Monday, October 6, 2008

Ridin' the Rails, part one

I anxiously drive north from Roanoke on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. My train is scheduled to depart Clifton Forge at 4:08 and I can’t afford to miss it—the next one won’t come for two more days. I whip into the CSX parking lot and hurry with my luggage to the makeshift waiting area.

I needn’t have worried; the train is running 30 minutes late. After all, this is Amtrak. The half-dozen waiting passengers have plenty of time to gab, and we do. It’s my first reminder today of how different train travel is.

We talk of freight cars and end-of-train devices and reminisce about previous rail journeys. You seldom find airline passengers engaging total strangers in conversation like this. Besides, what can you tell about a previous airline journey: how much turbulence you encountered or how stirringly the flight attendant gave the mind-numbing safety recitation?

These people are the first of many I will encounter on my trip to St. Louis. Many of them are not riding the train just to get somewhere but to get there by rail. Whether they prefer the meandering pace and unique panoramas or seek a slice of nostalgic Americana, how they get there is almost as important to them as the destination itself.

Some pretend the golden age of American streamliners still exists and they have boarded the posh Broadway Limited or the gleaming Silver Meteor. Others relish the chance to see the countryside from a different perspective, glimpsing towns and fields and mountains from angles you can’t reach by car. The serious rail buffs among us are delighted to watch train operations at point blank range—rail yards, sidings, spurs and the “business” side of industries.

In the diner I meet an 81-year-old lady, who obviously doesn’t lack for money and who can barely walk. She has had joint replacement surgery on her knee and needs it on her hips. Yet she is determined to have what she calls her “last hurrah,” one final glorious train trip. In Chicago she will board the Empire Builder for Seattle, then roll down to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight, and finally reach Reno via the California Zephyr. She doesn’t sound nearly as excited about her two weeks in Reno as she does about the process of getting there.

Back in my coach I converse with my seatmate, who is from Wyoming. The county. In West Virginia. She regales me with tales of growing up as one of 15 children of a coal miner and moonshiner and of her 20 years as a long haul truck driver. She is headed for Kansas to see her first great grandchild.

And my destination? I am traveling to St. Louis by way of Chicago to spend a week with my daughter and son-in-law. For me also the ride is half the fun. I haven’t been on a passenger train since my trek from Richmond to Orlando years ago. Too cheap to reserve a sleeping berth, I will ride in my coach seat all night long. My body will get too little sleep and my clothes will get too many wrinkles. By the time I reach the windy city, I will have been aboard for 19 straight hours.

And I will not care, for I am riding the train.

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At October 10, 2008 at 10:43 PM , Blogger CD said...

Interesting to say the least! Oh how the days have gone.


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