On Riding Trains, and Being Taken for a Ride

The tale of how my wife and small boys became refugees of the Amtrak system began innocently enough. We had booked a long-planned train trip across the country some years ago, but when we reached the station in New York City, we found that the car with the compartment we'd reserved had been left behind.

No problem, said the authorities, we'll fly you to your destination. That worked fine. It was on the return trip - by train - that the problems started. The authorities just happened not to mention that the train's air conditioning wasn't working. A minor point, we assumed. But an hour out of the station, the interior became superheated by the midsummer sun - a big tin can full of people. Windows would not open, and passengers were half-clothed and sweating as if running a marathon. Knots of panting people stood in the landings between cars, trying haplessly to catch a wisp of outside air.

I stepped forward to get us some juice in the lounge, and on my way back the train stopped to change engines, a maneuver that apparently required pulling the train apart. Before I could return to my family's car, the section I was in detached itself and started pulling away. I stood watching as the car with my family moved smartly down the track and disappeared into the prairie night.

The section I was in headed for Pennsylvania.

Somehow we were reunited, wiser to the ways of train travel, and that memory joined a complex of powerful impressions that train trips of vastly varied kinds have made on me over the decades. The images unreel seamlessly, one experience connected to another as if guided by switches along a railroad track of the mind.

I recall gliding across across the prairie one sunny morning as a small boy on board the Super Chief, a cross-continental passenger train. My mother and little brother and I were seated at a table in the dining car - an immensely pleasing place with jam and other goodies before us on a white tablecloth. Cream has a special taste when you're 4 and are allowed to pour it on your oatmeal all by yourself from a silvery pitcher, not spilling much, really. The mountains in the distance inched by, seemingly immutable, like motionless islands viewed from a ship.

I stared through the window, waiting for a cowboy to appear. My mother had assured me that one was likely to cross our path any minute. And soon, there he was, silhouetted against a big sky, an archetypal figure slouched in the saddle as his horse ambled along. It was an electrifying moment for me, even though I rolled quickly out of his life.

But for awe, nothing compares to a brief, incandescent moment when my family and I were riding in a car on a raised monorail, looking down on African animals in a park.

I was busy peering out one window when my wife called, "Look!" pointing at another window. I turned and found myself gazing directly into the eyes of a giraffe. Its huge head was startlingly close - at the level of our window and almost inside it. The giraffe had decided to peer at its curious onlookers. High on a monorail, I was able to observe him on terms other creatures aren't tall enough to achieve.

On the exasperation side of the ledger is a memory from the days I commuted to New York on the New Haven Railroad. There was a time it was so well-run that its officials would get upset if, on any day, they forgot to change the doilies on the headrests. Then a regulatory battle broke out between the railroad and government authorities. Like noncombatants in many of history's battles, we innocent riders got the worst of it. The once-gleaming cars deteriorated. Trains started breaking down halfway to New York. Departures were so unpredictable that men used to stand along the station platform and hold out their thumbs in jest, as if trying to hitch a ride on any train that might happen along.

Once finally in New York, the trains would stop in the tunnels approaching Grand Central Station and wait interminably before pulling into the station itself. Some of us took to exiting from a rear car, making our way along dungeonlike passages and climbing a ladder to emerge at street level. Eventually, some kind of order was restored.

Most remembered trips are pleasantly evocative. There's the time I used to commute every few weeks between Pusan and Seoul, South Korea, on a train that was - how shall I put it? - all-purpose. It was an overnight trip, and I slept in a comfortable lower berth, but at some stops I'd wake up to the squeals of trussed hogs being loaded unceremoniously onto freight cars that were also part of our train. I had to set my alarm in order to be up in time to close the windows before we entered a tunnel. Otherwise - as I once discovered - my compartment would quickly fill with the thick black smoke that filled the tunnel from our coal-burning steam locomotive.

But my greatest train saga took place one winter between Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia. We knew snow was coming. What we hadn't bargained on was the ice. As our steam locomotive chugged through the Quebec wilderness, it rained. Then the ice storm struck. Signal lines along the track came down. Near evening the train slowed and then stopped. A switch along the track had frozen fast. Outside the window I could see that the ice had closed in on the landscape, swallowing whole trees in a strange statuary of abstract forms. I felt I had been stranded on some strange but not unlovely planet.

INSIDE, we fared rather well. There was power for heat and lights. As the night and then the next day passed, people began forming small communities of common interest: Salesmen, I recall, did a lot of bonding. The stalled train became a small city, with neighborhoods that had their own character. You could replicate long-distance travel by walking through cars and discovering exotic locales, like the car filled with commercial fishermen who spoke in a lingo of nets and tides that was incomprehensible to someone who hadn't spent a lifetime setting out to sea each dawn for cod and tuna.

The trainmen were waiting, apparently, for the switch to thaw. As the day wore on, we grew anxious. How long would the power and food last? It was many miles through deep snow to anything resembling supplies or shelter.

Finally, a crew of men on foot became visible, slogging their way toward us. The switch had thawed a bit, and the new arrivals were able to make it work. We were on our way, feeling relieved but also sorry to see our makeshift society break up. A day late, we pulled into Halifax. Yes, I was glad to be off that train. But yes, it took me only about a day and a half before I was itching for my next train trip.

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