There’s something about a train whistle that makes me stop what I’m doing to look up over the tops of trees, toward where the sound is coming from. That sound, riding easy on the air, tugs at me every time, almost saying the words “remember when…”
I’m lucky to live in a part of the Midwest where trains still roam freely. Munching on silver tracks, the clicks, hisses and whistles touch the air of my neighborhood a couple times a day. I like it. I’ve always liked it – no matter that I’ve been on a train trip exactly once in my life. Recently, I began work on a project for the Green Education Foundation which offered me a trip across the state on an Amtrak passenger train. I was totally jazzed. It had been 30 years since I rode a train from my hometown in Iowa to my grandparents’ home 100 miles away. Finally, I was going to see what that whistle sounded like from the inside, out.
The station where this trip began was much as it had been for 150 years, with long wooden benches, tall narrow glass pane windows and plank floors. In the Midwest, anyway, many of the original train stations have been kept up, from the smaller neighborhood stations on the outskirts of big cities, to the huge Union Stations of Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis.
I got to the station 20 minutes before my 9:44 AM departure. The waiting room was very full, and I was glad for the automated ticket Kiosk. Not exactly an original piece of passenger train history, but very well suited to the 21st century. My train arrived right on time and, just like in the movies, everyone gathered out on the platform to see it come in. Of course we heard the whistle before we actually saw the train. It came around the bend, sliding on past us before coming to a full stop. I was guided by the ticket master to the proper car, then again by the snack-bar master who also doubled as a therapist of sorts, and as the keeper of our cars air handling system. A very impressive dude, really.
I grabbed a seat by the window and spread out. This was so not a plane. Five minutes later we were sliding away from the city, following the Missouri River, westbound. I could get up and wander whenever I wanted. Alternating between taking photographs of picturesque towns out my window, drinking tea, and exploring other cars, my five hour journey went very fast.
It was so not complicated.
It was so not annoying.
It was just so easy.
I made it to my big city destination, spent the night, then headed back to the train station early the next morning. I was looking forward to the trip back, seeing what lived on the eastbound side of the tracks.
I watched tiny towns and rural roads whiz by again. I watched sun patterns on the windows, then cloud patterns in the sky over the river, then leaf patterns from single oaks standing sturdy in the middle of farmers’ fields. I watched red tail hawks fly alongside the train, then veer off in search of smaller prey. And I listened to that whistle, sounding more and more like wind on an easy day.