I had this illusion that train travel would be serene, a rollicking cradle of comfort up and down the tracks as I dozed off and dreamt of unfurling horizons. So when I booked my ticket to go to Michigan — two trains, three hours between them tooling around Chicago — I was thrilled at the sauna-like travel experience I was sure would follow. Having done a whole lot of driving and a whole lot of flying, train travel always seems to me to be a vacation to get to the vacation.
Amusing and intriguing? Maybe. Scenic and rhythmic? Definitely. But this is not the spa version of any kind of self-propelling through time and space. Exhibit A: the hour the first train comes to fetch me is long before dark’o’thirty. I wake at 4:30 a.m. into a universe I barely know. Once onboard, the swaying back and forth I imagined is more like being flung from one side of the world to another. As I leave my seat to check out the bathroom or find the cafe, I have to lunge at other seats to keep my balance while everyone around me is doing the same. Have trains always been like this, and I just forgot?
Then there are all the first-world-problems: food okay but not as good as I remembered, bathrooms that seem to not have been cleaned since 2011, overcrowding to the point that some people boarding have to wait in the lounge car, and in the lounge car, someone narrating historical and geographical features in a booming voice. My favorite moment: when he pointed us all toward a bald eagle in the field before introducing the dirt road we were riding over.
Chicago, a place I haven’t really been since 1981, is bigger, faster and louder than I remembered. While I made my way to Greek Town for Linner (dinner + lunch at 4 p.m.), my back and arms strained a bit with all the luggage, but the fresh air, after 9 hours on the train, was luscious.
Back in Union Station, my train fantasy burst. Maybe taking a train at 6 p.m. on a Friday, in retrospect, wasn’t the calmest way to go, but as I walked up and long long slanted floors toward wherever I was supposed to be (or thought I was supposed to be), rushing people slammed into me or halted abruptly, looking at me as if I had landed in front of them from Mars. Once at “D,” the place I was supposed to go, I joined a long line as someone ordered her to go to “the Green Hall.” We scurried away, confused. “What is this Green Hall?” a woman asked me. I told her I didn’t know, but let’s go find it, and in no time, facilitator that I am, I was leading six of us through a maze of shops and turns, escorted part of the time by a kind security officer, to the “Great Hall” (no green in sight) where, in the vast emptiness, we saw a sign with our train number on it, and a long line of people waiting.
30 minutes later, many of us confused and asking each other why we were here in between speculating about whether we were going to be put on a bus instead of a train (the horrors!), someone came, yelled at us to follow, and the rushing forth of the lemmings began. We went a long way back until we got to the train platform, occasional Amtrak personnel herding us with sticks (well, not sticks, but plenty of yelling). Then it was onto an kindly but old train to sit in full sun without the a.c. not kicking on yet. I know, more first world problems, and not really problems at all.
Now we’re moving north, we’ve cleared downtown Chicago, and out my sun-blasted window, I see old houses and new baseball fields, hear the long and lonely whistle of this train, and in the distance, glimpse a vast stretch of refineries. Nothing is what we think it is most times, and while this has not been a day to rest and replenish, it is a day with its own gifts, like this gorgeous cottonwood we just passed, eeking out its life between a cement wall and broken sidewalk while the blue of the sky sails back.