It was right before Thanksgiving 1990 and just a few weeks before I would fly to Korea when I boarded an Amtrak train bound for Dallas to spend the holiday with my Mom.
It would end up being my last Thanksgiving at home before I came back to the States for a few months at the end of 2006.
I suppose I could have flown to Dallas—which would have been easier because my Mom at the time lived in Irving right next to the DFW—but I had always wanted to take a long train trip in the States and most likely I was going to be gone for awhile and wouldn’t have the chance for sometime. I thought it would be cool to ride the rails and see a part of America that I had never seen before.
I took the train from Princeton to Union Station in Chicago. On the way up to Chicago—about a ninety-minute ride from Princeton—the train went through Mendota and passed the Del Monte canning plant where I had worked a few weeks earlier. When I was working at Del Monte I sometimes watched the train either coming into town or heading out of town. It made me think about the previous year when I had been in Japan and many of the train trips I had taken. There was something charming about a long train journey and when I decided to visit my Mom in Dallas that is what I wanted to do.
When I took the train from Princeton to Chicago I had a few hours to kill before the train left for Dallas. My best friend Chris Vasquez was living in Chicago at the time and we got together for lunch. It was a good thing that we did. I wouldn’t see Chris for another two years. We had hung out a few times over the summer—something we hadn’t done since before I had gone back to college in 1985. Sadly, Chris and I had drifted apart over the years and it wouldn’t be until Christmas 2001 when Chris and I would become close and best friends again.
Until my trip to Dallas in 1990, the longest train trip I had taken in the States was back in June of 1980 when I rode The City of New Orleans from Kankakee, Illinois to Carbondale. That was only a few hours—just enough time to settle back into my seat and enjoy some of the scenery before the train arrived. It would be a few years later, in the summer of 1987 before I would take the train again. This time it was a shorter journey—from Bloomington, Illinois to Chicago when I went to the city to spend a few days with Michelle Mignone.
Now, I had about a half-a-day train ride ahead of me and I was pretty pumped up about it.
I spent some time hanging out in the “club car” which was on the first floor of the car I was riding in. There I bought some snacks and had a few Cokes. There was this middle-aged black man talking to the attendant behind the counter about Jimi Hendrix and other 60’s/70’s musical icons who “knocked on heaven’s door” before their time. He passed a bottle wrapped in a brown-paper bag to another middle-aged gentleman sitting next to him and they took turns enjoying whatever liquor was inside.
Wanting to have something to eat, I had to make a reservation for dinner in the dining car later that evening.
And then, it was settling back—once back in my seat—for the long journey to Texas.
There would be numerous stops along the way; sometimes recently boarded passengers passing by my seat. Fortunately no one would be sitting next to me for the journey.
Looking out window as the train slowed down through many small towns along the way I caught a glimpse of Americana passing me by. Sometimes it was a town square; a few shops and bars open late—a splash of neon illuminating a dark corner of the night. Other times, towns were brightly lit up; people seen walking the streets or cars cruising this midsection of America.
Along the way, some early Christmas decorations—up and shining brightly in the night—signaled the beginning of the holiday season.
Sometimes, when the train slowed down and passed by some homes, the bluish glow of a TV could be seen through windows with curtains or shades drawn. You felt like a voyeur peering into the lives of people living along the steel ribbon that intersected and dissected the countryside. Each home was a living, breathing organism—filled with lives moving through the night and attending to daily routines and rituals.
At some point I started humming Arlo Guthrie’s (originally written by Steve Goodman, a native of Chicago and a diehard Chicago Cubs’ fan who sadly passed away in 1984) City of New Orleans. Maybe that might come across a little cliché but if you have ever listened to the song you know exactly what I must have been feeling that night so long ago.
Soon I would be leaving home again. Soon I would be getting on another airplane, like I had done the previous year and fly halfway around the world to begin, or at least continue something I had started but had not finished.
The sound of the iron wheels upon the iron ribbons they travel on thrums the hypnotic clickety-clack that makes me feel drowsy. More towns will pass by in the night but I will soon be asleep.