Rail Travel: Making Friends of Strangers

My husband chuckled as he handed me the travel cover of Sunday’s New York Times, knowing that Andy Isaacson’s story, “Riding the Rails,” would be dear to my heart. My late mother, Rosalie Yerkes Figge, loved loved loved riding the train. Every summer she and her mother would take the train from Philadelphia to Henderson, North Carolina, to visit her Harris and Hicks relatives, and, an avid traveler until the year before her death at 96, she trained everywhere possible. Returning with her from a family vacation in Orlando (she was 92 at the time) I was amazed at how she could predict when the train would slow, passing whistle stop towns, so she could edge her ponderous way into the dining car.

So I’ve been badgering my husband for years, “Let’s take a cross country railroad vacation,” and he has resisted for years. We’ve put our toe in the water by taking rail trips to Richmond and Durham, but no overnights comparable to when we trained to Montreal for the 1967 World Expo, our last child-free fling before we were to have our second child. Because I was 7 1/2 months pregnant, I couldn’t go by air (I’m no Sarah Palin), and the sleeper enabled me to travel horizontally.

And I did go off on my own train trip last spring, to celebrate my not-working-full-time status, taking the train from Princeton to Cleveland and continuing by Amtrak bus to Detroit. What I thought would be a pleasant adventure turned out to be a pleasant though harrowing adventure, which I wrote about for U.S. 1 Newspaper.

Isaacson has a talent for description (“In dawn’s light, the train streaked across the Great Basin Desert, blurring the view of tufted yellow shrubs flanking the rails but framing the white dusted, mineral-stained mountains beyond in an unfolding panorama…”) and in the microcosm of his four-day journey he conveyed the macro picture of America’s railroad future. (I’m pinning my hopes for Amtrak on our rail-riding vice president). He also told honestly of his own harrowing time; en route to Chicago he froze when the heat went off in his roomette.

But he and I both came away with the same opinion, that traveling long distances by rail has its own special rewards, not least among them the opportunity to meet and get to know one’s fellow travelers, making friends of strangers. I’m still corresponding with the friend I made enroute to Cleveland.

And, as Isaacson notes, the slower pace, the “rocking cradle, and that hushing sound, choo-k-choo-k choo-k-choo-k –” can act as a “salve for our modern psyche.”

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