The ticket is in here somewhere. Of course it is. Not five minutes ago, I presented it to the agent and stuffed it back into my purse. Wallet, tissues, checkbook, keys, cosmetics bag, pens, pad. For heaven’s sake. As I rummage, my stomach clenches with anxiety. “Can I hold it for you while you search?” a man asks.
Unique in this crowd garbed in tee-shirts, shorts, sundresses, and flip flops, the gentleman is slight and wiry, with a straggly gray goatee, spectacles, a brimmed black hat, long sleeved shirt, and overalls. His round-faced female companion wears a white bonnet, faded blue dress, and apron. Amish. Is that why I trust him? For, without hesitation, I hand this stranger my unruly pocketbook, rustle in its depths a little more, and find my ticket. To my thanks, he says, "That’s what we’re here for.”
My auto-smile must have conveyed incomprehension, for he adds, “To help each other. That’s why we’re here.”
I file this away with a nod as the loudspeaker booms, “Amtrak Capitol Limited for Washington, now boarding.” A flurry ensues as passengers bend, twist, and reach to adjust straps and grab suitcases. Dave and I smile our farewells to my helper and lose sight of the couple in the surge down the platform.
Once settled in our tiny roomette, we are giddy with excitement. This ride is as much part of our journey as the stay in Williamsburg, our destination. Dave has longed for an overnight train trip, and when I was a child, I traveled every year with my mother and sisters to visit my grandparents in St. Louis. In the fifties, the view from the train was enough to entertain three little girls, but I imagine degraded landscapes and subdivisions have replaced the farms, meadows, and glimpses of cows and horses that thrilled us then. So, my husband and I are prepared with books, laptops, and magazines for this lovely stretch of open hours.
The train jolts forward as the whistle blows: long, hollow, soulful…beautiful, a sound from the past. “Listen to it!” Dave says, beaming. We are dancing in our seats, grinning at each other as the whistle clears the way, and we pull out.
Chicago slips by, and beyond the windows, feathery Queen Anne’s lace, purple clover, sumac, and yellow Dutchman’s britches thrive along the rail beds amongst freight cars, tankers, smokestacks, and huge spools of cable. The wildflowers bob and white butterflies toss like petals as we breeze by the rusting red lattice of an abandoned bridge. Past occasional glimpses of the blue swath of Lake Michigan. Past industrial compounds with mazes of conveyors, chutes and cranes. Past seas of grasslands, puddled swamps, and a fast-moving river. Past a decrepit gray house, standing by God’s grace alone, and three people perched in plastic chairs angled toward the track as if passing trains were the day’s entertainment.
The whistle sounds its warning as we enter a village, and a striped bar lowers as the hooded owl-eyed lights of the road crossing flash red their alarm. The train slows and Dave and I gaze out the window at fanciful Victorians with wrap-around porches and picket fences. Country roads shaded with lush maples and oaks run parallel to the tracks then curve gently into the woods. And yes, still there are red barns, undulating green fields, and grazing cows.
On a bridge over a wide river, the train stops above a sandy shoal. A leggy heron preens on its bank and orange canoes drift in the current, their occupants paddling languidly. We pick up speed, leaving behind those people and that lazy moment in their lives, to zip beneath a craggy rock outcropping and then plunge into the darkness of a tunnel. As in life, every minute is a surprise as we rush from light to dark to light again, from trailer parks to seas of untrammeled grasses to tamed rows of corn. Every glance to this page to write is a risk, for I know I will miss something wonderful.
The dinner hour is announced over the intercom – joy! - so we lurch down the narrow hall to the dining car. Tequila, with her broad smile, warm eyes, and lengthy dredlocks pulled to a bunch at the back of her head, directs us to our seats across from Norman, a retired history of art teacher. For two hours we enjoy conversation, wine, salmon topped with halved cherry tomatoes, and moist, flavorful chicken.
Norman fills us in on his years of teaching, traveling, and acting as a host/ambassador on a cruise line where his duties included “dancing with the single ladies.” He grins often, his eyes crinkling closed every time. As Dave and I have just visited the Chicago Institute of Art, we are bubbling with enthusiasm over some of the famous paintings we saw: American Gothic and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”’ Norman knows them well, as he does every artwork and historic site we mention from our travels. At 82, he is heading home after touring out west with his family, and is looking forward to a solo trip to Italy in the fall.
When Dave and I return to our roomette after dinner, it has been transformed. The seats have disappeared and two sleeping berths made up, the corners of the sheets folded back invitingly.
Who will take the upper berth?
When I was a kid, that was the desired spot. Did my sisters and I flip a coin or fight for it? Don’t recall, but Dave and I snuggle into the lower berth to discuss the benefits of upper and lower, watching lights whizz by in the darkness beyond the window. The train sounds its ghostly warning of a road crossing and I remind Dave of “Train Whistle Blowing,” a song my friend Janice and I used to sing with our students in music class. “Don’t sing it,” Dave pleads. It is not his favorite song.
“Rockin’, Rollin’, Ridin’, out along the bay. All bound for morning town many miles away.” I launch into the tune with verve, the wail of the whistle and the clatter of the rails as my background accompaniment. While it’s possible this is not a penalty for my little chorus, at bedtime, I’m the one to haul up top, snap the safety net into place, and hope I don’t have to go to the bathroom too many times during the night.
Happily, I don’t. We both sleep well, and after sloshy, bumpy efforts to wash up in the restroom, we return to the dining car for breakfast.
I’m not so sure about this morning’s dining companion.
Ron’s gray hair is neatly combed back from a high forehead; his glasses perch on a strong nose. He is slender and handsome, but his smile is often a sneer, and he counters our raves about last night’s dinner with the opinion that we’d simply been lucky in choosing the only good options on the menu. He is annoyed by the chill of the air conditioner and clenches his jaw as he leans forward across the table to state, “The American public deserves better rail service.”
I have him all wrapped up and tucked in a cranky old man pigeonhole when he launches into a hilarious tale about his mother-in-law, “an old battle-axe, too mean to die.” He transports us to 1930’s Brooklyn to meet his childhood pals Wendel, Josh, and Howie. Ron and Dave crack up while I gasp at tales of ink poured onto the milkman’s white horse, and heavy coat buttons persistently peppering a rival’s window, a chinese water torture of sorts, until a filched ball was returned. The three pranksters grew up to become a businessman, lawyer, and supreme court justice, and in confiding their histories, Ron’s disapproving visage relaxed into that of the mischievous boy he had been.
After breakfast, Dave and I return to our roomette to find our seats restored. We settle in and marvel at the view out the window. At a crawl, we are passing through Ashland, Virginia. It’s easy to imagine ourselves in a horse-drawn carriage for we are cruising sedately down what appears to be Main Street, flanked on either side by mown green lawns and stately Victorian houses, the porch railings still decorated with red, white, and blue bunting. The train picks up speed as homes give way to open fields and split rail fences.
The loudspeaker informs us that we are running late: shared tracks have added to our time. Good. Dave and I relish every added hour, every peek into passing towns and vistas. Ron had insisted “the American people should demand a bullet train, like the one from London to Paris.” I get it: sometimes it’s all about the destination. But, mounted on the wall in my daughter’s second grade classroom was a poster that read, “Childhood should be a journey instead of a race,” and I think of the Amish man who offered to hold my bag at the station in Washington. I think of Norman, Ron, and the people in the plastic chairs watching the trains. I think of rusting bridges, Queen Anne’s lace entwined with webs of wire, and a glimpse of a day on the river in an orange canoe. And I say, forget the bullet; I’ll take the slow route.