Never Met a Stranger: The train home


By T.W. Burger

Train travel has fallen by the wayside, with more than a little under-the-counter help by forces from the automobile and aircraft industry.

I am embarrassed that we were so easily suckered.

Even in its reduced circumstances, travel by train is speedy, comfortable, and safe. Sure, trains crash. You’ll see news crews out at the crash scene, interviewing survivors. Survivors.

You don’t see survivors much at airliner crash sites.

They still serve meals on train trips. And for a little extra money, you get a cool sort of mini apartment.

And time. To think, to read, to stare out at America as it rumbles by in all its gritty reality. The last time I traveled cross-country via Amtrak, people waiting at railroad crossings often got out of their cars and trucks and waved at the passenger cars. Worlds intersecting. I kept looking for Norman Rockwell.

Some excerpts from journal entries:

October 31…Happy Halloween.

…Somewhere south of Petersburg, Va., Roomette 2E, 5242: Wonderful space. Have not figured out the mechanism of the beds yet, except for the upper bunk, but the lower bunk mystifies me.

The bathroom is a real gem. There is a flush toilet and a shower, all rolled into one. It's very compact, with the space being, in total, smaller than my coffin will be. OK, maybe a little bigger. To shower, one buttons the shower curtain across the closed door, and has at it. The directions recommend that you do most of your bathing while sitting on the toilet, as the train jerks and lurches sometimes. You could end up with the shower wand in an awkward place.

The fall color is nearly at its peak here, and while it was still light, my fellow passengers and I had some great scenery, interrupted now and then by another train zooming by at a combined rate of about 140 mph. It is breathtaking.

After dark.

Into the ink of the Deep South, fragments of lives, none of them in the tonier neighborhoods. A green block building under sodium vapor lamp, Halloween colors. Grubby plate glass on either side of the first-floor corner, single fluorescent lamp in the ceiling silhouetting stacked boxes of…whatever.

Parked cars and trucks, mostly older, mostly very used. Back porches of homes, single bulbs hanging or attached by the door, flash by…clutter, always clutter. Cadavers of cars and trucks for parts.

Railroad sounds, clackety-clack, locomotive howl of warning three-quarters of a mile ahead as we rumble along, an afterthought, at the other end of the train.

The couple in the next compartment murmur, short and soft, matter of fact, sleepy.

Shapes, vague, looming THAT close, shades of black, rocks, cliff-face, tongue of root, then gone, black slashed by bright geometries, lines of lights, a galaxy lacking inspiration and chance, neat rows edged with discount stores.

Wailing, we surge through Selma, curve away just east of Raleigh, the train rocking back and forth as if to music, and in my mind I hear Bluegrass faintly, and recall azaleas from a journey to Chapel Hill long ago, and now we rocket past a standing freight train, and the sound of wheels on steel rises like a country preacher in the throes of the spirit, rattling the windows until the night spreads out into its dark ease, and we hear the far cry of the engine echoing through the wide, tree-lined railroad neighborhoods of Fayetteville, blinking crossing bars holding back nobody, then we cruise into town with two lanes of traffic on each side, north and south.

11:30 p.m.: Somewhere very dark, with only a pale glow beyond the turpentine pines whispering of a town. There is no sleep to be had as the window holds me; I am as a kid, afraid of what I might miss, some shard of pottery in the dark sand that will yield a syllable or two of the long mystery of who we all are.

I awake at dawn, my forehead bouncing on the window. I stretch back on the narrow bed, watching the shapes of the treetops saw their way past the brightening sky. Only an hour or so from the end of this leg. It occurs to me that not far from the station there will be, surely, an old diner with high-octane coffee and a grand breakfast for a reasonable price, in a tiled room full of characters.

I get up and dress. There are adventures afoot.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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