Aviation killed the railroad car. Flying came and broke your heart. Oh-ooh. And now we meet in an abandoned station. We hearing the chugging and it seems so long ago. And you remember the whistles used to go…
But aviation hasn’t usurped passenger train travel completely. In fact, last week, Rae Armantrout, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, took Amtrak from San Diego to Anaheim for her Tabula Poetica visit. Anaheim’s train station is nestled into the parking lot of Angel Stadium, and the trains ran on time. Rae found the rail travel far more enjoyable than driving because she spent her time reading.
In childhood, Doug had a bedroom window overlooking a small patch of Midwestern overgrowth, surrounded by homes and farmland. This space was known affectionately as The Gulley. Late at night, all manner of hue and cry issued from The Gulley. Despite parental assurances about cats, raccoons, and other small creatures, Doug remains convinced that the tree-lined area, complete with watering hole, was the actual home of Bigfoot. If Bigfoot exists, he lives in this gulley, not in the dark, old-growth woods as claimed by those in the Pacific Northwest—Doug has lived in both places, so he knows.
The nighttime sound that cuts through memory most sharply now is the powerful blare of the locomotive horn. Just north of Doug’s childhood home, a single railroad line sliced The Gulley in two. At regular intervals, laden freight trains hammered their way through town, rattling windows as a tangible reminder of their power, their heavy load. Doug’s first word was for the train; he called it frau-frau.
Anna grew up the granddaughter of a retired Pullman Conductor, who still dreamed of walking the aisles of the Santa Fe Chief. Her own father took Anna and her sister to the train station in Springfield with its great mural. The goal was sometimes to meet friends or family visiting from Chicago, but mostly the idea was to smash pennies on the track, something no longer done. Once the family moved “to the country,” there was a railroad track across Route 29. Whenever a train halted the ride home, Anna’s father counted the cars. He didn’t always count the cars on every train, but if he couldn’t see the end, he counted, just to know for sure when he’d seen the longest train of his life.
Back then, in the 1970s, trains and the railroad—the area belonged to Burlington Northern—were a vital part of the economic fabric of the towns in central Midwest. At that time, Abingdon, where Doug grew up, even had a new addition—imagine that, a small Midwestern town that was actually growing in size. Trains of that era were ad hoc and random seeming in their comportment: box cars in various colors, flat cars carrying all manner of machinery and materiel, different logos (like Chessie, the sleepy cat), even a caboose or two rushing by. In Galesburg, near the rail yards, a sign still announces how many days since the last injury on the job.
After our childhoods, trains played a more prosaic role in our lives: ordinary transport. In college, Amtrak meant a quick, cheap ride to Chicago from Champaign or Galesburg. A few years ago, train runs were added between the state’s university towns and its northern hub. Chicago’s Union station is a bustling, clean place, not the dark, dingy hall it was in the 1980s.
After college, when Anna was earning her MFA at the University of Maryland and Doug was an Abstractor/Indexer at a NASA CASI near Baltimore, DC’s ubiquitous and efficient Metro system meant cheap, unfettered access to the joys of the nation’s capitol without the flop sweat induced by negotiating the spoked street system and trying to find a parking spot near Dupont Circle. The Green Line station was behind our apartment complex, the Red Line got us to our favorite museums and restaurants, and the Blue or Yellow Line whisked us all the way to National Airport. Since then, our lives have taken us to Ohio, Missouri, and Oregon and back to Illinois—and now to California. Amtrak and the city’s commuter train systems have been there to handle those trips when driving was more nuisance than aid.
Los Angeles has a strange history with the railroads and a deeply rooted attachment to the car—and to the individual and autonomy that an automobile represents. Patt Morrison, an NPR commentator, writes, in an essay in My California: “Los Angeles is a city built by centrifugal forces, and what’s in the center of a centrifuge? Not much.” She explains that Southern California’s character has been suburban from the get-go. The center never held here, as it did in Chicago or New York, whose immigrants clung together in communities. Immigrants to SoCal tended to be middle-class, with money and skills, so their destination was not a community. “You think I traveled all this way by wagon/ship/train to reach this glorious sunshine to cram myself into some dark, little flat?” We get the sense that Californians don’t much like trains, that trains in California don’t often get you where you want to go, that the railroad just isn’t the same concept here. It’s no wonder, as Southern California, in fact, may be a home—if not the home—of aviation.
We miss the train, though we can hear the whistle of the occasional Amtrak and Metrolink—there’s a station a couple of blocks from Chapman University’s campus. We should hop a train to San Diego—we’d like to visit there. We’re hoping that the plan for high-speed to Las Vegas pans out, too. At least, we’ve been to Union Station in Los Angeles, the place Anna’s grandfather paused before turning around and heading home—that deserves its own blog post here someday.