Words by Sean Dietrich
The distant green mountains of North Carolina are speeding past my train window. I am eating an omelette, drinking coffee, watching America go by at eye level.
The train whistle screams. Two long whistles. One short. One long.
That’s whistle code. It means we’re approaching a highway grade crossing. Whistle code is the law. All trains traveling upwards of 45 mph are required to sound their horns this way a quarter of a mile before each crossing.
These are things you learn in the dining car.
I have a thing for trains. Always have. When I was a kid, I was one of those annoying little redheaded boys obsessed with locomotives. Some boys were into dinosaurs. Others were deeply committed to Richard Petty. My thing was trains.
I owned all the toys of course. I had miniature versions of famous locomotives such as the Super Chief, the Flying Scotsman, and the City of New Orleans. Also, I could make all the train noises with my mouth. Still can.
But my family didn’t ride trains. We changed our own motor oil for crying out loud. All I could do was park my bike at train crossings and fantasize when trains blew past.
This is why riding trains is a big deal for me. Sure, I realize trains aren’t as flashy as air travel. They aren’t even efficient in our current Jet Age. A commercial airliner averages speeds of 575 mph. This train rarely exceeds 47 mph. But slowness is precisely why I love trains. Trains are laid-back.
Yesterday, I boarded Amtrak's Crescent No. 20, which left from New Orleans bound for Philadelphia. I almost missed my train because of traffic on the interstate. I arrived in a frenzy, sprinted through the station, and finally reached the platform with three minutes to spare.
I was out of breath. My leg muscles burned. I was stressed. And since I’m used to dealing with embittered airport people, I was prepared to be cussed out by Amtrak officials for my tardiness, and, at the very least, to be groped by TSA officers.
But none of those things happened. Instead, the Amtrak guys were all waiting for me. Hanging out. Smiles on their faces. Everyone seemed almost glad to see me.
“Wondered when you’d get here,” said one employee with a laugh.
They already knew my name too. “You must be Mister Dietrich,” my attendant was saying, leading me to my sleeper car. She wore a facemask; her eyes were grinning.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I said over and over again.
She waved me off. “Aw, relax, sweetie.”
I am a frequent air traveler. People in airports do not tell you to relax. In LaGuardia Airport, for example, you arrive two hours early to stand in a 49-mile line alongside clinically depressed persons while TSA officers strip-search elderly people because someone’s insulin pump triggered a Code Orange security lockdown.
At no point does anyone call you sweetie. The main motto of the airline industry is: “Hurry the [bleep] up, you [bleeping bleeper].”
But on trains, the attitude is “Relax, sweetie.”
My sleeper cabin is the size of a walk-in closet. The toilet facilities are made for a Ken doll. But I slept great last night. Apparently, I sleep better on trains than I do at home. Your body gently jostles back and forth. The ever constant clacking beneath your bones is hypnotic. The occasional soft whine of the whistle isn’t bad, either.
In the middle of the night you sometimes awake and gaze out your windows in a dream state. You see hillsides with distant cattle. You see the stripe of the Milky Way above you, which is perfectly visible out here because these are the sticks.
That’s the greatest part about trains: they run through the hinterlands. Trains aren’t like interstate highways. Interstates are concrete worlds with Burger Kings, Best Buys, Starbucks, Shell stations, Red Lobsters, and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
On trains it’s livestock, old cemeteries, clapboard chapels, mountain tunnels, industrial yards, and brick downtowns from bygone eras, back when entire cities built themselves around railroad depots.
I’m on my second cup of joe, finished with breakfast now, wondering why the world keeps speeding up the older I get.
Soon my train is approaching a rural Appalachian neighborhood with faded doublewides and rusted cars on blocks. The whistle sounds. Two long. One short. One long.
Outside my window are kids straddling bikes, parked at the crossing. The kids all wave as we rocket by. I’m waving back.
I wish you could see how giddy they are.
One redhead looks a little like me. I know exactly what that hopeful boy is thinking too. He’s waving his little arm, thinking: “One day, I wanna ride a train.”
One day you will, kid. And you’ll never get over it.