the long slow roll….part 2

After the day in D.C. I settled into my seat for the 27 hour Washington D.C. to Chicago leg and made small talk with my neighbor, a recent college grad from Melbourne, FL that had studied IT in hopes of landing a job with the dying NASA complex along the shores of Cape Canaveral. The once flourishing area has been steadily decaying and the economic downturn has affected the area significantly so she was traveling to Seattle to see her uncle and figure things out. Unlike the Silver Meteor this train had a central car called the viewing car. The bottom level is the snack area and the top level is almost entirely glass, lined with swivel chairs and tables that face the massive windows giving you an area to stretch out and see the outside world roll by. the viewcars are the place to be and it is here that you hear the best stories so after a day of walking around solo I positioned myself up there pretty early.  There is no telling what you will see and hear and you are only limited by whatever level of engagement you wish to immerse yourself in. This can be all or none. I typically take the fly on the wall approach at first and pace myself trying to choose which, if any, people to talk to just so I don’t get sucked into that one crazy conversation with  a “latcher”. Sometimes you get into those conversations despite your best tactics to avoid them. You are stuck with these people for hours upon hours, which is why I always bring my headphones.


There was a boy that was walking up and down the aisles of the view car talking with other passengers like a little man about town. Occasionally he would stop and sit next to his mother, who appeared to be mid thirties. She had brown skin with short black hair and it was hard to tell if she was of Spanish, Arab, or Native American descent. She had a nose piercing that contained a small stone and her clothing suggested that she knew her way around a campsite, a coffeeshop, a museum, or an intellectual conversation equally well. This was combined with an unmistakeable femininity that I’m sure had attracted many interesting, attractive suitors, one of which left her with a child. It was unclear if the father was still around but the air she gave off suggested he was not and that she could handle herself quite well and that maybe the child was all she wanted after all. She had seen alot of men come and go. The boy had no fear of approaching strangers and it was obvious that the boy was going to inherit his parents good looks. Knowing this, his mother had encouraged him to meet as many people as he could and learn from them what he could. With his natural curiosity he would sit at each table and talk for a while and then go back to be with his mother and tell the things he had just learned. His mother would pull him close to kiss the top of his head and then whisper in his ear which made him smile. Before long he would be up doing something else and mingling equally with the other kids and the adults. He never sat at my table but each time he went down the aisle would nod in my direction signalling that he may or may not be by later but that he did recognize me, a polite notion that I’m sure his mother had taught him

Union Station. Chicago, IL Union Station, Chicago, IL


A body sleeps when it absolutely needs to and this can be accomplished in any location including a train but it’s difficult to get good sleep in general population. The seats are comfortable but not that comfortable so you can expect 2-3 hrs of decent sleep at a time. I would sleep in my seat a bit, go to the view car for a bit and back to my seat, continuing the process until dawn. We were scheduled to hit Chicago at 8am but I woke up early and went to the view car around 5am for the final 3 hours. Soon after, two Amish families sat down across the aisle from each other and began opening the fruit and cereal that was their breakfast. The younger girl in one of the families fetched water for the powdered milk and both families began eating, speaking and laughing quietly amongst themselves. I was seated behind one of the families, an older couple that no doubt had grown children that were out of the house doing their own thing. I had seen them the night before at the table in front of me but they were both sitting on the same side with their backs to me. While staring at the back of their heads I discovered that I could not differentiate between Amish or Mennonite and had no idea what these people were. Sure, I had seen Witness and Kingpin but I was not able to answer any of my questions regarding the matter so I turned to Wikipedia and began educating myself on the ways of the Pennsylvania Amish sects that populate Lancaster County, which is who these people seemed to belong to after matching them with what I was seeing in Wikipedia.  We were in the same positions this morning. I could only see the back of his head, his hair chopped squarely above his blue collar, and the back of her white bonnet, the chin strings tied, suffocating a lifetime of hair growth that was tied in a bun under the bonnet. Observing in fascination I wondered what I would or could say to start a conversation. I’m sure the Amish probably get asked a lot of questions. They are definitely stared upon frequently and I’m sure would like to travel in anonymity just like the next person. I had a lot of questions from my research the night before but I didn’t want to intrude on their breakfast, or their life for that matter.

The boy from the night before walked out of the seating car and made his way into the view car, nodded at me and then sat down at the same table as the older couple, across from them at the edge of the seat so he was just across the aisle from the other family. He looked at them and smiled and they all told him good morning, switching to English from the Pennsylvania Dutch they had been quietly speaking in to each other previously. After a few moments he asked them if they were Irish, a question that made them all laugh. The eldest woman politely told him that no, they were not Irish but Amish, a big difference. The boy laughed too and said that he meant to say Amish and got confused but that he had Irish in his background. Over the next hour as we approached Chicago and rolled through the industrial wasteland that hugs the south shore of lake Michigan I learned about the Amish and the boy as they traded stories. The stories from both sides went great with my 2nd cup of coffee. With childlike curiosity, the boy asked nearly every question that I had for my fellow travelers. I mentally checked each question off and took note of the things that I had not thought to ask. He asked complex cultural questions like where they had come from and why and who their ancestors were and simple questions like what kind of bathrooms they used and where they got their mail. There are many Amish on trains because their beliefs do not allow them to fly and they do not own cars. They can accept rides, however, so train travel is how they get to visit other Amish communities, a typical practice encouraged by their church. There was a point in the conversation before I went back to my seat that I heard the boy telling them a story about Michael Jackson and how he thinks he read that Michael was born in Indiana before he got famous. The elderly woman spoke for the entire bewildered group when she said “Michael Jackson? we don’t know who that is.” And I then realized it was the 1st time in my life I had heard that statement. I had never wondered if there was anybody that had not heard of Michael Jackson. And now I know and can’t say that I wasn’t envious of a life that knows nothing of Michael Jackson. Or Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen and Brangelina for that matter. And still functions beautifully.

because it was 36 degrees and raining in Chicago I decided to stay in Union Station for the day until the Southwest Chief left for KC at 4:15. With so many railroads  coming into Chicago in 1913, something had to be done to alleviate a clustermess of a system that the city’s overcrowded 1881 Grand Passenger Station had become. In 1913 construction was begun on a design by Daniel Burnham (same dude that designed the Washington D.C. Union Station) and completed in 1925. The new station was the terminus of 5 major railroads and to this day there are no trains that go through Chicago. They all either end or begin there.  While Chicago Union Station is not on as quite a grand scale as Washington’s it is magnificent nonetheless. One of the things that fascinated me the most were the grand staircases. These have been filmed in several movies, probably the most famous scene being when Robert Deniro descends them in “the Untouchables”. Walking up and down them several times to check the weather out side the station I immediately noticed the grooves that have been worn in the steps. Looking across them you can see the many waves and dips that have formed in each step. How many million people have walked up and down these stairs? How many footsteps does it take to wear down marble?worn steps in Union Station. Chicago, IL

The train ride to Kansas City was anticlimactic as I felt my hometown become nearer and nearer. The skies were grey and there was a steady drizzle the entire way that formed fog along the Mississippi. The dreariness of Chicago had made me numb. I couldn’t wait to get out of my jeans and had finally wondered why I hadn’t worn more comfortable pants for a 3 day journey. I saw the boy and his mother several times in the viewcar as I sat alone at my table listening to “(Not) Just for Kids” by Grisman and Garcia, trying to avoid eye contact with the old lady that had asked me to play cards with her when we first got on the train. Since we were all going west we had transferred onto the same train, although I had not seem them all day in the Chicago station. I had learned from the boys conversation with the Amish that they were traveling to New Mexico where his Native American grandfather lived. The boy and his mother lived in Maryland because that’s where his mother had met his artist father but they just couldn’t live together anymore so now they just lived close together for his sake. They would be staying in New Mexico for 2 months. It was somehow comforting to see them again and as I studied the mother watching the spring landscape roll by outside I wondered what she was  thinking and waited for her gaze to cross mine in hopes of a nod or a smile. The boy had found 2 others his age and they were running around the train, periodically stopping to sit next to his mother so the boy could introduce a new friend. Our eyes never met and I never did talk to her and eventually I had to get back to my seat and gather my things. As the train stopped I got off to go meet my dad and the smokers got off to enjoy the small break and quickly smoke a couple cigarettes. As I walked towards the terminal I saw them both standing outside, next to the train door. She was not smoking but had her hand on top of the boys head and I saw him look up to smile at her and she down to him, returning the smile. When I walked by, she looked up, still smiling from the exchange with her boy and her eyes met mine briefly. I nodded and kept walking, not knowing if she nodded back but feeling that all was right with the world.

The age of railroads may be over but with the price of gas and lodging these days the train is not only frugal but the possibilities that lie in store and the chance for adventure make it too good to pass up. The architecture and scenery that you will encounter, the characters you will meet are worth it. I have several train trips planned in the next few months to take advantage of these possibilities.

the waitersthe waiters. Chicago, IL Union Station, Chicago, ILUnion Station. Chicago, IL Union Station, Chicago, all trains. Chicago, IL

tick tockUnion Station clock. Chicago, IL

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *