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”.