Every now and again I sit at a railroad crossing for what seems like an hour – and is probably more like four or five minutes – as an almost unbelievably long freight train lumbers slowly by in front of my car.
Sometimes when that happens I tap the steering wheel and fume about the delay. But one morning I wasn’t in any hurry so I turned off the car’s engine and watched the old fellow squeak and rattle along, slowly building up momentum for its journey.
A snippet of poetry popped up into my mind, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence. This time it was a couple of lines about a train courtesy of Emily Dickinson: “I like to see it lap the miles, and lick the valleys up.”
When I was a kid up in Oakwood I used to lay awake in my bed and look out the window every night as a passenger train, the Eagle, rumbled by in the darkness. Some of the lights in the private compartments would be on, and one car – probably the bar car – would be brightly lit. Highway 79 and a wide pasture separated my bedroom window and the tracks, but I could see it plain as it made its nightly appearance, like an old friend waving as it passed.
Since then I’ve worked trains into my books once or twice, not nearly as effectively as Agatha Christie did, making a breathing, steam-belching major character in her Murder on the Orient Express. And my advice to writers wanting to clearly establish a bygone era and locale is to run a train through it, because not many things are as nostalgic or romantic.
I remember when I was maybe eight or nine first making the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who often traveled by train with Dr. Watson. Sometimes Sherlock would smoke his big pipe as the wheels sang their way over the tracks. He’d puff away as he mulled over whatever case he was investigating, all the while watching the sheep-dotted green landscape of rural England go by. And I’d stop reading and imagine how fine that must be.
You see, I fell in love with trains before I ever rode one.
Then my parents surprised my sister and me with a railway trip to Austin. Oakwood still had a depot then, a pretty little building with a steeply-slanted roof that you would expect a depot to look like. But it was no longer used, and trains just clanged past it. So we boarded in Palestine, some twenty miles to the north.
When we came back through Oakwood I waved at our house across the pasture and the highway.
We spent most of that trip looking out the windows at farms and towns and woods, and we ate in the dining car just like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye did in White Christmas. In Austin we took a cab or a bus (probably a bus; my father was, um … thrifty) to the state capitol building for a visit, then got on the Eagle and came home.
The last part of that return journey was in darkness, and when we flew through Oakwood it was too dark for me to see our house. But I knew that my window was over there somewhere, and my bed. And I wondered if other children had watched the Eagle, with me aboard, as she’d lapped the miles and licked the valleys up.
I’ve ridden a good many trains since then. I’ve been rocked to sleep by their gentle swaying, have laid newspapers and novels aside to watch scenery float by, have chugged, with my wife Karen and our children, to the top of Pike’s Peak and back down again, and even took a turn around the Houston Zoo in a train so small that I was sore for the rest of the day.
And I have a vivid memory of one train journey from London to Dover, where I boarded a ferry to cross the English Channel and then, at Pas de Calais, climbed on another train bound for Paris. Outside the big window northern France was all yellow mustard fields and quaint villages bathed in golden sunlight, till finally the grand old lady presented herself, her Eiffel Tower ablaze with light in the early evening.
But I’ve never had a train trip that equaled that first one, when I waved at my house. Both that house and the train called the Eagle are long gone now.
Except when I close my eyes and think of them, like I did recently when that old chugger kept me waiting at the crossing.