Monday, September 6, 2010

Listening to the Train

A few weeks ago, I went down to Portland, Oregon, to visit friends. Portland is about 175 miles from Seattle and, by car, the trip takes roughly three hours, traffic permitting. Which is to say that it is better to plan on four hours each way. Traffic along Interstate 5 between the two cities has become steadily more congested and, over time, making the trip by car has lost its charm for me. These days, I take the train.
The trip on Amtrak takes 3-1/2 hours from Seattle to Portland, with 5 or 6 stops along the way. I can read a book, watch a movie, walk around, get lunch or take a nap. But on this particular day, I amused myself, as you will see, by taking pictures out the window of freight trains as they passed alongside us.
Freight trains move more freight across the US (42%) than any other form of transport. In terms of ton-miles, trucks come in a distant second (28%). Trains are everywhere, it seems, their tracks crisscrossing the nation, connecting cities and rumbling across the wide open spaces between rural communities.
But most of the time, I don't much notice trains. I hear them, of course, and see them in my peripheral vision as I am driving to and from downtown Seattle on Highway 99. But mostly, trains run in the background of my life. So on this particular day, I was was surprised to find that sitting in a window seat on a train, photographing other trains, was a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful way to pass the time.
Visually, trains have a lot to offer. Different sizes, colors. Forms that follow function, like the tanker below.
When I pay attention, trains bring back memories. As I looked out the window, "ridin' the train," the Grateful Dead's rendition of Casey Jones easily came to mind. As did Arlo Guthrie's voice, singing the chorus of "City of New Orleans."
Freight trains remind me of childhood. I grew up in San Francisco's East Bay Area in a town then called Irvington (which later became Fremont). Our house was in the middle of the block. At the end of the block was a pickle factory and, running perpendicular to our street, the railroad tracks. Even now, 50 years later, I have a clear memory of laying awake on hot summer nights, the windows open to catch any bit of breeze. The air was heavy with the sour smell from the pickle vats. (I wonder now what kind they were. Dill?) And the only sounds were the clatter of passing trains and the groan of train cars being rearranged.
In those days, homeless men, hobos we called them, would sneak onto empty train cars and ride the rails from one town to another. When they got off the train, they would go door to door, offering to do chores in exchange for something to eat. Since our house was just a half block from the tracks, we got to see these fellows on a fairly regular basis. Looking back, it is surprising to me that my mother, one of the least trusting people I've ever known, used to actually "hire" some of these guys. She'd occasionally give a man some outdoor job to do and then set about making sandwiches and coffee while he worked. She would never let me go outside while he was there. She would never let him come inside the house. After he finished his work, she would put his food outside and instruct him to knock on the door and hand her the empty dishes when he finished. 
But of all my memories involving trains, the most indelible is one from a time in my 20s when my sons were little boys. At that time, we were living in southern Illinois near St. Louis, and I had to cross at least one set of train tracks to get anyplace I needed to go. In those days I was usually in a hurry, trying to cram as much as possible into my day. Having to wait for a train (or anything) did not set well with me.

One particular day I was driving with my sons: Brett, who was around 4, and Mike, two years younger. I was running late for something or other and, of course, we got caught by a train. I sat there fuming and ranting about stupid trains, and and why is this thing so long, and why can't they run them at night so they don't screw up people's lives during the day, and... honestly, I don't know what all I was going on about. After a few minutes, I heard Brett's clear little voice.
"Mommy, why are you so mad?" he asked. "Mike and I like the train. We like the way it sounds. Roll down your window so we can listen to it."
I sat there embarrassed, realizing that the adult in the car was not the person behind the wheel. My son was right. What was the point in getting upset? Being upset wasn't going to make the train go faster or keep me from being late. I was going to have to wait, pure and simple. It was up to me to decide how I wanted to spend that time; and there was at least one other choice besides being angry and miserable.

So I rolled my window down. And the three of us sat there, in silence, listening to the train. And in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. 
My wise 4-year-old boy is now a 40-year-old man. But I remember his words from that day every time I am stopped by a train. And unless it is raining sideways, as it sometimes does in the Northwest, I push the little button inside my car that lowers the window, and I listen.