Merry Christmas! Trains, towns, and a much needed new year.

I’m here in Staunton, Virginia, getting some much needed out-of-the-city time. I always enjoy coming here because this town really has some great qualities. First of all, my dad’s church is a great gem of a church. Not only do they have a beautiful building, with a glorious Mary window (from which this post’s picture comes), but they also have a strong and prosperous lunch program. Every year I help out at their massive Christmas Eve dinner for people in local nursing homes or people down on their luck. Not only do they prepare an amazing turkey dinner for 175 people, but there’s also a guy who dresses up as Santa and distributes gifts. Last year, we had a bit of a scuffle at the beginning of the dinner with a couple of gentleman who started fighting. This year, though, the same gentleman showed up with his entire family–daughters, brothers, sisters, wife–everybody. He seemed awake in a way that he wasn’t last time I saw him. I’m glad. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him at all, but it’s just good to see, on Christmas, someone whose life has improved.

I think that’s important, because this year has been a difficult one for everyone. People are down on their luck. Politics is an absolute mess. Money is a problem. It gets harder and harder to keep the things we love going, and joy seems to be slipping out of our fingers. I’m not one to be overly religious, but it is nice to know that at the darkest time of the year, I can stop in the midst of all this mess, and just celebrate miracles. Sometimes, especially at the end of a year like this, you just plain need it.

For the first time, I took the train to get here. The only mode of public transport that goes directly to Staunton is the Amtrak, which is a 20 hour direct train from Chicago. It costs WAY too much to get a room, but train seats are big and comfortable compared to plane or bus seats. And, since it’s a direct train, it’s not really a huge hassle. I was so, so excited. I love trains. They are my favorite mode of transportation in the world–except, perhaps, the trotro. I love the terrifying racket that they make, that deep roar that takes over every kind of sound as it passes you. I love the way they rock you to sleep. I love that you can get up and walk around, and on American trains, that you can go to the cafe car and just enjoy a cup of coffee at a table. I love that when you are on a train all night, you can just barely hear the horn blaring in front of you. It comes in and out with the click-clack over the trains, and you get the feeling that you have some kind of relationship with the dark world that you are rushing across.

The characters on trains are the greatest. For some reason, on a plane or on a bus, you don’t really want to put up with ‘characters’. But on a train, you have a lot more mobility, and so it is a bit easier to deal with people who like to talk. And people DO love to talk on the train. It was so full this time that we had assigned seats, and I was assigned to sit next to this lady. She was absolutely hysterical–an elderly black woman who had something to say about everything. She looked and acted younger than she was–sixty or so–and told me all about how she walks to the liquor store at night with her pistol, and how she fell in love with the perfect man, but just wasn’t ready for it, and how her ma was so worried about her getting pregnant early that she’d check her drawers each month. Turns out we were both preacher’s kids and both dedicated to working hard for ‘the good life’ she called it–fancy restaurants and nice things and living it up. She told me about how her and her sister used to take this train down to Florida, and they’d spend the whole night drinking in the club car. We talked until late, and she was swigging on a bottle of her own–vodka from the smell of it–wrapped up in a brown paper bag. We had some great laughs, and I enjoyed it terribly. It’s kind of amazing how two people can be so different, but still laugh together. That’s just one of my favorite facts of life.

courtesy of Chesapeake Railway Association

The next morning, after curling up in my chair for a good six hours or so, I went to have a cup of coffee in the cafe. An elderly white guy sat down across from me and started telling me HIS life story, and it was just as crazy and just as interesting. It was daytime now and we were going through the mountains. He told me all about his ex-wives, and his current wife, and his harley shop, and acting tough on the road so that cars stayed out of his way, and about this girl who ran away from home and came to work in his shop. We talked about hard times and Mc-Mansions. We talked about race in Chicago, and how weird it is–unintuitive, I think the best word might be.

I also learned that on American trains, you see a very different version of the world. These are like a relic from the old world, even though they are in many ways modern. The rails go through small towns and through mountains and wind alongside rivers. The train tracks go places that they highways can’t. You see a whole different version of the American landscape. When you drive to Staunton, you experience the long expanse of modern America, the grey and eternal highway that goes above all the houses and towns below. When you take train, you’re down there with those towns and houses and rivers. It’s like going back in time, in some ways, or maybe just having access to the places that time left behind. Passing through West Virginia, along a muddy brown river, we passed droves of double-wides, perched up on wooden and cement block stilts, five or eight or twelve feet above the ground. We went along through towns that were old and small enough that the train went right through downtown, and there are people sitting out on the street, watching you mosey on by–if you can imagine this huge ton of iron and steel and roaring mechanics ‘moseying’.

The station at Staunton is much the same way. The train goes straight through downtown. I just got off the train and walked up the hill to my dad’s house. Just like you might in the 1940s or earlier. It was a real tremendous experience. I certainly will do it again. Someday I’ll be rich enough to get rooms on the train so I could sleep better. But sleeping in train coach isn’t too bad, really. In fact, when I’m rich, I’ll become like a crazy train baron, and I will design all these amazing trains, and push train travel all across the country. Usher in the new era of American travel experience–on a retro platform, you know. Trains–the old future! It will satisfy the inner steampunk in everyone, I’m sure of it. Whoever’s in on this with me, please contact right away.

Moral of the story: Trains rule.

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