Tuesday, December 27, 2011

AMERICAN TRAIN LETTERS ~











chapter 1

Which direction
the train
goes rest
down your
head




This book has to do with trains
and people like us all over the world who hop
onto trains. It doesn't really matter how they do it —
hobo, first class, second class, no class — it's the
boarding of the train that counts, and in this book I
write mainly about one particular train journey we
took as a family — Susan my wife and Carson our son
— and the train after train we boarded and skipped off
as we traveled around the perimeter of the United
States. Don't be fooled when the book begins at our
home in Vermont and as quickly situates westward
into New Mexico and California; forgive my wish of
going by memory, it is how it happens on a train, by
a window, the eyes and mind and whole body slips.
Before you know what has happened, one journey by
train reminds you of another and there will be a few
of our earlier train rides we rambled together when
we were younger — before there was any Carson to
run up and down the train aisle — when elderly
country people we worked for in Vermont that earned
our wages to pay for these simple yet demanding trips:
how the women of the household would ask, "How is
your bride?" when Susan wasn't there — curious and
concerned, yet intrigued by this girl with California
shine: what in the world was she doing living and
working out of a hut along a river in the woods? Hut
living went on for five years. By then we saved enough
to buy our first train tickets west over the northern
route of America, the very same track we returned to
twenty years later on this latest sojourn. But it was the
return of that first trip, where somehow we rode across
Canada and no big deal — let's go out one way and
come back another — and the wilder the province the
better. The first twenty-four hours out of Vancouver
was the greatest train ride we ever experienced, and
probably ever will. It was a Saturday afternoon when
we left the city in a shocking parade of mourners and
celebrators. It turned out the train we were loading
onto would be the final run of the Canadian Pacific
passenger line, and we were just in time to mix it up
with the party-goers in railroad caps, flags and banners
jumping on board for a few miles just to say they rode
the last train. The coach seats were packed, windows
opened, people cheered along the tracks for the first
few miles, and then without notice we left behind the
camera crew, the audience, and only now and then
would we spot a clump of heralders at track side whistling
out the end of an era. The coach seats emptied off
within the hour to be left to a stoic handful of
railroad nuts, hardcore FRN's (Fucking Rail-
road Nuts), nearly all men, in full railroad dress easy
to be mistaken for Casey Jones himself. A few were
too private to approach — stuck in a long train stare
— while one or two were positively effusive with rail-
road memorabilia, overwhelmed by what exactly lay
ahead into the mountains as we clickity-clacked along
the helm of soaked over British Columbia sawmills
and smaller towns into smaller towns as the train
turned northeast. We awoke hours later to a woman's
voice at the rear of the coach talking to a conductor
about the hotel fire back-aways in Kamloops. She
fingered us with her eyes as she spoke obviously ac-
quainted with the conductor and common to riding
this coach entirely empty, so who were we? When we
awoke again the coach was deserted, not a soul
around and daylight was beginning to light the place.
Not a hint of railroad nostalgia nor any of the getup,
this train was now climbing into the pyramidal peaks
of the Selkirk Range. Out either side of the coach
windows the view was outstanding. While I held
Susan's camera as she tidied her seat, into the coach
walked a short roustabout young Canadian, who see-
ing the camera, wondered how was the picture taking
through the windows. Figuring not bad, I said so;
then under his cardinal red hat I watched his eyes
dash around dusting into some mischief. If we wanted to
snap better pictures we might follow him. Where?
This way to the baggage car — he worked there. Well,
why not, it was that much closer to the locomotive,
and through door after door we piled not seeing
another soul as we followed a new friend we later
found out lived in Medicine Hat and was just a little
bit lonely at his job. In the baggage car he was keeper
of sacks of mail, a few crates and luggage, plus a large
German Shepherd in a cage. When we walked into
the car the Shepherd wagged its tail as the young man
tossed his red hat onto a corner table as if he were
back home. Then he showed us how we could take
better pictures with our camera when he shoved the
boxcar door open five feet and pronounced, "Shoot
away." Suddenly we were holding onto nothing, and
of course the camera was useless. Being as young and
frisky as the kid, I asked if we could slide the door
open all the way. With a shrug to this greater
challenge, the kid said, "Sure, just don't fall out." And
that is how we rode the train through Fraser Canyon,
and in and through and out the famous winding tun-
nel of Kicking Horse Pass — where at the front of the
train coming out of the tunnel can be seen the rear
of the train going in — an engineering marvel that
infested the lives and took the lives of Irish,
French-Canadians, Indians and Chinese working for
a dollar a day through four years of rock blasting and
horrendous casualties. Those railroad buffs we rode
out of Vancouver with knew all about this history, it
was the very reason they attended the last train ride,
going on a memory all their own. Some might have
worked on, or heard stories about the crews that laid
a train track through the Selkirks over a pass that
ranged at right angles resulting in a serpentine route
shaped through avalanches, forest fires and tricky ni-
troglycerine explosions. The Chinese hated working
in the cold. The native Indians believed the route
impassable. For awhile the railroad tried to kid
themselves thinking a 4.5 percent grade was of
service, sort of a temporary line that provided for
exhilarating runaway trains and tragic derailments.
The day we hung onto dear life we were traveling at
45 m.p.h on a 2.2 percent grade behind two diesel
engines that pilot generators plowing electricity into
electric motors on the locomotives' axles. That's how
a train runs. But never again in a baggage car with the
door flung wide a mile above sea level crossing the
Continental Divide, dipping into ample pastures of
wildflowers and small lakes, then gaining current the
forty or so miles to Banff along the shallow freshet of
Bow River, clear as raindrops. We had to yank the
door shut a few times on various stops so our friend
in the red hat wouldn't draw trouble, but now one
mile from Banff we all lean in the opening very used to
the last two hours of open yard travel, absolutely flushed
with the outdoors, and at ease with what we could
later hike into or walk about, though it would never
be anything quite like seeing it from that train.




~ Bob Arnold, from American Train Letters
(Coyote Books, 1995)






photo © bob arnold



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