I love taking the train and I could probably be a spokesperson for Amtrak. I’ve learned that three things are important before you even step on the platform: patience, flexibility, and of course, a sense of adventure. Travel with me on a trip to Chicago.
The Lebanese woman behind me talks in Arabic to her friend, four rows in front and across the aisle. I know she’s Lebanese because she told me – very friendly, and I return her smile. She finally walks up to get a snack that has smells I can’t identify.
Two rows in front, a man from southeast Asia is trying to make travel arrangements on his cell phone, while struggling with English. We all know his flight leaves O’Hare tonight at 7:27. Speaking louder isn’t helping.
A short distance away, a mother is playing with her two preschool children, speaking to them in Spanish.
The young man in the hoodie stretches over two seats, his high tops unlaced. His head bops to the juice flowing through the wires to his ears and I wonder if those tattoos hurt when he got them, and how much they cost.
The middle age mama got a little wild bedazzling her baseball cap and I fear her head could be a lightning rod in a storm.
This is train travel in the US and I love it. A snapshot of life across the country as the train ambles through the countryside showcasing hollowed out factories of a bygone era, remnants of America’s industrial climax. Smokestacks spewing exhaust, refinery flames reaching toward the heavens, and then, as if by magic, the modern day savior of civilization – a casino that promises 32 IPad winners every Friday!
I see so much rust everywhere – bridges, industrial ramps and building frames, graffiti covered cargo train cars resting on forgotten tracks, a metal roof silhouetting the long shuttered plant.
We travel a little further and well kept, square, sturdy brick houses back up to the alley that separates them from the train tracks. Today is apparently trash day, green mini-dumpsters standing at attention like badges of honor. Swing sets that have long been idle dot the lawns. The families have left but mom and dad remain; maybe just mom now. If I try hard, I can almost smell keilbasa and cabbage, but it might be my imagination. At the end of the street is a church left for the neighborhood’s hopeful, the once vivacious hallowed halls of the attached school now barren.
As we move into the city, I look down on the townhouses, lawns deserving of their postage stamp moniker, wedged between chain link fences. Flowers, real or fake, I can’t tell from here, spill from window boxes; an old woman sweeps her walk.
Some high school kids are hanging out at the school playground, and I feel sad wondering what their future holds. Then I remember I hung on the school playground as well when I was a kid, and my hopes are lifted.
There is a new neighborhood with blocks and blocks of streets and driveways and cul de sacs, but no homes – the market died when the money ran out.
Train travel is an adventure that offers a glimpse into the gritty, and sometimes harsh and graphic landscapes of our great country. And like fine art, all you need is a little patience and flexibility to see the beauty.
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