Weekend in Durham

This weekend I went to Durham, North Carolina to visit my cousin. She is a graduate student at Duke University. I went down for the weekend to visit her, see Durham, and geocache. I took the took the train, which is something that I have not done since about 2005 when I was on the train from DC to New York (zipping in between my sets of grandparents). I chose the Amtrak because it is much more comfortable than taking the Megabus, which for a five to seven-hour trip makes a big difference. I also figure I need to have a recent experience on Amtrak so that I can accurately compare the American train system with the German train system.

I left Washington in the morning on the 10:53 “Carolinian” train (although it really isn’t necessary to differentiate by time, since there’s only one train per day in each direction…). I arrived around 6 PM, so approximately 45 minutes late. Such is to be expected with Amtrak, especially given their on-time performance on this route of only 54%…. Speaking of trains in the USA, there’s a really good video (here) about why trains suck in the US. I highly recommend it.

The diesel engine at Washington Union Station. Another thing about Amtrak is that most of the tracks (except the Northeast Corridor) are not electrified; we still use diesel engines for most routes. For this route, they switch the entire engine at Washington Union Station. Cool!
Our diesel engine at Washington Union Station. Most of the tracks used by Amtrak (except the Northeast Corridor) are not electrified; we still use diesel engines for most routes. For the “Carolinian” route, they switch out the entire engine at Union Station because the engines are not hybrid electric/diesel. Cool!


My train ride down to Durham was pleasant. Nice and comfortable. I had 2 seats to myself, so I was able to spread out a little bit. After arriving in Durham, Rebecca picked me up from the train station and took me to her lovely home. We had dinner with her friends, who were super cool and really fun to talk to about all sorts of serious topics (which I really enjoy). Rebecca made this really yummy Indian Dal for dinner. The friends stayed until about 10 PM, which surprised us because the time really flew by.

Saturday was the main day – my only full day in Durham. Rebecca was really interested in geocaching because of how much I talk about it, so she was super enthusiastic to try it and go geocaching. Of course, I wanted to tour Durham and see the points of interest. Luckily, geocaching ties in really well with exploring new places and finding interesting historical sites.

The first thing we did was visit Duke Gardens. Duke Gardens is a 55-acre botanical garden directly adjacent to the Duke campus. They have four sections. The main area we explored was the Asiatic Arboretum, but we also forayed into the Garden of Native Plants and the Endangered Species Garden. We ended up walking about 1.5 miles and finding 2 geocaches. The beautiful gardens are a very nice spot to have so close to campus.

After spending an hour walking around, geocaching, and enjoying the gardens, we found ourselves hungry for lunch. Rebecca took me to Guglhupf which is a German bakery and restaurant in Durham. I didn’t have any Gugelhupf, but I did have a yummy Bratwurst with mild sauerkraut and a salad on the side. We then went to the bakery section and picked out a treat for dessert (a yummy chocolate tart which reminded me of my “famous” fudge pie), as well as a cheese covered Brezel roll for the train ride on Sunday. Guglhupf was really cool.

"We do not discriminate. We oppose HB2" sign
The sign on the bathroom at Guglhupf. I was wondering what the situation in this liberal-leaning area North Carolina would be after HB2 was passed, and I was very happy to see this sign at the restaurant. (apologies for the potato-quality photo)

After Guglhupf, we went to Bennett Place, which is a former farm where Confederate General Johnston surrendered his army to Union General Sherman. This was the surrender that ended the Civil War in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. If you’re interested more in the history, the Wikipedia page is a very good source. Of course while there we found the virtual cache and the regular cache, but the main attraction for us was the guided tour. Not only did our guide tour us around the restored farm buildings and give us a brief history of the Bennett family who lived there, but also he taught us some interesting things about history. The whole tour took an hour and fifteen minutes. The tour guide not only told us the history of the small site, but also things like why beef became the dominant meat of choice as a result, and why shootouts never happened in towns of the Wild West. But he also taught me about something else which I was quite surprised to be learning about for the first time.

Our experience at the Bennett Farm was incredibly thought-provoking and mind-expanding, but I think that that discussion (about horrible injustices and their historical context) is better kept as a separate post.

After visiting Bennett Place, we went to downtown Durham to meet up with a friend of Rebecca’s. We met at a chic ice cream place called “Parlour.” (Side note: I happen to have a thing about places that use the British spelling just to sound posher and frankly pretentious. Another example is the “Washington Harbour” Development in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. This kind of thing just kind of irks me…) We enjoyed the ice cream and then walked all around downtown Durham finding geocaches and exploring, We did a series of three art-themed caches through downtown. The first two were at art-themed locations: The Carolina Theatre and The Durham Arts Council. The third was a mystery cache also at an art-themed location. I can’t say where, though, because the only way to get the location of the final cache is to find the first two and put the two halves of the coordinates together. After that, we explored the newly-redeveloped “American Tobacco Campus.” This used to be the factory complex of the American Tobacco Company, but it was abandoned and then transformed into a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, offices, apartments, and lots of public space. It is really well designed, and a lot of fun to walk around.

We said goodbye to Rebecca’s friend and then we went to Whole Foods. We shopped for dinner, and decided on fresh ravioli from the self-serve fresh pasta bar. We went home and made dinner, which was very delicious. Then we relaxed and I showed Rebecca the video about why trains “suck” in America. We both had a ton of fun exploring Durham! Now I’m writing this on the train back home, which is the main attraction today. Hope you enjoyed hearing about my weekend!