Ever since I can remember, trains have been a source of fascination, comfort and excitement for me. Growing up New Jersey, my childhood home was two miles from the trains that routed through Newark. Open windows on summer evenings fused honeysuckle scents with the pull of distance train whistles. I rode on trains (and the tubes) to NYC and Philadelphia (do all the subway rides count as well?). And then there was the motherlode in Italy. My mother, sisters and I travelled by train to Rome. In 1982 my sister and I hit the train to Venice from Vicenza. But it was in 1995 when I took a solo trip that I crossed the country by train from Milan to Perugia and Venice and points in-between. Fun. 2004 was a hike between the 5 cities and their associated train stations in Cinque Terre, Italy.
California has a fun train experience as well. There’s the Amtrak to Del Mar Racing Track (and a double-decker shuttle bus to the track from the station). Fullerton at Angel Stadium will get you to Santa Barbara. Up north the San Jose to San Luis Obispo run gets you in to Hearst Castle territory. And of course CalTrain was the source of my Palo Alto to Belmont work commute, as well as countless rides to downtown San Francisco and parts in-between. BART and the MUNI extend the spider web to service some interesting spots to visit. The Trolly Museum exposes the cables and pulleys that make it all happen for the historic trolleys.
There is something historical and romantic about riding a train. Whether electric or diesel powered, it has a rhythm and pace of its own that is undeterred by anyone who wishes for faster or slower progress. Sometimes the scenery is a blur – other times it’s a frame by frame pictorial of the backside of a city or showcasing the countryside. My work commutes were dominated by the aroma of quickly-cooling coffee in hand, moist and misty morning air both separated and pushed aside by the arrival of the diesel morning giant. Oil and hot steel assaults on my senses; creaking springs and swaying cars marking the passing time as the wheels slid on the imperfect rails to defined destinations. Walls of wisteria contrasted with garbage dumps, light industrial plants and school playing fields.
Trains certainly are honored for their role in helping make the West accessible to dreamers and doers in search of a different life. Wickenburg, Arizona has a model train display in its museum. And today I discovered that Scottsdale, Arizona has a treasure trove of its own. The Scottsdale Railroad and Mechanical Society has been working on the preservation of the McCormick-Stillman Railroad exhibit. There is a formidable display of train stations from all over Arizona both completed and as works in progress. Members are there, happy to answer questions about their passion. (I have found the same kind of passion with the railroad enthusiast group located at the Santa Clara, California CalTrain station where they maintain a working display as well). It was an incredible surprise to see the Raold Amundsen Pullman Car of presidential fame perfectly preserved. The railcar is displayed as it was in its heyday – kitchen and porter quarters, dining room and sleeping compartments (I was quickly reminded of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). The lounge and private areas are restored as well, and you walk the corridor that was paced and promenaded by Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower and their staff and guests. What a warp in time when standing on the rear platform where so many speeches and appearances were shared with the public – you can feel that history and the tension of the presentation, its expectation and the uncertainty of its effect.
Trains are a part of our history, and I hope that they will exist for a long time. Eventually I’ll take that cross-country trip by rail!
Note: the picture was taken in Cinque Terre, Italy. It points to the station and places that serve food and drink.