Texas Eagle Passes Illinois Railroad Prairies

Amtrak Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Illinois railroad prairie

Native plants grow alongside a railroad right of way in central Illinois

A landscape can flush out memories the same way an old familiar song does. It happened to me while traveling on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train through central Illinois. I was a college student heading to school. I was a young editor reporting on railroad prairies – native plants growing along the ICG Railroad right of way. This land was not only familiar to me but to my ancestors who made a living tilling the soil, acre after flat acre. Like a river returning to its source, Illinois created a current inside of me.

I sat with this feeling for a while.

A few years ago, through a mindfulness class I attended, I learned to stop myself from ruminating. The reason I learned to stop was because ruminating gave me no advantage for appreciating what’s happening in the moment. For that reason, I let the memories go and gazed out at the landscape that presented itself to me on that day, on that train.

During mid spring before the crops have started their growth cycle, the view was equivalent to that of a teenager’s blank stare, as exciting as a pair of dormant brown corduroy pants. If there is not a color called dormant brown, I thought there should be.

My seatmate knew nothing about Illinois. He kept his attention on his laptop. He traveled by airplane from Minneapolis to Chicago to attend a business meeting. He was taking the train from Chicago to Bloomington where he would attend another meeting.

“I could have drove,” he said. “But taking the train I avoid a speeding ticket and I can work. Time is everything, you know.”

An efficient fellow he was. Sitting next to him felt awkward, like the pauses during a bad first date. My limbs tightened. He was wearing clear frame glasses, blue jeans, a sport jacket and a black & white checked shirt. His dark hair was properly cut and combed.

Central Illinois wind farm

Wind farm in central Illinois.

I saw some tall white wind turbines in the distance turning their trinity of wings slowly in unison. They grew closer and more numerous as the train moved along its track. Illinois ranks fourth among U.S. states for installed wind turbine capacity. But what I was searching for was a field of blooming Prairie Trout Lily. Continue reading

College Student Opts for Train During Spring Break

The Cardinal, Train No. 51

Spring break is over and my seatmate, Tiquan, is taking the train from his home in New York City to his school in Hinton, West Virginia. He studies biology at Concord University in Athens and plays corner back on the University’s Mountain Lions football team. He had been playing for Wagner College in New York but things changed after his roommate invited him to visit Ocean City, Maryland.

Wired millennial on Amtrak train

WiFi and electrical outlets keep college students plugged in while on the train

Before I go on, here is a picture of Tiquan when I first sat down next to him on the train. Like many Millennials he’s plugged in and engaged with electronic devices. I sat quietly for ten minutes or so before noticing that the battery on my phone was low. I needed to reach over and plug my device into one of the onboard electrical outlets provided. Our conversation began this way:

“Excuse me. Can I plug my phone in here? My battery is low.”

“Sure, go ahead.” When he turned and smiled I could see he was of college age.

“Where are you going?” I asked. From then on we talked about college, New York, trains, football and oh, yes – the girl. He continued the story about visiting Ocean City and how he met a girl who changed his life.Continue reading

Waiting for the Train and Lost Love

Passenger at Charlottesville, VA train station

Paul waits at the Amtrak Charlottesville train station.

Charlottesville, VA to Chicago, Cardinal, Train No. 51

Paul was standing outside the Charlottesville Amtrak station waiting for the train when I met him. After visiting his son in Florida he was heading home to Charleston, West Virginia. He wore jeans, a light waist-length jacket, glasses and a cap that covered his white gray hair. His posture was bent forward in a slight hunch. He hoped to arrive home at 8:30pm.

“My ex-wife is going to pick me up and take me home,” he said.

“It’s nice to have that kind of relationship,” I responded.

“She’s mellowed out. It wasn’t always that way. I gave her the house and car.”

He told me they have three grown children and that he and his wife have been divorced for eight years.

“I should have waited it out. Two or three years and it would have worked out.”

I asked, “Why do you think that?”

“She joined the Wiccans. She thought she was a witch. Then she thought she was a psychic. I was going to church and she said I was crazy for going to church. I moved out and didn’t go back.”

I’m wondered why he would be revealing this information to me, a stranger at a train station. But a heavy heart needs to heave no matter where it’s traveling.

“It sounds like you still love her,” I hint. Continue reading

A Musician and Self-Published Author Prefers Rail

The Cardinal, Train No. 50

The giggling girls in the Café car are hairdressers from Charleston, West Virginia heading to the International Beauty Show in New York City. “What do you want to learn while there?” I ask.

“Just everything,” they squeal. “We want to see everything.”

Cafe car view from Amtrak Cardinal train

Orland in the Cafe car on the Cardinal heading to Charlottesville, Virginia.

A man to the left of me is gazing out the window but turns to see what the commotion is about. I throw a “Hello” his way and he catches it. He smiles, but waits a few minutes before talking with me. He is probably registering in his mind whether or not it is safe to talk with me. I am safe. I’m not going to judge him, or hush him, or tell him he’s ugly (he is not). On the train there isn’t much to lose during these chance encounters unless you are a very sensitive person. The upside is train travel camaraderie.

He’s a retired civil engineer who is spending his post work life developing his creative side. “I like playing music, writing songs and painting,” he says. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.” Most people follow up with a ‘What do you write?’ question but he says: “Oh, wait here. I have something.” He gets up and leaves. I sip my coffee and wonder what he is up to. In a few minutes he returns and slides a black soft cover book across the café car table. Ugh, a self-published author. I try not to judge.

“I’ve written three books. My brother has written six,” he says. That slide across the table has become familiar to me. The authors don’t ask a dime for their books. They just shove it towards you as if it were something as measly as a business card. Continue reading

A Military Vet and His Dog Ride the Rails

The Cardinal, Train No. 50

A few seats up from me sits Don and his border terrier service dog. He dips his nose down repeatedly to kiss the dog’s forehead. Don has maybe reached the age of 30. He tells me he is an army veteran who got his body blown up by an IED in Afghanistan in 2004. “It broke 18 of my bones. I have PTSD. When I get overexcited my dog calms me down,” he says while stroking the dog’s back. Don is traveling from Denver through Virginia to New York. “I can’t drive anymore. But I like trains. I love trains. I love riding trains,” he says in a rhythm that mimics the train’s rolling wheels.

Outside, the rushing white water of the New River in West Virginia meets a dam and flattens out to a still pool.

The Healer Finds Joy

The Cardinal, Train No. 50
Amtrak Cardinal train enters the New River Gorge

View of the New River Gorge from Amtrak Cardinal train

While on the train I witness the seniority of the natural world. We pass through portions of the millions-of-years-old Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the New River Gorge and the Shenandoah Valley.

The New River is the second oldest river on the planet according to volunteer train narrator Al LaDriere. He asks: “Who knows what other characteristic makes this river different?”

“It flows north,” says my seatmate, Oksana. She’s right. She lived in this area since arriving from the Ukraine as a child. Now she lives in Durango, Colorado with her second husband. She is returning to Charlottesville to visit with her two boys, ages 18 and 20.

“I never would have guessed that about the river,” I tell her.

We get up out of our seats and cross the aisle for a better view of the ancient river’s rushing water. Oksana’s physical features remind me of a pencil. A pixie haircut surrounds her bony face and angular nose. Her eyes are expressive and penetrating. She tells me her first husband died. Her parents died. Her younger brother died. All of these encounters with death for a woman still in her thirties seemed as unlikely as a river flowing north.

Oksana’s life moved in another direction. She remarried and changed careers from being an antiques dealer to becoming a shamanic healer. She dedicates her time to helping people recover from trauma or the loss of a loved one. She has a studio in Durango and offers one-on-one long distance help via Skype.

Most of the sites on the Cardinal train route are familiar ground for Oksana but they are new to me. We enjoy being in this moment together, on the crest of mountains, watching the river snake through the passes, the train trusting its path.

Prison Guard Returns Home on Narrated Cardinal Train Route

Cincinnati to Charlottesville, VA, The Cardinal, Train No. 50
Coach seats on Cardinal train

Coach seats on the Cardinal train

The man sitting across the aisle from me unloads a large orange duffle bag from his back onto the train’s overhead baggage rack. I know I’ve met someone from a different region when I hear him ask in a soft, southern accent: ”Do you need any help with your bag, ma’am?” I acknowledge his kind gesture with a warm smile and a shake of the head, no. I travel light.

He looks as though he could toss my bag overhead with one arm. His strong build and gentle manner reminds me of how nice men can be. His beard is shabby in an outdoorsman kind of way. His brown hair holds a slight wave. He’s dressed casually in faded jeans and a blue sweatshirt.

“That’s quite a load to be carrying on your back,” I say.

“I’ve been working and camping at Yellowstone National Park for 78 days. I’m returning home to Alderson, West Virginia.” That’s all he says before he begins viewing several music websites on a laptop.

“Are you a musician?”

“No. I’m retired from federal law enforcement.”

“What does federal law enforcement mean?”

“I worked at the federal prison in Alderson for six years and before that twenty some years at the federal penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida.”

“You were a prison guard?”

“Yes.”

“I bet you have some stories to tell.” Continue reading

Gifts From a Train Traveling Grandma

Chicago to Cincinnati, The Cardinal, Train No. 50

At Chicago’s Union Station an elderly lady wearing a short fleece coat, long purple dress and hat catches my eye. A chain from her neck holds a circular pendant that bobs at her stomach. Her blue canvas backpack shifts her shoulders forward. Other ladies sit with their right hands clenched around the extended handles of their luggage. They lift themselves from the blue vinyl chairs without releasing their hooked fists. Forming a trail of clicking bags they move toward the boarding train.

Amtrak passengers boarding in Chicago

Passengers board the Cardinal train at Chicago’s Union Station

I follow the woman wearing the purple dress. She becomes my seatmate. Her name is Laurie. Traveling to Cincinnati, she’s finishing the last leg of an international trip that began in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she now lives. Cincinnati is home to some of her family and a house she wants to sell.

In age and manner, she is grandmotherly. Yet her spirit is free. “YOLO,” she says of her adventurous move to Tel Aviv. “You only live once.”

She rummages through the bags at her feet. “Security kept stopping me at the airports. Pulling my things out. They even kept some of them. Two of my bags were lost in Madrid. I don’t know when I will get them back.” Her bags meet the Amtrak carry-on rules. Passengers are allowed two personal items weighing less than 25 pounds and two carry-on bags weighing less than 50 pounds. Anything else has to be checked for a fee.

From one of her bags she lifts two over-the-door metal hooks. “I can’t use these in Israel because the doors are thicker.” She pulls out a large roll of toilet paper. “Never want to be without this,” she explains. Next, is a plastic grocery bag holder that allows the carrier to hook several bags on to it. Her documents are covered in dark plastic sleeves. I understand why security officials might be suspicious. There are more items mashed up in her bags. She thinks them clever and useful for her family here. Some of the smaller pieces are gift wrapped as presents for her nine grandchildren.

I believe I’ve met my first train traveling hoarder grandma.

Grandma's on the train with gifts

Grandma’s gifts

She opens the lid of a white Styrofoam food container and begins eating Chinese food with a silver fork. A half hour later she pulls out another Styrofoam container with brisket and cabbage. She cuts it with a plastic knife.

Before retiring, Laurie worked as a registered nurse in public health.

“I grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois,” she says after learning I am from the Chicago area. Park Ridge is the suburb where Hillary Clinton was raised. Laurie looks to be around Hillary’s age.

“Did you know Hillary Clinton?”

“Yes, I did. We went to Maine South High School together. She was very smart. Hung around with all the smart kids.”

Laurie has four grown children who she says “are in a competition to see who disagrees with me more. One tried to get me committed.” The two things she and her ex-husband of 30 years agree on: “We don’t like the person our son married and we don’t like the person our daughter married.”

The train is scheduled to arrive in Cincinnati at 3:17a.m. but it is running late. She’s glad. “I told whoever picks me up that I would take them out to breakfast.”

A weary traveler, she leans her head against the train window and falls asleep. I ponder why Laurie seems obsessed with the belongings in her carry-on bags yet is willing to break ties with her house in Cincinnati and the USA.

When I reach to turn the light on above my seat to read I find it doesn’t work. I ask the conductor if there is another seat I can occupy and he accommodates me. I move several rows up in the same car. The landscape outside the train window is completely dark for a long while. Where are the towns and city lights? My eyelids get droopy. It’s 9:55pm. Goodnight world, wherever I am.

Over Night Train Travel With the Amish

Chicago to Pittsburgh, Capitol Limited, Train No. 30

An Amish girl on board an Amtrak train

An Amish girl on board an Amtrak train

Traveling from Chicago’s Union Station to Pittsburgh I board the Capitol Limited, scheduled to leave at 6:40pm. And it does. I find my assigned seat, number 45, near a window and settle in. My seatmate is eating a raspberry colored applesauce with a plastic spoon. A white cap covers her head and ties beneath her chin. A long apron dress reaches her black shoes. She appears to be in her early 30s. Wire rim glasses balance on her slightly pointed nose. Faint pink cheeks complement her pale complexion. She reminds me of a young Meryl Streep. She is not wearing a wedding ring, an observation I am keen on since having removed mine just days ago. I stick to traveler questions as we begin talking.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask her.

“California. We’ve been on the train since Monday,” she says politely. It is Thursday.

“What were you doing in California?”

“Well,” she hesitates and turns her head to the elderly couple sitting across the aisle from us. “My father needed a surgery. We don’t have health insurance. This was the best way.”Continue reading

Fate Takes a Turn on the Train

Washington DC to Chicago, Capitol Limited, Train No. 29

Interior of Washington DC Union Station

Interior of Washington DC Union Station

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.Continue reading