Traveling by train has always been a amazing experience for me, starting with the first long trip I took, as a nine year old, with my grandmother. We rode the New York Central from Schenectady to Buffalo, New York. Back then, I still thought that the "cow-catcher" on the front of the train was there to gently push cows to the side of the tracks. I was entranced by the sounds of the names of cities and towns we passed… Canandaigua, Batavia, Lockport, Tonawanda, Geneseo...
Later, in 1959, there was a memorable trip to New York City on an excursion train with my mother and one of my aunts to see the Rockettes and the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest at the Radio City Music Hall. Later still, there were trips with my children to visit distant family, or to attend funerals. The journeys were always as interesting as the destinations, and so the sound of a train whistle has always inspired me to dream of travel to distant places. Today’s diesel locomotives have air horns that sound more like business than pleasure--but in the 1950s, trains still had steam whistles that produced a long, low, haunting sound. Even so, the calling is the same. I still occasionally hear foghorns from ships off the coast that have the same timbre as the old steam whistle, and they call up the same deep desire to travel, to be going somewhere I’ve never been before and to be meeting new people. These days I travel alone--but I’m never lonely. There are always interesting people on the train.
On Thursday, October 18, after travelling from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle, Washington, I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder for the 30-hour, 2,064-mile trip to Chicago. The train pulled out of the station at 4:45 p.m. in the midst of a wind storm that turned Puget Sound lovely and wild. We were delayed between Edmonds and Everett, Washington, for nearly three hours because a couple of trees had fallen across the tracks. The trees had pulled down power lines, which meant that the electric company had to be called in to turn off the power before the train could dispatch one of its locomotives to clear the track. And so, we sat on a silent, motionless train as the darkness grew outside. My seatmate (a pleasant fellow whose name I've forgotten) and I took turns charging the batteries of our laptops from the single outlet in our car, working on our respective projects and exchanging stories of our travel experiences in muted tones.
The next morning, around 9:00 a.m., we stopped to stretch our legs at Whitefish, Montana. (That's my seatmate, whose name I've forgotten, in the foreground of the photo.) Because the train brings travelers together in a limited-but-sufficient space for a limited-but-sufficient time, the more outgoing among us can freely take advantage of the opportunity to talk about aspects of our lives with complete strangers that we might hesitate to share with people we know. In the space of four days I met many people I would probably not have met under other circumstances--except, perhaps, for a natural disaster throwing us all together in some less hospitable environment. And so we chatted about anything and everything to make the miles pass.
Along the way, from Washington State through Montana, the landscape was sombre, the trees faintly coloured with pastel yellow leaves. I snapped a photo of these near West Glacier, Montana. Unfortunately, it's impossible to see much of this beautiful place from the train.
We stopped briefly at Shelby, Montana around two in the afternoon, and shortly after, at Havre, where I photographed an old steam locomotive and a bronze statue of Canadian and US law enforcement officers, all angular and serious, shaking hands in that stiff and formal way. The sculpture had a vaguely Stalinist-era look to it. Like most of these small northern Montana towns, Shelby seems rooted in the past, with a local culture having few of the features of modern, urban life. Tripadvisor lists 20 things to do there.
My seatmate left us at 11 p.m. at Minot (rhymes with “why not”), North Dakota, which he said can be a desolate place in the winter, when the icy winds sweep over the plains. We had already seen snow, so it wasn't difficult to imagine how harsh winter could be there. I was left with two seats to “stretch out” on, a fair degree of travel fatigue, and a vague curiosity about why anyone would want to live in Minot, North Dakota. With my expectations of comfort increasingly diminished by the realities of coach-sleeping, still I slept like a baby.
On Saturday, October 20 we arrived in St. Paul-Minneapolis at 9:30 a.m., still two hours behind schedule. The weather was surprisingly mild--about 60 degrees. Someone across the aisle had his newspaper open to the weather page and was reading out the temperatures for cities we would be passing through … 69 degrees … 74 degrees … 80 degrees. My bones started rejoicing.
The next part of the trip was spectacularly beautiful as we passed through picturesque little towns, resplendent in their fall colours. We traveled 140 miles along the Mississippi River from a point not very far from its headwaters. Around this time last year, I saw the Mississippi Delta “shining like a National Guitar” in Memphis. A couple of weeks later, I saw it again in hurricane-devastated New Orleans, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This year, at Red Wing, Minnesota, I saw the riverboat, The American Queen, docked just beyond the trees as the train passed. For me, that would have been a dream cruise – a hundred years ago!
At 6 p.m. on October 20, two days (and nights) out of Seattle, the train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station, still over an hour late. With a couple of hours to wait before boarding another train, and too tired to venture into the overwhelming shopping area, I enjoyed the stopover in the station’s food court with a self-described “preacher’s daughter” of mixed Cherokee and Irish ancestry. She was on her way from Northern California to her childhood home in West Virginia. Her father having died recently, she and her sisters would be getting together to reminisce and to do some of the things they did as children--like picking berries and making jam. The “down-home”simplicity of the woman’s experiences--and the jokes (like the one her father told, about a boy who saw the photos of men from the church who had been killed in various wars, and the golden plaque above them, inscribed, “Died in Service,” who then asked the pastor, “Did they die in this service?”) were a pleasant counterpoint to the sterile busyness of the food court. At that point, I was so fatigued, all I wanted to hear was the whistle of the next train, the Capitol Limited pulling out of the station, bound for Washington, DC. We left on time at 7:05 p.m. I slept again.
On Saturday, October 21, I awoke to the early signs of fall colours as we passed through Cumberland, Maryland. The leaves of the deciduous trees had begun to change, but, overall, the vegetation was generally starting to look decidedly “southern.” The train route skimmed the northernmost part of West Virginia between Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry. Harper’s Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and has a population of around 300. For such a small place, it played an important role in US history. Having lived the first third of my life in the U.S., I had heard of Harper’s Ferry as a child in school. It was the scene of a failed 1859 raid on a federal arsenal by John Brown and his followers, who intended to secure arms for a slave uprising. In John Brown's Wikipedia entry, he is described as “the first white American abolitionist to advocate and practice insurrection as a means to abolish slavery.” Even though he was a controversial figure (being at odds with the pacifist abolitionists as well as pro-slavery Southerners), and even though his planned insurrection failed on the face of it, the raid at Harper’s Ferry played a large role in igniting the American Civil War, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the US. I still find that piece of history instructive when I consider the “strategies and tactics” aspect of creating social change.
During the six-hour stopover, I stepped outside the station into summer-like weather and took a couple of pictures of the Capitol and Union Station. I was surprised and happy to hear scores of crows loudly discussing politics (or something) in the trees. It sounded like Congress in full session on a lovely Sunday afternoon. At 7:30 p.m., the Silver Meteor departed, Florida bound.
With that “almost there” feeling, I hung out in the café car, enjoying a couple of glasses of white wine. Maybe it was three. In any case, suddenly the conductor announced that we were arriving at my destination. I shut down my laptop, gathered up my belongings and toddled off the train, too happy to have arrived, and too tipsy, to do any more “research.” Fortunately, a car was waiting to take me home, my checked suitcase had already been collected, and all that remained on this part of my trip was a dinner feast, a shower and a peaceful sleep. I would begin organizing the next phase of my journey once I fully recovered from this one.