03 July 2013

a train commuter!

I've had this dream since I was little about being a train commuter. How a little girl from a medium-sized town in Iowa comes up with this dream is the same way she comes up with a love for France: because it is so entirely other than her normal life.

Being a train commuter seemed so exotic and urban {which, when you're from Iowa and surrounded by corn fields, are synonymous}. The trains that went through my town when I was little were mostly ordinary and obvious and good for the economy: they were freight trains full of coal and grain and whatever else needed to be shipped.

Trains caused delays when you were stuck at the crossings: this was my familiarity with trains and their function within the community.

You learned that as you drove closer to downtown and the tracks that you needed to listen for the whistle; you needed to keep an eye on the train bridge crossing the Mississippi. Was there a train coming? Could you make it across before the gates came down at Main? Or should you swing west, up the river bluff and towards the bridge crossing the tracks?

By the time I learned to drive at 14, this gauging of train location was practically second nature, and I just knew when I should head up the bluff.

Later, after I'd learned to drive a stick but wasn't yet confident in it, the sight and sound of a train slowly chugging along the track would cause a sharp intake of breath—a sharp realization of fear. Halfway up the steep hill of the river bluff, on the way to bridge across the tracks, there was a stop sign.

If no one was behind me, I'd be fine; I wouldn't have to worry about running into them as I tried to do the delicate balance of the clutch and gas, trying to keep the car from rolling too far back, trying to keep it from bucking and dying on a hill. That hill, it was my Waterloo, and I did what Napoleon should've done: I avoided it.

I would sit at the train crossing as freight trains lumbered by, moving at the speed of molasses in January, as my mother likes to say. I would wait and avoid hyperventilating, and I told myself that slowing down and taking a break in the middle of the day just to admire my town and its excellent train crossings was well worth it.

I could listen to the click-click-click of the train wheels and to the whistle, and I could avoid hitting anyone. A win-win.

The sound of those train whistles and the click-clacking wheels—not to mention the cascading boom when train cars were coupled in the freight yard—that is the soundtrack of home.

Even now, I live near the railroad tracks in Glen Ellyn, and some people have asked, “But doesn't the train noise keep you up at night?”

No—it's practically a lullaby to me.

I always tell them that, and then tack on that I sleep like the dead, barely moving all night after I fall asleep almost instantly. A lot of people focus on that and ignore that I love the sound of trains so much, I might have been a Boxcar Child in another life. {Please tell me you've read The Boxcar Children books. They're charming in that way that being an orphan during the Depression always seems idyllic in retrospect.}

Trains where I come from are on the journey for the long-haul. Even the Amtrak trains that pass through Burlington are on their way to or from California, the people on them curled up with a pillow they brought on board so the train would feel more like home for 3 days.

The passengers wander into the dining car at their scheduled dinner time, hoping that this time it will feel more like that scene in White Christmas where Bing Crosby leads a four-part harmony about snow.

It rarely does feel like that, although you do feel that you've stepped back in time to when the train was the way to get places. When you're on the Amtrak, it's hard not to think about how astounding it must've been to get on a train for the first time back when it was new, unsure of this new technology—and then immediately become entranced with the ability to eat dinner in comfort while the cornfields flew by.

Now, though, I ride the train every day, and the scenery flying by is very suburban: restaurants, cupcake shops, bookstores, dry cleaners.

At one point, we cross over one of Chicago's expressways, and I always look down on it with a little smile {perhaps even bordering on a smirk}, thinking: I'd rather be here, doing my crossword puzzle, than trying to merge onto you any day.

I'm a train commuter! Like a real grown-up!

When any of your “when I grow up” dreams comes true, you instantly feel a mix of your younger self {complete with thick glasses, bangs, and a Care Bears t-shirt, in my case}, and the person you've become. “We did it,” you want to tell your little self.

“We dreamed big of joining the throngs heading to work on the train, and we did it! Now, what other, perhaps more ambitious dreams, did we have? Have we achieved those yet? What's that you say—become an Olympic gymnast like Mary Lou Retton? Umm, sorry, girly, but we better give up on that one.”

And then you give your little self a high-five of reassurance and get on the train. To work! Like a real grown-up!


  1. Since you are practically asking for responses:
    1. I also had a childhood dream of being a train commuter, but am glad I don't work far enough away to need it now.

    2. I've never learned to drive a stick, but I see how that intersection could be troublesome.

    3. I never heard about The Boxcar Children series until I was too old for them.

    4. Is it weird that I read the last paragraph in Pinocchio's voice when he says, "I'm a real boy"?

  2. Living near train tracks is the best; I've done it in all places I've lived but one (if you count the two city places where the "el" was right outside my window!). 'Cannot express the rightness of being in bed at night and hearing various train whistles. ah...

    Boxcar Children is the best. One of the few "best-books" we discovered via recorded storyteller rather than paper, and one of the lovely books I got to discover as an adult not a child.



Related Posts with Thumbnails