I used to be terrified of trains.
This was a major problem, because during my first two years of college, there was no commuter flight from Roanoke to Chicago, making air travel to and from college prohibitively expensive. But with my Student Advantage card, I could take Amtrak to Clifton Forge (a short drive from Roanoke) for around a hundred dollars, round-trip.
If I wanted to go home for Christmas (and I had to, as the university would be closed), I would have to suck it up and get on a train.
And after that first shaky step aboard I realized that once I’m inside the train, I’m fine. It’s the outside of the train that frightens me. I can work around that.
And so I became someone who traveled by train, at least for awhile, the routines as familiar to me as air travel is to most. Later, when prices went down, I began flying chiefly to save time, as the Cardinal trip from Chicago to Clifton Forge takes about 18 hours.
But while I remember few details about my flights, those 18-hour trips (or 10, or 7, depending on where I was going) became some of my most cherished memories.
I wouldn’t take a cab if I could help it. Instead, I’d take Metra to Ogilvie Center and walk out the doors and turn right, schlepping that everywhere-blue-duffel along the three blocks to Union Station.
I’d walk through the doors. Then, immediately, I’d catch my breath, every time.
Nearly everyone who walks through the Grand Hall slows down. Voices drop to murmurs or nothing at all. You could sit on those benches for hours.
And then you get to the main waiting area, always full of families and messengers and derelicts and porters and Mennonites or Amish or Quakers or something, I never can tell. I’d wait there, and read or write or watch, and then when the train was called, I’d get in line for it.
If the conductor is a nice older man and you smile sweetly you can usually get a window seat in a row by yourself. Or you might get a window seat with someone else in the aisle and once the train leaves town and begins to empty, the aisle person moves to a window somewhere else and you have a row to yourself. And train seats are huge – plenty of room for someone my size to curl up across the three seats, wrap a blanket around myself, and sleep.
But I never slept the whole time, for two reasons. First, the parts of America that you see from the upper level of a train are places you will never see anywhere else, as the train travels through places where there are no roads. But most of all, I stayed awake because I always met fascinating people and had unusual experiences on my train trips.
Clifton Forge to Chicago: met some people my age and became somewhat of a posse for the duration of the trip. We were kindly informed by the conductors that gambling was a federal offense on Amtrak trains, and that if we wanted to play poker we should use something other than money. Luggage mistakenly removed at the Greenbrier.
Chicago to Clifton Forge: a seatmate from Hurricane, West Virginia whose child was a teacher or something. I think she was a nurse. Can’t remember anything else about her but she was friendly. Breakfast in the dining car with a man traveling to Florida to meet his wife and children. He really liked grits.
Osceola to Chicago: talked with Paul, an exchange student from Dublin who knew of my grandfather from his stay in Iowa. I walked to the El with him and took the Blue Line miles out of my way to make sure he got to O’Hare on time. He offered to buy me a pint if I’m ever in Ireland.
Schenectady to Chicago: it was snowing hard, drifts piling up between cars. The heat on our car was broken. We layered on coats and sweaters and blankets and sat silent, hibernating. Halfway through the trip the heat was “fixed,” and stuck on 85 or so. We stripped down, drenched in sweat, babies cranky and crying from the intense heat.
There were others, whose stories have faded together for me, but whose faces and coats and books I remember still.
I find that train travel is horribly under-rated. And I’m waiting patiently for the next time I have an opportunity to travel with Amtrak.