RIDING THE RAILS: What I Learned Aboard Amtrak Wolverine #351

Good morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me—I’m your native son….
–train lyrics by Steve Goodman, “City of New Orleans”

I consider myself an experienced traveler.  Over the past twenty years I’ve explored seven or eight countries, and all but a couple of the contiguous American states.  I’ve traveled at least twice by train:  once as a small child, when my grandmother took me to Toledo aboard the last steam train to provide service in Michigan; and once with my own children to Ann Arbor for a day of museums and adventure.

So who would have expected that a five-hour train ride from Dearborn to Chicago would be so full of new experiences?  I mean, had I embarked on a cross-country ride on a Harley, or cruised the Yangtze, or hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, I’d have expected to be somehow changed by the experience.  But meandering along through Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Dowagiac, New Buffalo, Hammond-Whiting, and Chicago?

Knobs and Handles – Planes and trains have followed distinct evolutionary paths—so the systems which I’d come to expect on an aircraft, such as a sliding door lock for the restroom, presented new challenges on the train.  The restroom faucet is an enigma in itself—there is no handle, and after a bit of fiddling I found that pressing against it from beneath released a splash of warm water.

The Secrets of Cities and Swamps – But I was surprised by more than the mere mechanics of the passenger car itself.  Cities and towns reveal an older, seedier side from the vantage point of a moving train.  I’ve driven Ypsilanti’s Main Street a hundred times, even enjoyed the festivals in historic Depot Town; but from the tracks one sees the city’s effluent:  its discarded bikes and lawn chairs and rubber tires, forgotten tractors, dirty, unwashed rear entrances.  At Kalamazoo, graffiti artists had reclaimed bridge abutments with their wild and colorful strokes.  In cities all along the way, beyond the weed-strewn bed lay smokestacks and service plazas, steeples and storage units, and the stubble of industry gone sour.  But here, along the tracks, nature had reclaimed the land.  Beavers had erected their lodge in a swamp; and I watched as a wild turkey rose from the low grasses, oblivious to the fate of its domestic cousins, already destined for stardom at next Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast.

And Most of All, the People – If cities and countryside are to be experienced and enjoyed, and animals are to be loved, how much more then can the people we meet enrich our lives and fill our hearts?

So it was for me aboard Amtrak Wolverine #351 on Thursday morning.  There were all kinds of plain and fancy folks:  young ingénues with laptops and DVDs; elderly vacationers heading off to see a brother in Missouri; unemployed workers seeking a career or just a job in the next town; business commuters, heading for meetings in the Windy City.

Seated behind me, a young man entertained his companion with tales from his personal “Blair Witch Project”:   “He spotted me on top of the building and called out, but I jumped and ran into the woods.  He followed, and I could hear his breath, hear the branches and twigs break beneath his feet.  He almost caught up with me, but then….”  To my disappointment, the two young men disembarked at Kalamazoo for a “seven-minute smoke break,” as promised by the conductor, and either stayed behind or returned to sit in a different seat, so I never heard the end of the story.

Amtrak’s conductors and crew were caricatures of themselves, as though pulled from central casting for “The Polar Express.”  The white shirts with epaulets and gray conductor jackets and hats were reminiscent of an earlier era, and from the portly conductor to his young female counterpart, all wore them with pride.  The youngest worker we saw, a girl barely past high school with wisps of long dark hair peeking from behind her ears, was so cute it brought a smile—and when I turned to my husband, I found him also grinning, enraptured by her youthful charm and oversized hat.

My life is so busy with “doing” that this experience—ten hours of forced “being” and “thinking”—was a great gift.  I was warmed by the sheer goodness of mankind, as evidenced by the people who were my companions on my journey.  How much, I thought, must God love us, if I can so love these people—people I scarcely knew, but who each, by their lives and comportments, revealed the essence of humanity.  It was a long, tiring, and very rewarding day!

  • http://jevcat.wordpress.com/ Janet E. Vetter

    Lovely, lovely piece. Train travel is something most Americans don’t really understand or appreciate (of course, the way trains have been treated and run in this country doesn’t help). My dad was a railroad man and love trains passionately, as does the love of my life (that’s pretty literal, we’ve known each other since we were nine). I wish I had time and money to travel by train (or these days to travel at all). Highlights of my life include train trips from New York to Racine and New York to Pasadena. It’s a whole different world on the rails.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Thanks, Janet! I’m glad you did have the opportunity to enjoy a few train trips!

      Since I published this piece, I took one more roundtrip on the same track– and this time, the stars were swans, maybe a hundred of them along the way. That probably portends ill for the species, since they’ll likely be the next nuisance animal on Michigan’s lakes.

      The train is a wonderful way to travel! Can’t wait to do it again!

  • Terry

    Welcome to the wonderful world of train travel. I’ve taken the Pere Marquette (love that name!) from Grand Rapids to Chicago more times than I can count, and I love the trip. But I would strongly recommend that, when the opportunity presents itself, you go beyond Chicago, and take one of the cross-country routes. Spend the extra money, and get a roomette. You’ll have access to the first-class lounge in Chicago. It’s not all that spectacular, but a nice place to relax, enjoy a meal from the Union Station food court (I love the Italian Beef sandwiches from Gold Coast Dogs), and just “people watch”. On the train, you’ll share meals with other travelers (the tables seat four, and if there’s only one or two in your party, you’ll be seated with others), be able to watch the panoramic views from the observation car, or relax in your roomette. Overnight, you’ll be rocked to sleep by “the rhythm of the rails”. I’ve met several Amish families, Europeans traveling across America, senior citizens with “ride all you want” passes visiting relatives all over the country, and fellow train lovers who believe it’s not the only, but certainly the best, way to travel.

  • GoodForm

    I’ve traveled from Flint to Chicago and back a half-dozen times or so. I love traveling on the train and hope to take one of those cross country trips mentioned above some day. I remember going back to the snack car and ordering a beer. I felt like I was in some old movie having a drink with Humphrey Bogart. :)

  • Elaine S.

    I have traveled the Lincoln Service route between Springfield, IL, and Chicago several times for work-related trips. It is my absolute favorite way to travel — affordable (a single ticket is $18 each way, or $36 round trip, less than what I would pay for gas and parking if I drove the route), low-stress (no fighting traffic, or worrying about bad weather) and friendly.

  • charles

    I commute by the Wolverine weekly from my office at Notre Dame (the Niles, MI, Amtrak station is just 7 miles away) and my home in Crystal Lake, IL. It’s two blocks from Union Station to Ogilvie station to catch a Metra train for Crystal Lake. I go westbound on Thursday afternooon, work from home Friday and Monday, and go eastbound on Tuesday morning. Being a regular has its benefits as well. The Niles station agent, Todd, will call me if the train is running late (which was much more a problem formerly than it is now). The conductors greet me like an old friend, and the cafe car attendants have my order set up when they see me heading their way. And as for the scenery, there is really no better way to enter the City of the Big Shoulders than through the refineries, steel mills, and freight yards in the city’s back yard.

  • http://erics-planet.blogspot.com Eric

    I’ve been a rail fan since I was a young kid. Sadly, I haven’t traveled by rail as much as I’d like to. However, in my limited trips, I’ve discovered that people who aren’t in a hurry are the ones you find on trains. And those are the best people. They’re enjoying life, not rushing through it. A few years ago, I even rode our local commuter train to work and found the same thing, even on a 45-minute trip. We bought a home 150 feet from a very busy, major rail line with freight, passenger, and commuter traffic. The sight and sound of the trains so close to home are comforting. And it’s nice to see that out here in California, rail is quickly catching on with new service and the proposed bullet train between L.A. and the Bay area.

  • Rodger McCain

    It was just a year ago that Mom died. 87 years, a devoted wife and mother. Us 3 sons grew up on The City of New Orleans. We were the little brats that ran up and down the train, sorry. Mom from Louisiana, Dad from Illinois. They met during his much decorated service during World War II in the United States Army Air Corps. As an engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad, eventually an Amtrak engineer, we were proud to grow up in a railroad family. Dad and his co-workers understood their responsibilities and took great pride in providing safe, courteous service. Nearly every Easter and Christmas we would travel from our home near Chicago to visit Mom’s family in Louisiana. Those were magical, memorable trips. We took vacations by car, airplanes other times.
    As Mom’s health began to fail her, I made tentative arrangements to have her casket transported from Chicago to New Orleans in the baggage car, a bedroom for myself to escort her to her final resting place. Logistics and schedules didn’t permit this, I escorted Mom aboard a jet. However, this past April I boarded the City of New Orleans at Chicago’s Union Station en route to Louisiana one more time. The Sunrise Easter service at the cemetary where Mom and Dad are buried was the destination to pay my respects to them for a job well done. We visited with Mom’s family and enjoyed one more train ride, returning to Chicago reflecting on the wonderful memories on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.

  • Dolores Burkett

    I live in Vancouver, Washington and in July I took my two youngest grandkids, Sam age 12 and Zoe, age 10 to Washington DC via Amtrak, and here it is now September and both are ready to go again by way of the train. We traveled through 14 states changed trains in Sacramento and Chicago on our way to Washington DC. It took 5 days, oh but the memories my grandkids will have of that wonderful train trip. We spent a week in Washington DC and came home again by way of Amtrak. We had a sleeper car which included meals and we even had our own toilet and shower! Train travel is the way to go, you meet all sorts of wonderful people from everywhere in the states and beyond our borders, even as far away as England. If it all possible, unless I’m in hurry or no train service such as Hawaii, I plan to take the train!!