the Manhattan-to-Miami Silver Meteor, getting off in Jacksonville for a Hackett show and then returning the day after the concert.

Boarding (and Building) in Baltimore

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Departure Board - Frayed Passport

Departure board at Baltimore’s Penn Station shows the author’s train, the Silver Meteor, on time from New York City.

We met in Baltimore, where the Meteor pulls in at 6:10, three hours after its afternoon departure from New York; and this got our adventure off to an interesting start.

Baltimore’s Penn Station has ample parking and a convenient location right next to I-83. (For debarkers heading home, the terminal’s traffic circle exits directly onto the interstate!)

Built in 1911, this impressive edifice has not had a refit since 1984; though safe and spacious, it is woefully unfit for its daily onslaught of 120 trains and 8000 riders.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Baltimore Penn Station - Frayed Passport

Baltimore’s Penn Station in the midst of a $150 million refit that will, among other things, replace the traffic loop seen here with a pedestrian approach. Note the bank of gray port-a-potties at lower left—in use due to a city-wide water problem on the writer’s day of travel.

The station’s lone restaurant is currently closed, leaving only a tiny gift shop and an even tinier Dunkin’ franchise—which shuttered right at the heart of rush-hour. Due to some city-wide water problem that day, even the restrooms were down—replaced by a chilly set of port-a-potties out front.

Happily, Penn Station is now undergoing a massive $150 million renovation, set to provide updated high-speed platforms, plus a separate building for tickets and baggage—leaving the handsome concourse to retail and restaurants.

Capital Cuisine

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Frayed Passport

Amtrak Train 97, the Silver Meteor, arrives on time in Baltimore for its 6:10 p.m. departure; final destination: Miami.

The Meteor and its sister, the Silver Star—which takes a different route through the Carolinas and also sidesteps over to Tampa before Miami—each offer two types of sleeper accommodations: a fairly roomy deluxe bedroom, or a smaller roomette. While both are designed for two people, John and I opted for separate roomettes; still cheaper than one full bedroom, this arrangement offers more privacy—and more room for maneuvering at bedtime. (Among other things, it’s quite a circus changing into nightwear once the beds are down.)

Sleeper fare includes all meals; but as the Meteor swung away from Baltimore, our car-attendant told us that the 6:15 diner seating was full—and furthermore, we’d have to wait till after Washington, as the DC engine-change from electric to diesel leaves the train temporarily without power (and thus, no cooking).

Breaking out my flask for a celebratory shot (something uniquely possible on the train), I was happy to kick back amid waning daylight as my speedometer app showed us reaching 110 mph over Amtrak’s well-maintained Northeast Corridor.

And then for some reason, we ground to a halt outside DC, sitting motionless for nearly half an hour; so John and I didn’t eat till 8.

But it was worth the wait.

With a diner staffed by just one attendant and a single hardworking chef for all 30 rooms in the train’s two sleepers, the Meteor is one of only three eastern trains to offer actual chef-cooked meals. (The others are the Star and the heavily patronized Auto Train.)

Most of the eastern one-night trains have what Amtrakkers generally refer to as “airline food” (microwaved premades); but the Meteor offers a selection of four entrees, three desserts and a choice of beverages—including one free alcoholic drink.

John and I both ordered flat-iron steak, which was cooked to medium-rare perfection; cheesecake dessert and an ice-cold Stella went down nicely, too.

Second Breakfast

Breakfast was likewise tasty, and despite the DC delay we were on time at Jacksonville, where the Meteor pauses 25 minutes for servicing and crew-change.

With water-hoses cluttering the platform, a friendly Amtrak staffer led me up past the engine for photos—whereupon I encountered a true first in seven decades of riding the rails: a dead vulture was firmly plastered to the diesel’s front end. No doubt it had been scavenging on the tracks and didn’t get out of the way in time.

Our laconic cabbie into the city took a call during the ride and, when asked how he was doing, quietly responded, “Here, by grace.” Which warmed my heart, and seemed to betoken a theme for this trip.

With a morning arrival for an 8 p.m. concert, we had actually taken two nights at a downtown hotel; and thus we notched another personal record: checking in at 10 a.m. for the previous night—just in time for a second breakfast. Which makes us technically hobbits, I guess.

Unlocking the Mysteries

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Lightrail - Frayed Passport

One of Jacksonville’s light-rail units departs for its 2.5-mile run through the heart of downtown.

From our ninth-floor room, we had a great view of Jacksonville’s nifty light-rail service, which runs every four minutes along 2.5 miles of elevated track in the heart of downtown. But with my last 15 hours on a train, I opted for a walk instead.

Steering clear of orange plastic netting where much of the Northbank Riverwalk was under renovation, I managed a lengthy stroll along the broad St. John’s, with views of four bridges—one carrying I-95 and another, with its drawbridge now raised, the CSX track over which our train had recently passed on its way out of town.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Exercise Equipment at Corkscrew Park - Frayed Passport

Free exercise and workout area available to the public along Jacksonville’s Northbank Riverwalk.

Also along here stood Corkscrew Park, a matted outdoor exercise area complete with restrooms and piped-in music; staffed daily and open to the public, it offers “free weights, jump ropes, medicine balls and other workout equipment”—in the words of a nearby placard.

Beyond this, the walk winds upward to cross the train tracks through a chain-linked overpass; this was garnished with hundreds of love-token padlocks—in the increasingly popular tradition on bridges around the world.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Padlocks - Frayed Passport

Love-token padlocks festoon the wire-mesh on a pedestrian overpass along Jacksonville’s riverwalk—with a railroad drawbridge raised in the background.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Little Blue Heron - Frayed Passport

Little blue heron scavenging along the St. John’s riverwalk in Jacksonville, FL. Look carefully and you can see that the bird has managed to catch a lizard for lunch.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Memorial to Tillie Kidd Fowler - Frayed Passport

Sun peeks through rain-clouds over a memorial statue honoring the late Florida State Rep. Tillie Kidd Fowler. This work of art stands along Jacksonville’s Northbank Riverwalk, with I-95 crossing the St. John’s in the background.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Staircase at Corkscrew Park - Frayed Passport

Along Jacksonville’s Southbank Riverwalk near the John T. Alsop Jr. Bridge, this is one of two mysterious staircases that go, inexplicably, nowhere.

Post-walk, a major objective was Chamblin’s, the city’s legendary used bookstore.

A St. Augustine friend recommended their main branch several miles away, but I couldn’t see doling out $50 for a round-trip Uber just so I could spend more money on books. Happily, their downtown branch lay only half a mile from our hotel.

Few places are more thrilling to me than a good used bookstore, but Chamblin’s set a new gold standard: Two whole floors, massive enough to get lost in—yet impeccably organized by author and genre: classics, biography, sports, young adult, finance, rare, true crime, adventure, drama, mystery, general fiction—and many, many more.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Chamblin's Bookstore Sign - Frayed Passport

Outdoor sign for the sprawling Chamblin’s used bookstore in downtown Jacksonville.

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Chamblin's Bookstore Stacks - Frayed Passport

Indoor stacks for the sprawling Chamblin’s used bookstore in downtown Jacksonville.

Take this anecdote as a snapshot:

I had recently discovered the little-known British mystery writer Anna Clarke, who is so unheard-of that when I first looked up one of her titles at Amazon, there was only a single used copy for sale, and no user reviews whatsoever.

Chamblin’s, by contrast, had a separate section for Clarke—a decent stack of paperbacks carefully marked with the author’s name.

Mindful of my already-stuffed suitcase, I picked up one of hers and two others, resolving to visit the main location next time I’m anywhere near Jacksonville. Just wandering through this place was an education; and they have a well-patronized cafe out front.

Genesis Revisited

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Steve Hackett - Frayed Passport

Guitarist Steve Hackett takes a solo during his March 2024 concert at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville.

Steve Hackett played guitar for Genesis from 1971 to 1977—throughout their tenure as virtual kings of the glorious-but-now-obscure genre known as “progressive rock” (see also Yes, Rush, ELP, King Crimson, etc.).

After a massive solo career spanning roughly 50 records (many of them live), Hackett is embracing his Genesis legacy with concerts frontlining their amazing catalog.

On this current tour, for example, Hackett and his talented band—after an exciting one-hour set of solo stuff—played the entire 1973 Genesis album Foxtrot, start to finish. These Foxtrot at 50 shows include that record’s legendary 23-minute suite called “Supper’s Ready”—essentially Genesis’ Holy Grail for aging fans like John and me.

I had caught this tour a few months earlier but was eager to do so again from better seats (seventh row—clutch!). And in any case, Jacksonville was the first stop on a resumed slate after a four-month hiatus—during which Hackett recorded yet another album. That one briefly topped the Rock & Metal Chart, his first such achievement in 50 years of solo work. So the band’s opening numbers from this release were new to me.

And I imagine the entire experience felt very new to the lady sitting next to us, who told me this was her very first rock concert—at the young old age of 65.

Never too late, right?

John and I, meanwhile, were sufficiently thrilled to look into future Hackett tours. These, it turns out, will feature selections from Genesis’s 1974 double-album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway—which some folks (myself included) consider the greatest rock record ever made.

Here, by Grace

Riding Amtrak's Silver Meteor: Overnight to Jacksonville and Back - Sunset - Frayed Passport

Sunrise over the Potomac from Amtrak 98, the Silver Meteor, as it heads into Washington on its 16-hour run from Miami to Manhattan.

Next day’s Amtrak return was fairly smooth, with another fine dinner and breakfast. But in the middle of that morning meal, we found ourselves 40 minutes early into DC, where John was planning to detrain for his home-bound trip.

With a scheduled noon departure, he was looking at a four-and-a-half-hour layover; but this early arrival left him exactly 13 minutes to catch the 7 a.m. train instead—which he managed, as it was standing right across the platform with open doors. Indeed, the old boy got off so fast, he left me to finish all his bacon!

I too anticipated an early arrival one stop north in Baltimore, as I assumed we could depart as soon as our new engine got hooked up. These eastern long-distance trains, you see, have no fixed departure-time over their final half-dozen destinations; leaving short-distance riders to the many other Northeastern trains, they stop only to discharge passengers and are thus free to pull out whenever that is finished.

What I didn’t know is that on Sundays only, the Meteor does receive riders all along its route, as fewer other trains are running. So we sat in Washington more than an hour; yet despite a 7:50 pull-away, I was in the Baltimore concourse at 8:24. With a swift exit from the parking garage to the interstate, I arrived back in my PA hometown in time to get to church for the sermon.

Here by grace, indeed.

About the Author

Joe Smith headshot

Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, teacher and speaker in Central PA. Published in several websites and periodicals, Joe has also penned books on Hitchcock, the Bible, church life and under-the-radar movies—along with a volume of Great Jokes and Riddles. He plays trumpet in a community band; reads 100 books a year; serves as officer in his local church; struggles to keep cheering for the Buffalo Bills; listens to music whenever not sleeping; and maintains a small collection of unused postcards.

He can be reached at

All images courtesy of the author.

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