PAUL THEROUX, the travel writer, once wrote, "Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished that I was on it."
For the people of Maine, those lines have a special poignancy, since passenger trains in this state went the way of passenger pigeons 30 years ago. It is a great irony for Mainers that if we wish to partake of the romance of the rails, we must avail ourselves of Canadian hospitality: The Canadian Atlantic Railway still carries passengers from Halifax to Montreal, and Maine is the only place where this foreign railroad traverses US soil, with four scheduled stops and two flagstops.
The only thing more wonderful than having this train in one's backyard is knowing one of the engineers who drives it. Steve Bennett has been with the Canadian Atlantic for 20 years. When I first met him about a year ago and learned what he did for a living, he suddenly became infinitely big in my eyes, and I felt young enough and small enough to slip neatly into his pocket. For a child there is only one type of engineer - the choo-choo type - and Steve's association with the railroad reawakened sentiment
in me that I thought had disappeared with my boyhood.
I must have totally surprised Steve with the spirit and animation of my response. What's it like? How fast can you go? How do you know when to blow the whistle? Whew! Were these questions coming out of me? Yes, but in the voice of my 10-year-old heart. Before I knew it, I had Steve backed into a corner, and he uttered the magic phrase that won his release: "Would you like to ride in the locomotive?"
I was sure I had misheard him. I made him repeat the invitation two more times. The next thing I knew, we were waiting at the station in McAdam, New Brunswick, just over the border. It was 9:30 in the evening. Early spring. A sliver of new moon smiled in a velvet sky. A brisk chill put an edge on the clean-smelling Canadian air. From somewhere far down the rails, a whistle split the night. A riot of lights spread itself out on the curve, followed by the silver train. My heart leapt. As the train slipped into the station, I felt as if it were wrapping itself around me. I abandoned myself to it completely, following Steve up the vertical ladder into the locomotive. With every step I took up the ladder, I felt as if five years were slipping away, until I was the 10-year-old again, embracing a dream.
We were high above the rails, the roar of the 3,000-horsepower engine at our backs. There were three chairs - one for Steve, another for Jimmy Larson, the co-engineer, and one for me. And then we began to move out into the darkness, the headlamp of the locomotive caressing the rails before us. The locomotive bounced lightly as it felt its way down the line. It was smooth, unbelievably smooth. It was like flying.
"This is pretty ho-hum for me," said Steve as he throttled up and the engine raised its voice. But I was riveted. I felt like a flightless bird who had suddenly been given wings. Once out of the station, the landscape darkened. There was the occasional village, the distant lighted window, but on the whole we were moving through a world that, relative to the might and muscle of the train, seemed as if it had been painted for our viewing pleasure. And like the Flemish paintings of old, this one had its viv id detail: a small, flower-laden grave next to the tracks somewhere in New Brunswick. The story goes that the grave is that of a baby who was thrown from the train by its immigrant mother some 80 years ago - a single woman fearing scandal at her western destination. The local townsfolk had found the nameless one and given it proper burial. Ever since, the care of the grave had been handed down, from generation to generation, like a legacy.
THE train moved into Maine, through woodland, through bog, through field, over river and stream, whistling and clanging at crossings, as if to celebrate the simple fact of its being. Sitting in the nose of a locomotive, I had the feeling that only the train was alive, moving through a landscape suspended in time, and that one could personify the train the way rivers have been personified. And like a river, it is constant, defining the settlements through which it passes as "railway towns." I could think of no finer distinction for a northern Maine village.
My journey ended in Brownville Junction, Maine. It is a good, fitting name for a place that hosts a train. For three hours I had sat, by special invitation, in a locomotive that had taken me safely through the dark, from village to village, pulling 10 cars of dozing Canadians. I envied Steve his years at the throttle, but I was grateful for my three hours as his guest. As I stood by my car and watched the train edge off toward French Canada, I felt as if I were saying goodbye to a lost love. But I was co nsoled by the realization that dreams, when they do come true, are always worth the wait.