Monday, December 26, 2011

I Choo Choo Choose to Write About Trains

Trains and their tracks have criss-crossed my life for as long as I can remember, intersecting nicely with this month's writing prompts at CafeWriting. I'm adapting one of the prompts there to give you seven vignettes about trains in my life.

1. I grew up outside a town that was criss-crossed by train tracks. I remember an elementary teacher telling us that if nuclear war broke out, our little town in the middle of nowhere was on the Russian target list, because it was a railroad hub. I doubt the story, but it speaks to the importance of trains in our town: The Railroad was the single largest employer in the town. The nearest tracks were less than two miles away, which was close enough that you could hear the trains if you were listening but mostly you would tune them out if you weren't. One of our neighbors had retired from the railroad and took his career to the extreme: he had a segment of railroad track installed in his yard along with a red caboose.

2. As a kid, I loved the model train we had in the basement. We had it set up on a one-piece ping pong table on top of our pool table. I built scenery for it, mostly pretty rough stuff, like a drive-in movie theater made from a cardboard box or roads made from paper. Imagination filled in the rest. I was older when a local man used our nearby community center to set up his own incredible model train town. It took up an entire large room and had such realistic scenery that it looked as good as the view from a low-flying plane. But in its way, my own train set-up meant more to me, because it was mine, because its places and history were populated from my own brain.

3. The practical effect of living near a train town was that you had to plan an extra 10 minutes for any trip if you wanted to make sure you arrived on time. To get to high school, I had to cross two different sets of tracks, and it was by no means impossible that I would encounter a train at both tracks. Even if you didn't sit and wait for trains, it still took time to make your way around the impediment. Train tracks and impatience worked together to ensure that most of us who grew up there got to know every possible way to get from point A to point B, as well as a decent sense of the probability that a given road's track would be unblocked by the time you got there, based on the direction of travel and the speed of the train. Trains coming into town tended to get gradually slower while trains leaving town sped up. You know, actually, if you grew up outside of town, you probably knew all the ways to get around on your side of town. The other sides might well be a mystery.

4. It wasn't until I went to Europe, in my early 20s, that I got to experience passenger rail travel--and fell in love with it. Of course, Europe is a different place (actually, lots of different places!) than the U.S. Without troubling about a car, the trains of Europe let me get wherever I wanted to go, easily, and all the time I could be sleeping or reading, walking around--whatever. After 8 hours of train travel, I could arrive feeling refreshed. Eight hours of driving? Yeah, right. Time in the train could be spent planning the next adventure with a guidebook, or writing in my journal about the last adventure, or writing postcards, or sleeping it off, or getting some reading done, or relaxing and talking with a traveling companion. Twice, I took advantage of a sleeping car, which doubled as transportation and hostel, taking us from an evening in Berlin to a morning through evening in Munich, and then another overnight train found us in Rome.

5. When we lived in Providence, RI, the trains weren't as good as in Europe, but they were serviceable. We could take a cheap commuter train into Boston on the weekend, getting there just as quickly as if by car, but without the need to find--and pay for--parking. There in the northeast, Amtrak is about as good as it is anywhere in the country, with more trains to more of the places you want to go. Lauren took the train into New York City just as easily. Now we live in north-central Indiana, and the commuter rail that runs across northern Indiana and Illinois from South Bend to Chicago provides a similarly easy way into the big city... except that we need to drive an hour to get to the train in the first place. Still, it's nice to avoid traffic and parking, and in a city like Chicago you can get anywhere you want to be through the use of other trains--the L in Chicago or the subways of other cities.

6. My hometown revolves so thoroughly around trains that it has a train museum. Despite the fact that my mother still lives in the house where I grew up, never in all the years that I or she has lived there have I gone to the train museum. A friend of mine assures me that it's pretty good, especially for kids, so we've put it on our To Do list for some future visit, but like so many local attractions, it continues to draw people from elsewhere while the locals ignore it--much like the caverns we have two miles from our house: never been there, despite going to two other caverns in my childhood. But anyway, we're going to get to the train museum. Some day.

7. One of the things that thrills my wife and me is the possibility of expanded train service. Rumor had it that a new line would be going from Chicago to somewhere by way of a town just 20 minutes from us. We were totally excited about that (and then the funding fell through). We heard they were going to build a high-speed line from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Even though it doesn't directly affect us, we have family in Ohio, came from Ohio, and just generally maintain an interest in the state. How cool would that be, connecting the three main cities of Ohio (sorry Toledo)? Bengals-Browns games? Take the train to the game and back--and sleep off the alcohol you had to consume to make that game bearable! Added bonus: residents of both cities can easily go see the only relevant football team in Ohio, the Buckeyes. Anyway, this apparently isn't happening either. ::sigh::

We didn't do it, but since we were honeymooning out in Oregon, we seriously considered taking a train out there--we just didn't have the time. Maybe some day. And maybe someday we'll be a country with a serious passenger rail service between most points A and B.

We can dream, can't we?

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