Washington DC to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29
On the train platform in Washington DC, after disembarking the Silver Meteor from Orlando, I meet Jimmy. He’s nodding his head in different directions looking uncertain about which way to go.
“Are you riding on to Chicago?” I ask as we head toward the beautifully renovated Washington Union Station.
“Yes. I’m not sure what to do during this 9-hour layover,” he says. Jimmy is tall with a lean build, dark hair and eyes, bushy brows and a square chin. He’s 26 years old with a ready smile. I’m drawn to his exuberance.
“Do you want to see the sights with me?” He quickly accepts my invitation. This layover is a vacation day for me. I love Washington. The National Mall with all of its free museums is steps away from the train station. Jimmy begins to assess the bags he is carrying. A tilt in his posture, gesticulating hands, and a red fleece blanket with white hearts hanging from his backpack all tell me he is gay, in the broadest definition of that word. While rolling a carry-on bag, he balances the backpack over his shoulders with great dexterity.
Outside of the station, we see the streets of Washington and the Capitol building, which is covered in scaffolding. Jimmy’s step quickens. He grabs his camera and points it in multiple directions. Washington is readying itself for Pope Francis’ visit the next day. On some of the streets barricades are positioned near curbs but not yet in place to detour traffic. We walk the length of the National Mall, stopping in various museums along the way.
“Why are you going to Chicago?” I ask.
“That’s not my final destination. I’m going on to Wyoming. I need to change my life,” he says. “I got a job at a hotel. A friend of mine works there.”
“What kind of hotel?” I ask.
“My friend said it serves mostly truck drivers.”
My next thought is that his trusting, native Floridian attitude will make him a target. But I push that out of my mind. He views the world as a friendly place.
“You better practice your lassoing technique and buy some cowboy boots,” I joke. Then add, “It’s a different culture out West. You’ll see.”
We return to the station in time to board the Capitol Limited at 4:00pm. Our seats are next to each other.
“Why are you taking the train?” I ask.
“I’ve ridden on trains four times but this is the first time on my own and outside of Florida,” he says. The only other state Jimmy has visited is Kentucky to visit his grandparents.
As our train pulls out of Washington’s Union Station I’m focused on the train’s movement. Memories of working for a freight railroad (now a part of the Canadian National) enter my mind. I sat with an engineer in the grimy cramped space of a freight locomotive while working on a story about grade crossing accidents. It was a view of the railroad I had longed for.
The yard tracks beside me now are like outstretched fingers, waiting for a handshake. I can’t see this train from the engineer’s vantage point but the yard signals are visible. The middle green light on the home signal indicates which track is clear. The engineer will switch from the lead track onto this one. He may then switch to another track before pushing the throttle setting to increase speed. Our Amtrak engineer does a fine job pulling out of the station. No jerking. Air travelers might compare it to how gracefully a pilot lands the plane.
When we settle into our seats, Jimmy tells me: “One of the service attendants offered to give me a tour of the train.”
“That’s great,” I say. “What did he show you?”
“His sleeper car.” We laugh out loud.
The only time I see him frustrated is when he loses his Wi-Fi connection. He strikes the phone against his knee as if it’s a mechanical device that can be reset with a blunt blow.
“Some of the passengers think I’m loud,” he confesses.
“They are probably just tired,” I say.
The Lounge car is his favorite place on the train. It is not until night falls and blackens my window that I move through two cars to reach the Lounge car. Jimmy is watching a guy take pictures of the landscape. Knowing I’m curious about why people travel by train, Jimmy points to the picture-taking guy. I begin with him. His name is Mathias. His black hair, tanned skin and deep eyes match his pensive mood. With Jimmy beside me, I learn that Mathias is a registered nurse with an interest in architecture. This is his first train trip.
“Why travel by train?” I ask.
He answers thoughtfully: “I wanted the experience. To see the views. Relax. Be on my own. I’m coming from New York City and am now heading to Chicago.” He will spend five days in Chicago as part of his vacation. “I was told that if I wanted to see great architecture I should visit these cities.”
Mathias lives in Texas, near the border. Like Jimmy and I, he is traveling solo. His dream is to be an architect. I look around to see who else I can talk with. Jimmy continues talking with Mathias.
In the early morning, shades of auburn, tangerine and pale green light emerge on the horizon. A mist of fog hovers like a ghost, lighter in density than the smoke from stacks or steam from engines. The muffled rustling of morning begins. Passengers stir in their seats. The car doors whoosh open and close as people head for the bathroom. A service attendant announces: “The dining car is open for breakfast.”
We arrive at the Waterloo, Indiana station at 8:22am approximately two hours later than our scheduled arrival time. Some passengers complain, but I like this train. She is a marathon runner without shoes. The joy in her stride comes at the station platforms where people throw their arms up and around each other. She outpaces the wind, furrows through tunnels and heaves herself past mountainsides. When she crosses over bridges and streets she feels the rail’s loyalty to her alone. Her minutes are counted. Her finish line is just a pause.
When we arrive in Chicago the diesel smell enters my lungs as I walk the platform. Outside on Canal Street I show Jimmy how to get to Chicago’s beautiful lakefront and Millennial Park. Mathias takes pictures. We hug each other and say goodbye. I remind Jimmy to buy some cowboy boots.
Wyoming didn’t work out for him. He believes he was on the train that day not to pursue a new life there, but to meet Mathias. “We are very much in love. He was the reason I was on the train that day. In some way fate brought us together. They say home is where the heart is, so Texas here I come.”