“You went to Washington how? By train? I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”
What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited. The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?” And he would reply, “In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.”
From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.
I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler. If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:
“Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around. I want you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”
My day (that is, my night) is made. It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington. The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.
The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.
At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”
However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process. These days, I never leave the side of a conductor until he points out my sleeping car attendant waiting down the track. Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.
“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart. The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.” I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives.
These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a fold out table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee and orange juice out in the corridor.
At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a square of chocolate-covered mint. There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness.
I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience that wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort. “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*
That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries. I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that same bay gleaming pewter in the dawn, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.
It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals (free with your sleeper ticket) take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers. “One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to stare sullenly down at their napkins) into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.
We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says “Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!” He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence, we eagerly plunge into theological discussion. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.
I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves with astonishing ease.
The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time, where there will be no a tedious wait for my baggage followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport. With a last triumphant wailing whistle, the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station, within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building and, I am pleased to note, my own hotel.
*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24