Covering My Tracks

A passenger train sweeps through this little vacation town every morning at a quarter past eight. The first sound you hear is an almost apologetic “ding-ding-ding” to alert cars approaching the seaside crossing. The next is the “click-clack-click-clack” as the wheels grind a percussive beat with the twin rails below. Finally, you’re consumed by the rush and roar of the train itself, barreling towards its next destination without so much as a split-second’s thought about stopping.

Dings, clicks, rushes, and roars – which typically wake me from my vacation slumber – are comforting music to my aging ears.  These trains cover the same tracks they did during the innocent summer days of yesteryear.  The beaches here are more crowded than they used to be.  The houses make grander statements.  The ocean is a few centimeters higher and the sand threatens to wash away with each passing season.  But the train, which once called this town a destination (but now simply passes through), faithfully maintains its daily schedule from points north to points south and back again.  Some things never change.

My family’s first summer house here – the upper floor of a duplex – was mere steps from the train tracks.  In those ten-and-under years, well past dark, my pajama-clad bleary-eyed brothers and I would bolt to the front screen door in the middle of the night, drawn to the roar of an oncoming freight train.  We just had to see the roving locomotive headlight flash by one more time.  During the day we’d dash to the rails just before the train passed by, laying down countless pennies to be flattened.  I still see them – pancaked, shiny and hot – as the giant wheels flipped the coins wildly off the rails.  Sometimes we’d never find them again.

The allure of the passing train was something intangible; a magnetism I can’t find words for, even today.  You had its awesome mechanical power, its symphony of distinct sounds, the romance of faraway destinations, and the untold stories of countless passengers.  You had the promise there would always be another train coming down the tracks, if you were just willing to wait long enough.  To a kid, the train was equal parts come hither and go away; the exciting and the scary combined into one imposing, larger-than-life spectacle.

There was a time I would’ve thought trains were meant for childhood and nothing more.  But they still click-clacked through my life after that.  As a teenager, I rode those same “Pacific Surfliner” coaches several times as a convenient connection between Los Angeles and San Diego.  In college, a freight train rumbled across campus in the wee hours, most often witnessed as I walked back to my dorm from late-night dates.  In my junior year in Rome, Italy; Eurail pass in pocket, the entire continent beckoned with its on-schedule trains and speedy routes to exotic locales.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area begged a resident to ride trains.  My first corporate commute was on a train of sorts: the Powell-Hyde cable car line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square.  When we moved south of the city, Caltrain became the easiest way to commute to the heart of downtown.  When my job also moved to the south, Caltrain still served as the easiest option, the nearest station a twenty-minute walk from my front door.

“Royal Canadian Pacific”

No mention of trains – at least for me – would be complete without a nod to the Royal Candian Pacific.  RCP rail tours include private rooms in restored vintage carriages, daily meal service prepared on-board, and spectacular scenery as you click-clack through the Canadian Rockies wilderness.  The RCP is kind of like a…, no, it’s exactly like a five-star hotel on wheels. They even throw in tuxedoed waitstaff.  Unless the Orient Express is your idea of a typical vacation there’s nothing quite as grand as the RCP.

Years ago, my wife bought me an LGB model train set.  The LGB was probably the largest scale of any of the model railway sets out at the time; its cars a good foot in length and almost as high.  We’d set up the tracks every December so our “Christmas train” could cruise under the boughs of the tree above.  I often wonder why my wife bought me that train set.  Maybe I commented enough about how much I enjoyed the rail commute to work back then.  More likely, she still recognized the boy in the man, the one who would rush to the screen door in his pajamas when the locomotive went barreling past.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

19 thoughts on “Covering My Tracks

  1. There is something nice about taking the train and letting someone else do the driving. I still occasionally take the train to Toronto even if it is expensive just so I don’t have to deal with the big city traffic. It’s a long meandering ride through countryside and many small towns which gives you lots of time for staring out the window and daydreaming. But their coffee (and food) is horrible. Sign me up for the Orient Express!

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    1. If American trains ran like those in Europe (i.e. punctual with a capital “P”), perhaps they’d be a more popular mode of transportation. Instead, American trains always seem to be delayed, starting with the departure time and adding minutes with every stop. Throw out the schedule. Get comfortable. Your patience is about to be tested.

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      1. Same here….they share the same tracks with freight trains so there’s always a delay. When I was a student we had 4 trains a day going to Toronto and the same number coming back, so if you missed one, there was another along in a few hours. The fare was $25 return, not a bad price for a 3-4hr ride. Now there’s one in and one out, and it’s frightfully expensive, ($200 return unless you get a special) and they wonder why no one takes the train?

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  2. I had not heard about the Royal Canadian Pacific (a sad thing to say for a Canadian…) but one year we did take the Rocky Mountaineer from Calgary to Vancouver! We enjoyed the experience, though felt sorry for our fellow travellers if they had not also taken the same route without the smoke from that years forest fires.

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    1. Your train was likely on the same tracks as the RCP, Margy. Some of their routes go all the way to Vancouver, while shorter itineraries (like ours) loop back to Calgary. By far and away the most luxurious experience on rails I’ve ever had. Makes me a fan of Canada!

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  3. Wonderful writing and memories, especially the part about your views of the train as a child in your pajamas. My blog “Monday Morning Rail” is of course in large part about trains and I frequently travel ‘cross-country on Amtrak. In fact, I’m doing it again in September. There’s nothing like “the distant moaning of a train.” Nice work!

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    1. I like the idea of a garden railway, especially with your terraced backyard. Elevated tracks would allow you and your friends to sit on the patio and have easy views of the entire circuit. Go for it, Andrew!

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  4. The RCP trip in the vintage cars with that scenery sounds exquisite. I’m Canadian but have seen very little of my homeland … just Ontario. A fellow blogger and her husband are retired and live in North Carolina and he is in a train club in Tennessee. Once a month he travels to Tennessee to visit with fellow model train lovers and they work on the trains, set up tracks and ride them. They are not small models … I wish I could remember the ratio of the size to real trains. A search on Anne’s site did not find one of the posts she showed him and their grandson on the train. You should find a similar group – bet you would enjoy it.

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    1. I don’t have my LGB model railroad anymore but I can picture another train set in my future. I enjoy setting up the tracks and making complicated circuits. I’ll use my future grandchildren as an excuse to make the purchase 🙂

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  5. Funny how sounds (and smells) can evoke memories! As soon as I started reading this post, I thought of Japan, where commuter trains are regular and ever-present. One year my son and I took the VIA Rail train across Canada, from Toronto where my brother lives to Vancouver through the Rockies. Not a luxury train but just perfect for a relaxing jaunt through different landscapes, interesting people to meet.

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    1. Toronto to Vancouver! Now that’s a serious train trip, Ruth. You must like to read. At least, that’s what I’d be doing with all that time in the seat. I can only look out the window for so long 🙂

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  6. I am another who loves trains. As a kid, my family would take a sleeper car from Fort Wayne to Philly. Going to sleep to the clickety-clickety of the wheels on rails is something I would love to experience again.

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    1. I agree, JP. The rhythm of the rails and tiny berths makes for cozy sleeping. Total coincidence, but I’ll be on an overnight train next month from San Jose (CA) to Portland. Other than an overnight train from Los Angeles to Albuquerque a long time ago and that fancy Canada train experience, it’ll be the only time I’ve ever slept on a train.

      Liked by 1 person


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