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My Love Affair with Trains
Childhood fantasy just when you need it!
My Love Affair with Trains
I love trains! I have always been fascinated by them; the huge engines, the roar of their strength and the romance of places ‘out there’ that I had little prior knowledge of. Passenger trains, freight trains; to me, they are beautiful and enticing. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled this country on both as well as novelties such as the Skunk Train in N. California, the Wine Train in Napa, California and various other rides including the one at Knotts Berry Farm in Ca., as well as other theme parks across this nation.
Shortly after graduating high school, my two best friends and I decided to explore our West Coast on a dime. We had something of a plan, and very little cash but we were determined to have this experience before continuing our educations. Being young, naive and idealistic, we decided we’d get one way tickets on the local Southern Pacific locomotive which ran the length of the coastal areas of California, Oregon and Washington States feeling that our adventure would be easy; everything would fall into place. This was very exciting and we looked forward with much anticipation, to our trip.
Our destination was Seattle, Washington. Back then it was a 2+ day trip which included sleep overs on the train. We didn’t have enough money to pay for the sleeping quarters so we camped out on our chairs which were huge and comfy. Since the train wasn’t fully booked, we had all the room we needed to stretch out. The views out the big windows as the train traveled through cities and towns and up into the mountains were breathtaking. The sound of the train’s whistle as it echoed through canyons then, as now, stirred feelings of whimsy and mystery.
Rocking along for hundreds of miles with not a worry or care, our train chugged on towards our destination. Waking in the middle of the night to snow covered trees which were illuminated by moon shine was a most etherial, magical sight. I recall enjoying the fantasy of these images which stirred deep feelings of wonderment.
Our 3 day ride was reminiscent of my childhood when my older brother, Bill, and I would venture by train from Turlock, California to Napa, Ca. once a month for 9 months when I was a girl of nine years old.
As a young girl, my parents divorced; twice! The first time, I was six. My father and I had a great father-daughter relationship; the kind portrayed on the Hallmark Channel. I was the apple of his eye and he was my hero. During this first breakup, But, like all children who do not understand such things, I took the divorce personally; feeling that my father had 'left' me. So, when he reached out to me, I was cool, personified. Though my little heart was breaking and I missed my father terribly, I did not let him, or anyone else for that matter, know how deeply I was hurting. When my father called to talk to me, I’d respond with one word or, defiantly, silence. When my father said ‘goodbye, pumpkin, I love you,” and the phone line went dead, I’d cry myself to sleep, even if it was the middle of the day.
My parents remarried within 2 years of the first divorce, and our family stumbled along on shaky legs, destined to disintegrate in less than a year. This time, my mother met another man; a younger jewelry salesman who was on his way to California’s bread basket. They dated for a short while, a whirlwind courtship during which he wined and dined her and she felt loved. (Of course, this part of the story may be fodder for another chapter.)
Mom and Bob married in a small ceremony with just a few friends, my older brother, our grandmother and me. Soon, we were packed up and scuttled off to Turlock, California. In the eyes of a nine year old girl who had known nothing but the small town atmosphere of Napa, California, this strange new place seemed foreign and odd. My young world was limited so everything I encountered seemed so different; unfamiliar and therefore, I kept within myself for most of our stay there.
The relationship lasted nine months. But, those nine months were some of the most difficult I had ever spent. Being apart from my father was excruciatingly painful. I felt abandoned and at the same time, empty and scared. This was only worsened by the monthly weekends my brother and I were shipped back to Napa to spend with our father. Heading home to Napa, I felt jubilent, happy, even joyful. The ride back was just the opposite; terrible ! And repeating this over and over just cemented the remorse and gut wrenching sorrow I felt at my separation from my father.
The passenger train which picked us up in Turlock and deposited us in Rodeo, Ca. was our mode of travel. My mother dropped us off at the station with instructions given to the crew about our presence and ages and to watch over us at all times.
This was very much like cutting kids loose in the candy store. Excited and unrestrained, my brother, Bill, and I had the run of that train. And we were heading in the right direction…back to Napa and my father, which is where I always wanted to be. So the trip north to Napa was always greatly looked forward to, always enjoyed immensely and always a blast!
Thus my romance with trains began. For, even though this was a very difficult time in my life, the fascination of the train; this totally enchanting uniqueness served to take my mind off of my sorrow and, instead, actually filled those hours on the train with joy. Besides, I was going back to where I belonged; to be with my father and my home town.
My favorite car was the dome car, where refreshments were served and passengers could sit high above the rest of the car's seating, seeing things in an entirely new way, high and above it all. The windows curved up from mid wall and met in the middle of the ceiling. It was like riding the clouds; sometimes we were high up in the mountains where low skud clouds rested on ridge tops. We’d lay on our backs and watch high tree tops and low, misty fog enshroud us as we moved along.
Since we were unaccompanied by adults, we explored the length of the train, skipping between cars where we could clearly see the couplings which held one car to the next. Even though we knew that these were strong and sure, it was always a little scary to walk above them in the accordion like passageway between cars. It felt like being outside because the only thing separating us from the exterior was that thin, pleated fabric which allowed the cars movement right and left. The sharp whining of steel wheels on rail and and clang of couplings when they jostled oneanother as the train hurried along, added to the overall enticement of travel by train.
After having complete freedom of movement withing the train for a large part of the day, we arrived in Rodeo where my father awaited our smiling faces. And so began the start of a three day visit with my father. We stayed in my father’s hotel room, #207. These were the ‘glory days,’ the halcyon days of our happy childhood. All kinds of activities were planned for the three of us. When day two neared its end at dusk, my heart sank, my appetite disappeared and I became quiet, sullen, sad. I was leaving my father - again - and, in my child’s imagination, I thought I’d never see him - again.
The saving grace during these tragic moments in a little girl’s life was the train ride back to Turlock. Though my heart was breaking, I could not deny the allure of that train, those huge cars with the big reclining seats, the mysterious “sleeping cars” with private, curtained bunks and rooms with closed, locked doors. And the DOME CAR! For some reason, the kitchen crew and staff seemed to know how despondent I was which resulted in lots of treats and even more room to run free, undisciplined and wild.
The big, rhythmic, soothing hum of this magical vehicle helped to assuage my melancholy mood.
And so, these were the events which formed my fantasies of travel by train. The whimsical memories that color my younger years; years which were, at times, tumultuous and uncertain but, through those tear filled times, the train ride always softened the blow of departure making getting there as important as arriving there.
Next: Hopping Freight Trains in the U.S.A.