Signs of Life

When I was nine or ten, we took a cross country trip (the seeds were planted!). We took a train from Newark, NJ across the country to Portland, OR where we bought a car and drove back. I learned lots of things about trains on this trip. Trains are especially fun if you have friends to play card games with all day long. Observation cars are excellent places to watch mountains go by. Steak and rice is delicious. Sleeping on a train is the closest you will experience to nirvana (that is, unless the train gets stuck in Albany for a few hours in the middle of the night, in which case the whole experience in rather miserable).

I also credit trains with my intense aversion to Montana before ever having actually spent any real time there. A mudslide across the tracks in Whitefish led to an afternoon of staring at old telegram machines in the train station-cum-museum.

The following is a memory and as such is probably terribly inaccurate. When I was much younger and my great-grandmother was still alive, we would go visit her. She lived in a very large building with lots of floors and doors that all looked the same. It was the kind of building that was too large for my comprehension so gets all mixed up in my mind with memories of the Frontenac. Somewhere, hidden in the recesses of identical doors, was a train set in the middle of the hallway. I don’t remember anything about my great-grandmother except that she had white hair and a train set somewhere in her building. We would always go see it. When she died, I was sad I would no longer be able to visit the train set.

Somewhere during the early New Jersey years, possibly around the time of the Cross Country Trip, I decided that my relationship with Amtrak was so involved that it deserved a nickname. I called it ‘Ammy’. When we would take the train into New York, I would get a little bit sad that we weren’t taking the Ammy and had to take NJ Transit instead. Still, this wasn’t so terrible, because in those days you could move the backs of the seats to make four-seaters out of two-seaters. (I think you might be able to still do this on the new double-decker NJT trains.) What fun.

I loved waiting at the train station as other trains went by, relishing the fleeting smell of ozone. The platform was lined with pine trees, and my sister and I used to pretend we were in Oregon because it smelled like Black Butte. I still associate all those smells together.

I am the only person I know who gets excited when I see a train. I am perennially disappointed when I discover train tracks that are no longer in service. Trains are a product and a promise of boundless freedom. Trains go places.

I like watching trains go by. I imagine where they are coming from and where they are going. How far did this coal wind its way around mountains, over rivers, through valleys, and how far does it still have to go? I want to know what people send on trains these days, the era of trucks and planes. I often catch myself, when watching a freight train rumble along, wishing I was the conductor? engineer? driver? on my way to ports unknown.


One thought on “Signs of Life

  1. Geez, does this bring back memories. You started calling the train Ammy when you and I went together to NJ on the train (I forget why). You were in Kindergarten I guess and you were using the table in front of you and the women in the seat was extremely bothered by your activity. I stopped you from kicking the seat but using the table seemed like a reasonable activity to me so I let you go. She was really pissed…I am sure you have no recollection of this but that is my defining memory of that trip. Then at one point the train was stopped for no apparent reason and she had her headset on so loud it was bothering the rest of the car and they complained…somehow that made me feel better.


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