What is it about trains that fires the heart the way a highway never can?
The Central Maine Railroad runs not a hundred yards from my home. Once a day - sometimes twice when the freight business is good - I feel the tremble of the earth as preamble to the bold whistle of the locomotive. I always pause to look up from whatever I'm doing to watch the boxcars rumble by.
There has never been a time when I didn't wish I were on that train, its destination irrelevant. I just wanted it to take me.
Lacking that opportunity, I did the next-best thing. Having been startled by rumors about the termination of passenger service in the United States, I was seized by a fit of ardor and told my son we were going west to California. And we were going to do it on Amtrak. Swept up by my enthusiasm, he immediately began to pack his duffel bag.
We caught our train in Chicago, the so-called Southwest Chief. The trains that run out of Chicago for points west are real beauties: stainless-steel double-deckers called Superliners. Upon boarding our capacious car, I felt as if I were entering not simply a conveyance, but a world. My son, Alyosha, immediately set to exploring: the dining car, the cafe car, the observation car, the shower, the sleeper. I realized that I could set him free to roam with total peace of mind: There were lots of children on the train, along with parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The train is for everybody. And then, right at the appointed minute, the train began to move.
It is astounding to me that one can board a train in Chicago in the evening and wake up the next morning in Colorado, still in motion, still rolling southwest. We ate breakfast in the dining car while watching prairie and mesa and precipice roll by, like some diorama constantly unfolding, constantly changing - offering us the pleasure of studying landscapes without the burden of driving.
From the chiseled face of Colorado we descended into the magic of the New Mexican desert, dipped in orange cream. A native American guide boarded the train here and related the history of the area to children and adults alike. Farther down the line an entertainer got on - a woman who engaged the children with games, face painting, and balloon sculpting. Both these people had been hired by Amtrak. I thought, what a wonderful thing to do.
Later that night, Alyosha made friends in the cafe car. They played cards until irresponsible hours, and even when duty compelled me to step in and escort him to bed, I felt as if I were acting in a slightly punitive manner.
Arizona guided the train through the night, and we awoke in California. After a hiatus in the Los Angeles area, we boarded the Coast Starlight and headed north along the Pacific, passing so close to the water at some points that it looked as if the waves were breaking under the tracks.
At Sacramento, we took the California Zephyr east, ascending to some 11,000 feet as we crossed the Rockies and then slipped down into Nevada and Utah, reentering Colorado, where we followed the course of the Colorado River for 250 miles.
The knowledge that Chicago lay ahead already began to fill me with sadness. I thought of the Amtrak attendants who had catered to our needs, of how they were so much more "fleshed out" than flight attendants: telling us about themselves, how they came to work for Amtrak, and how much they enjoyed their jobs. I smiled when I thought of all the meals we shared in the dining car with people we hadn't previously known, and how in each case - from the retired Colorado couple to the mother and daughter returning home to family in Pennsylvania - they were decent and interesting folks.
I watched as Alyosha moved between cars, attended the nightly movies, and laughed with his newfound friends.
Unlike a bus or plane, a train is something one actually lives in, where people face one another rather than stare straight ahead. And soon it would be time for us to leave.
The flatness of Iowa and Illinois told me that the journey was almost over. And now I thought long and hard about the passenger railroad, wondering why the nation has all but abandoned it. Maine is one of the few states with no passenger service, but there was a time when one could travel almost anywhere in the state by combinations of heavy and light rail. It was a time when people traveled with neighbors; now they travel separately in the cramped compartment of the automobile. Surely something has been lost.
When the Zephyr eased into Union Station, I noticed that people got their things together, but they did it slowly. They deferred to one another, and many waited in their seats until the aisles had cleared.
I understood perfectly, and I felt it, too: It was a reluctance to leave.
As Alyosha and I walked down the platform, I turned to look back at the locomotive as it sat cooling and idling on its tracks, as if catching its breath. And then, acting on impulse, I reached out and laid my hand upon it.
My actions often baffle my son, but in some way, I think he felt it, too, for he was silent for the longest time. This was, I knew, his way of reaching out to touch the locomotive.