Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Scenic Route

It was a wonderful, long weekend. I stretched three days into four by taking Friday the 13th off. I'm not particularly superstitious; but, why take the chance? Besides, my sister was coming into town (she of Gettysburg fame) and I wanted to spend some quality sibling time. One of the things she likes to do when she is in town is to go through my library shelves to see if I am hording any of her old Nancy Drew Mystery Books. We have this seemingly endless conversation, and we can usually prove to the other's satisfaction which book belongs to which sister. She was able to convince me that The Ivory Charm was, in fact hers. However, The Sign of the Twisted Candles definitely belonged to me. I remember this clearly since the very day our mother and I went shopping for it, Mr. Magoo (my dog) got hold of it and ate three of its pages. To prove my point, I pulled the book off the shelf and showed her the evidence, complete with Magoo's teeth marks in the cover. With that sorted out, we were able to sit down for dinner and talk and laugh - which, if you believe the men of the family, we do very loudly. Eventually, the conversation turned to trains. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother would bundle the three of her children up for summer trips from Chicago to Spokane, Washington to visit her family and we would always travel by rail. She was actually born and raised on a farm in a town called Jump Off Joe, Washington not far from Spokane. The little Jump Off Catholic Church still stands. Inside the vestibule hangs old photographs taken of the first wedding ever performed in the church circa 1902. The bride and groom were my maternal grandmother and grandfather. I regret that my children will probably never experience the excitement of traveling long distances by train. We traveled on the North Coast Limited which was operated by the Northern Pacific Railroad, and Mom always got tickets for a compartment that slept four and came equipped with its own bathroom. The trip began at Union Station in Chicago, and traveled a route through Illinois and then along the Mississippi River, through Wisconsin and Minnesota and onward west. The best scenery, by far, was found in North Dakota and Montana. My sister, brother and I spent a lot of time peering out the windows of our compartment as the cars crossed over main streets. We would catch brief glimpses of some small town or another and play a game, "What would it be like to live here?" We would take turns adding and embellishing - what was the drug store like, who was the mayor, what was there to do after school? At night, we would race past homes with lights shining through their windows and think about families sitting down to dinner, or listening to the radio, or playing Parcheesi. One leg of the journey required the train to cross a very deep ravine over a wooden trestle. Although the train took the bridge very slowly, it was nevertheless quite unnerving. In the fearlessness of childhood, on one trip we had all three noses and all six hands pressed hard against the window to savor how frighteningly high up we were. Mom suddenly yanked us away and ordered us to stand by the far wall (as though three small children might be all that was needed to tip the balance of the train and plunge us to certain death down the rocky chasm.) We laughed about that incident this weekend; but, Mom insisted she was only afraid the window would fall out of the train (also not very likely). My sister and I exchanged a look; we know better.

Oh, dinner on the train was an event in itself. We had to wait for the three gentle bells (bong, then a pitch higher - bong - and pitch lower, bong) which signaled to the ridership that dinner was now being served in the dining car. One dressed as if going to church if headed for the dining car. Tables were set with damask linens, flowers, and heavy silverware. The porters all wore spotless white, starched coats and set the menu down before you encased in a leather wallet. My mother would mark the menus with a pencil indicating what we were to eat, and would hand it back to our waiter. As I recall, we always had trout with almonds (at least on the first night). The smell of the train - especially the dining car - was exotic as well. It was the fragrance of the sweet-ish smelling oil used to lubricate the train's axles, mixed with freshly brewed coffee, and polish, and starch, and lamb chops or tournados. During the day, we children would climb up to the observation car and watch the world go by from that vantage point. I recall on one of these trips, we ran into a man up in the observation deck who knew all kinds of card tricks and taught us a few (or tried to). It was the first time I saw a man wear a ring anywhere but on his wedding band finger. This gent had one on his pinky and it looked amazing to me. "A card shark," sniffed Mom, as she removed us to a more wholesome environment. But I thought he was elegant. I also met a little girl who became my "best friend" for the two days it took to make the trip to Washington. She told me her name was easy to remember, "Just think of Venus like the planet and Rath like the bacon," she said. It worked, and all these many years later, I still remember her name and often wonder how her life unfolded. Arriving in Spokane and spending weeks with aunts and uncles and cousins out in the country brought its own special sweetness and adventure, especially for city-slickers such as ourselves. There were eggs to be gathered, and cow pats to step into, and streams to fall into. All new, all enlightening. But, the journey to get there was almost splendid enough. And a delicious thought soothed the sadness of leaving - the trip home lay ahead!

1 comment:

  1. What wonderful memories! I'm not a great traveller but those railway journeys sound so perfect. Of course nowadays, the trains (in the UK at least) are grubby, overcrowded and subject to all kinds of hold ups. It's just not the same at all.