Notes written on my overnight train trip to New York City on June 1st and 2nd, 2016.
The train lurches to a start exactly on time — 6:40 p.m. — from Union Station in Chicago and quickly picks up speed, heading south. We cut through South Shore industrial parks and rail yards, through Hyde Park and Englewood streets and businesses. Incongruously, a steady stream of seeds whizzes by, possibly from cottonwood trees, as if we’re the shuttle burning through Earth’s atmosphere and white hot flecks of metal are sparkling off the surface and spinning past.
We roll over I-90 and -I-94, past a giant sand quarry, guarded by large blocks of concrete.
For a time we parallel the Skyway, hurtling over ramps and ribbons of interstate.
We diverge briefly at the Calumet River before rejoining I-90, then go through a massive rail yard where long lines of parked trains squat beside the Indiana border.
Cutting through Whiting, we pass backyards and tennis courts (busy), the high school football field (empty), alleys and garages. This is one of the great and unique pleasures of train travel, seeing the country’s backyards and back doors and back alleys. Planes are too high, cars too remote to see this “real” America the way we do.
On the opposite (east) side of our car I peak through an empty sleeping compartment and see Lake Michigan, but my view is far more interesting: vast oil refineries with mammoth tanks and miles-long networks of pipes and silos, all in the off gray color from decades of soot.
It’s 7:10, and we’ve been gone just half an hour, and already we’ve had such a feast of sights and sounds!
Several cars ahead I hear the tootling of the train’s horn and feel the crackle and rumble of the tracks as we cross the Indiana Harbor Canal. (Love the map app on the smart phone.)
Now we race past the outskirts of Gary, nearly invisible behind a line of tall trees, and peel along the south edge of the lake, turning east as we get to the bottom.
A freight train roars past. The noise and motion are thrilling, but I resent the steel curtain that blocks my precious view, even for a minute.
We run along I-90 again, past downtown Gary, dominated by a large domed building (mosque? civic center?) before picking up Indiana 12 and scooting by Indiana Dunes State Park, a route I know well from family vacation trips to southwest Michigan.
Someone makes an announcement that the sightseeing lounge is open, but I have no interest in going. I can see everything I want in my 8-foot-by-three-feet private compartment, just now the miles and miles of rich-hued verdancy of the tree- and shrub-lined Indiana Dunes. That’s another favorite feature of train travel, the delicious privacy and bubble of serenity a sleeping car affords you.
The train’s horn blasts — two longs, a short and a long — give me a 20-second alert when we’re approaching a grade crossing, as we seem to be doing frequently on the outskirts of Michigan City. I like seeing the gates down and clanking, their lights blinking, the cars and trucks lined up and waiting, as we privileged railcars, king of the road, race past!
We keep up a fairly constant 50 to 60 MPH, I’m guessing, past industrial parks and rail sidings as we cut through LaPorte. It’s 7:50, just 70 minutes out.
The setting sun paints everything — the buildings, factories, warehouses — a sepia-hued glow like an old picture postcard.
Approaching South Bend, our first stop, at 8:05, we pass vast factories producing (apparently) large steel loops, which are packed on top of flat cars like tuna cans lined up on grocery shelves.
8:30 in the dining car, chatting with a New Zealand couple who are touring America by train, via San Francisco to Denver to Chicago and on to Washington, New York, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. Their favorite city (so far) is Chicago! They love the beaches, the downtown, the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry — oh, how their 10 grandchildren would have loved it! I tell them about museums to see in New York and Washington, the French Quarter and Garden District to visit and beignets to consume in New Orleans, gardens to visit it L.A. The food is just fair, but the companionship and conversation are priceless.
When I return from dinner I find my tiny compartment converted to a tiny bedroom, the two facing seats swung together to form a platform on which is spread, invitingly, mattress, blankets and pillows. I conduct my ablutions in the bathroom a few steps away at the end of the car, and slide, tired but happy, into bed. Sleeping is another matter. The grinding and screeching noises and jostling and bumping motions lurch you awake at odd intervals. And once you’re awake there’s the temptation to squinch up in bed and watch the train slice through the magical Ohio and Pennsylvania towns we pass, their crossing gates down and clanging, though no one is in sight.
Up at 4 a.m. (5 local time) to disembark at the small Pittsburgh Station to await the New York train. It’s a large and lively group for so early in the morning, including several Amish families whose little children seem wide-eyed at the wonder of this cramped den of urbanity.
We board at 7 and the train leaves promptly at 7:30. I nod off, review some writing, and watch as we flow past the beautiful west Pennsylvania countryside, with its rolling hills and small towns that still seem clean, kempt, and livable, like a time machine back to the 1950s. One highlight of the day’s journey is Horseshoe Curve, a half-mile long three-track rail U-turn located 100 miles east of Pittsburgh and built in the 1850s to reduce the grade to the summit of the Allegheny Mountains. A voice on the PA system informs us the route was so invaluable for moving military freight and troops during World War II that it was targeted by the Nazis and had its own special armed guard.
Soon enough we’re racing across New Jersey and arriving in New York’s Penn Station.
America: rich, varied, ever-fascinating, as seen from a train.