Last fall, after a rash of air crashes and due to my cowardice, I spent 2 1/2 days riding a train (coach class) from Springfield, Mass., to Las Vegas.
My mother warned me that "strange people" ride trains. My husband, who thinks the fastest line between two points is by jet, insisted I would be bored and suggested I buy plenty of reading material. I obediently stocked up on magazines, newspapers and paperbacks.
After the train left Springfield, I settled down with a magazine, but as the miles unfolded, the books remained unopened as I was swept into the contemplative and humorous world of riding trains.
Adventure Into Unknown
People who ride trains apparently are instantly transformed into kindred souls on a terrific adventure into the unknown, bonded together only by the fact that they are sequestered with no escape in a long snakelike, fast-moving object. I sat, watched and eavesdropped as scenario after scenario developed, better than any smash hit sitcom on TV. (Hollywood take note!)
Act II's comic relief consisted of everyone in the front five rows of the car watching as fool after poor fool tried to figure out how to keep the lavatory door closed and locked while inside. Why the lavatories are placed in such a prominent location must be someone's idea of sadistic humor. It is difficult to appear nonchalant while feverishly manipulating a bathroom door in front of 10 pairs of unblinking eyes, but I am still filled with admiration for the few who mastered the technique.
At one point, the lights were turned off while our power source was apparently transferred from one car to another. As the conductor cautiously made his way down the dark aisle with a flashlight someone called "Trick or treat!" which instantly brought down the house.
After the sun set and darkness enveloped the train and lights inside began to go out, people began to talk quietly together, their voices carrying down the train softly the way they do sometimes across a campground after dark when you make your last trip to the john before bed. Since they are trapped in a certain moment and place in time, some people seem more talkative on trains.
Woman of Quiet Dignity
Across from me was a young black mother with a little boy who couldn't have been older than 4, and at first I didn't even know he was there. They were asleep and she sat curled around him the way you see a mother cat curl around her kittens. When the sun began to shine in the windows, his head suddenly popped up and in his exuberance, he began to talk quite loudly. She gently quieted him with such dignity that I, who tend to discipline my three little ones with unnecessary and ineffective rants and raves, was filled with admiration.
People who live with daily tension and stress should get on a train; it is guaranteed to slow down your thought processes and bring peace to your soul. As the mother of small children, I seldom have time to sit and reflect about anything other than how to find three clean pairs of pajamas 15 minutes before bedtime when the wash hasn't been done for two days. When observing life aboard a train, one becomes introspective and contemplative. As you see the rest of the world fly past mile after mile at 50 m.p.h., problems in your life become less important as your mind wanders.
The more country you pass through, the more questions you have. Why are there lily pads in Ohio and Illinois but not in California? What are those huge cobweb-like things that hang from branch after branch in tree after tree in Indiana? Huge spiders? Camouflaged bats? By the way, Galesbury, Ill., I like your unassuming train station and your subterranean football field. Somewhere down the rails just a bit, someone has a melon in his backyard that needs to be picked. And a special thanks to the man on the porch in Monmouth, Ill., who waved back.
How different people's backyards are. Some are so meticulously planned and others are so full of junk, you can't see the ground. Racing past at 50 m.p.h., sometimes I catch only a glimpse of some kind of apparatus I can't identify. I tell you, the country can't be in bad shape if there are so many people setting out long rows of pumpkins on their porches. I wonder what people would think if they passed my backyard at 50 m.p.h. And speaking of junkyards! I saw one categorized by subject like books in a library, hubcaps here, stovepipes there . . . a gold star for organization, whoever you are!
In addition, we should give a gold star to whoever can come up with a use for the hundreds of old, empty red-brick buildings all across America, sometimes with faded white letters on the side, proclaiming the name of a long defunct business--so many of them surrounded by open farmland broken up only occasionally by the skeleton of an abandoned farmhouse.
Why is it that we always take better care of our animals than we do of ourselves? Somewhere in Illinois there was a pig farm. I tell you, those pigs looked the picture of contentment, with little roofed areas to shade them from the sun, plenty of food to eat and mud to wallow in. They didn't even look up as we passed.
As we headed through the Rockies, I could see where the phrase "purple mountains majesty" came from. The leaves were beginning to turn, and the hillsides looked like patchwork quilts. When we got to the canyon lands we were often surrounded by dense bushes and tall trees.
By the time we reached Las Vegas, I must admit I was ready to sleep in a real bed and make a trip to the john without the eyes of the world upon me. Yet, nearly a year later, whenever I hear the whistle of the train as it passes in the night, I am reminded of my trip and I would recommend it at least once to everyone.