A junk yard. A lone dog panting down a dusty road. The crooked stones in an old cemetery plot. Sounds like the perfect setting for a docudrama on Americana. But it’s the illustration of a story I recently conjured up while gazing out the window aboard a train heading south.
Planning a spring break trip for our family to South Carolina from our Northern Virginia home initially gave me indigestion as I combed through the internet looking for reasonable air fares. Recently being laid off, I scoured for the best way to save a few pennies. So, too, were a thousand other people. I had my work cut out for me.
We could drive, but the thought of sitting behind a myriad of semis and diesel fumes with nothing but Cracker Barrel restaurants and the whirl of our tires on a never-ending path of concrete down a superhighway whizzing by truck stop after truck stop was just not very appealing to me…..even though the bacon at Cracker Barrel is…well…I digress.
Traveling with us would be my 92-year old father-in-law. He often regales us with stories of his childhood spent hopping on box cars growing up near the train tracks in Pennsylvania – “hobo” style. Although it was probably not as romantic then as it sounded to me now, his stories always intrigue me. His eyes always glisten as he chuckles with pride when he boasts of hiding from the conductors and avoiding the burly men who would try to intercept their wanderlust, grab them by the back of the neck with their sandpapered hands, threaten to call their fathers, and send them on their way.
“Let’s go by train,” my husband said. At first I hesitated. This from a task-driven man who can’t sit still for seven minutes, and who is as fidgety as a toddler during his first haircut. But I was pleased that he wanted to let his aging father rekindle pleasant memories of his childhood – a slower pace and time. It would be a new experience for us, also. We think the microwave is too slow.
And so it was to be. At almost half the cost of air transportation, with no extraneous fees for carrying on our luggage, no Type-A business types conducting business loudly on their cell phones, no white-knuckled passengers demanding external soothing, we boarded the very to-the-minute, on-time train. Lines moved quickly, train conductors assisted loading and unloading in an organized and methodical swift movement. Stewards retrieved their ticket punchers and resumed collecting their counts with a quiet click-click. For those lagging behind, I could almost hear Tom Hanks leaning out of the Polar Express, saying, “Well, ya comin’?”
I settled in with a good book, but I was too distracted to read. The visuals while gazing out from my window seat told much better stories, stories that can’t always be written in black and white with fancy serif fonts.
After passing Richmond, the red clay of Virginia was soon gone, and sandy soil lined the tracks as the arms of looming pine trees scratched gently at the window and announced our arrival into North Carolina. A baby whimpered in the back of the car, but soon the rocking motion of the train assured the most fretting of mothers, and both were asleep by the next stop.
At a quick stop in Fayetteville, passengers stepped off to family hugs, and the local children stopped squirming just long enough to stare up with their mouths gaping at the looming locomotive. And even the chilly gray skies couldn’t dampen the sight of the bright white wooden slats of the town’s walking bridge lined with American flags. People hopped off briefly to stretch their legs or have a cigarette break. Restless but courteous teens gathered at tables in the dining car to play a game of cards. And with barely a notice, the train departed on time again with its cargo tucked in and intact.
The faint whistle of the train would heighten my excitement and give clues that we were coming upon a railroad crossing. In towns like Rocky Mount and Selma, I would stare at the small porches of the dilapidated houses, boat yards and small family cemeteries. Who were these people? What was their story? It was like being a kid in a candy store. I’m not sure there is enough paper, even from all these trees, that would hold all the stories that lay dormant in these abandoned buildings and farms that have witnessed wars, lives lost and loves of a people.
Our vacation in South Carolina ended up being a restful, fun-filled, relaxed vacation, but it wasn’t the destination, it was the journey. I’m not sure I can ever find the energy again to fly commercially, even though it will probably be a necessary evil at some point. But give me a destination, and I’ll find a way to get there by train.
As Tom Hanks’ character also said, “The thing about trains…it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.”
Now, about that docudrama….