In 1954, my older brother took the train to Junction City. Two years later, I traveled by bus to the Marshfield Zoo. I’ll never know what possessed our kindergarten teacher to amend the field trip itinerary during that two-year interval. For the record, I don’t hold Mrs. Butler responsible for my zoology major in college. Missing that long anticipated train ride is another matter and I’ve been missing trains ever since.
Trains have been with us a long time. History tells us that the width between the rails of a modern train dates to Roman times, when the space between the wheel ruts of their chariots measured the same distance. In grade school, I measured the awesome power of diesel locomotives in squashed pennies. Once, a friend and I climbed into the caboose of a train switching cars in the mill yard. As the train began to roll, we hopped on down. That was the end of my first train ride. Years later, as a student worker at that same paper mill, I rode the switch engine and later, joked with my dad that I had even steered the “train”.
But it wasn’t until my son Joel and I booked a weekend trip to Chicago that I finally experienced what it was like to travel by train. Rolling through the backsides of towns along the way, my mind flashed to when I was a kid and those occasions when my aunt came to visit from Milwaukee. The family would go to meet her at the station. As we waited for my aunt to disembark, I tried to imagine the inner depths of the great behemoth before me. Traveling to Chicago, the foggy mystery of the train’s interior vaporized, yielding to the present practicality of train travel.
Trains are part of my daily life in Oconomowoc. The main line of the Canadian Pacific runs straight through town, day and night. With the old station now a restaurant, there’s no need to slow down – much less stop, so the freights thunder through, almost as if there were no town – except for the whistle. For a train whistle, the three quarters of a mile to my house is nothing and that song is not without accompaniment. In the quiet of the night, you feel the train before you hear it. By the time it makes the heart of town, your whole body has become an ear. Though it only takes a minute or two, from a faint onset to the whisper of its leaving, a train’s passing is like a journey. In that brief respite from sleep, my mind climbs aboard and I’m gone, somewhere down the line.
After a train has passed, the overriding impression is one of abiding tolerance. Because, if our nation had not grown up with them, we would never submit to the harsh and irreverent imposition they make. Frankly, trains are rude. So, it amazes me when an old money resort town, like ours, simply looks the other way as a monster roars through its middle. If we were first attempting to build the railroads today, vainly coupling our independence to their intrusiveness, we might never have had a Casey Jones or a Cannonball Express.
Yet, build railroads we must. The strains of our modern life on the economy and the environment require it. If, once again, we can bend ourselves to the schedules and inconvenience of trains, we might just find the humility it takes to get along in this world. In taking a train, we connect with something larger than ourselves, which may just be the path to a more sustainable future.