I love trains, and always have. When I was a kid, growing up in Huron, Ohio, I lived maybe half a mile from the New York Central main line (now Amtrak’s) between New York and Chicago. Sometimes we would get ice cream cones and go down to the tracks at about 9 p.m. Nighttime trains were always the best. If they were running on time, we’d get to watch two great eastbound passenger trains—the Pacemaker and the Twentieth Century Limited—fly past about ten minutes apart.
The show opened in stages in the darkness. We’d peer to our left, where the double tracks disappeared around a curve bending toward the Lake Erie shoreline. The first sign was a quiet singing of the rails, and the extended glow of the headlight beam, shining into the distant curve. An instant later, the crossing flashers lit up on three grade crossings in a row. Then the headlight and the train itself came around the bend, with the first long blast on the horn in the soulful sequence of Lonnng Lonnng Short Lonnnnnnnnnnng!
Even in the distance, those streamlined E-unit locomotives radiated nothing but power, as if they were born to fly. The track was a little wavy, and the headlights bobbed up and down as the thing bore down on us, threatening to leap off the track, and finally roared through the crossing with the final cry of the horn dopplering down in pitch as it passed at 70 or 80 miles per hour. Right behind came the long string of lit-up passenger cars, full of people bound for mysterious destinations. I always wondered where they were going, and why; and I longed to go, too. The last car was a rounded observation car, and I imagined sitting in comfort, watching the dark landscape reel away behind me. When that trailing car disappeared to the east, we would turn and wait for the next train, close on its heels.
I never rode the Twentieth Century, to my regret. I did once ride the Pacemaker with my dad, and it was great. Funny, though, that wondering mystery goes away when you’re on the inside of the train, to be replaced with other kinds of excitement and intrigue. We rode in a sleeper car, but I don’t think I got much sleep, not with the world rolling by outside the window.
It’s been years since I’ve ridden a long-distance train just for the fun of it. But I hope that will change, when Amtrak accepts me (I hope!) into their just announced writers residency program! Yes, spurred by a wish expressed by a writer on Twitter, Amtrak has decided to offer free or low-cost long-distance train rides to selected writers—so they can get away and pursue their muse while riding the rails!
I’ve already applied. Wish me luck!
Meanwhile, I’ll just pretend I’m Cary Grant for a day…