Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Winter Journey

Snow has come late this year to the valley of Lake Champlain and reminds me of another year when I left on a trip and there was snow in the forecast.

For years we drove from Chicago to Cleveland to spend Christmas with my wife's family, a long but not difficult day’s drive across the Interstate.  Not difficult if the weather were clear, but storms blew in off the prairie and Arctic air came down from Canada across the Lakes and over the big snow mitten of Michigan, and one year our departure coincided with a forecast blizzard, so we decided that that year we would play it safe and take the train.

We had traveled by train before and  --  this being the route of the Twentieth Century Limited  --  we imagined ourselves Nick and Nora Charles at cocktails in an Art Deco club car, and dressed with a casual elegance appropriate to the occasion, though we also brought warm coats as we would be moving around Chicago beforehand and who knew what might await us on the frozen tundra of Cleveland.  This turned out to be a fortunate precaution.

Our train did not look like the Twentieth Century Limited.  It looked rather more like the old passenger cars that I had ridden as a little boy in southern Illinois.  Very much like them; so much so that, had it not been so cold, I suspected they might also have smelled like them.  But fortunately it was cold.

We asked about the club car, but received no satisfactory response.

But we were sure that once the train got moving things would sort themselves out and we pictured ourselves sipping a cocktail in the warmth of the club car as our train glided through woods and snowy fields beneath a wintry moon.

But our scheduled departure time came and went, and we did not.  But we had a comfortable seat and it was pleasant to watch the bustle of the terminal outside our window.  Snow was blowing about and the warmly-dressed travelers bustling along the platform with gaily wrapped packages made a merry Christmas scene, and we did not mind the delay.

Eventually, we began to mind the delay, but then the train pulled out of the station and we were on our way, over the hills and through the woods and across the prosperous farm country of Indiana and Ohio to an old-fashioned family Christmas.

To the south of the great rail hub of Chicago, big-shouldered hog-butcher for the world, are the rail yards, a vast expanse of parallel tracks, stretching as far in either direction as the eye could see that dark, snowy night, a sea of black and silver and industrial gray.  And that is where we stopped.  Our late afternoon departure had been delayed into the evening and it was now quite dark and the only light outside our window were the dirty yellow bulbs under metal shades on iron poles spaced at such intervals along the tracks as they seemed intended more to orient than to illuminate, back-lighting falling clumps of snow that seemed to pick up speed as we watched.

But inside the train there were the reassuring sound of engines and motors, with their promise of warmth and locomotion.

And then we noticed that the sounds had stopped.

A passenger making his way back from the front of the train reported that we had no engine and apparently no crew.  I chose to think of this as a good sign: that they were all off busy getting us a better engine for our trip.

Of course, without an engine we were not getting any heat in the coach, but as long as we kept the doors closed I was sure this would be no problem, and I was sure that at any moment we would feel the comforting jolt of a new engine being coupled to our train.

But why go on?  You know where this is going.

We were stranded in the darkness in a blizzard on a cold train in the frozen wastes of the Chicago rail yard with no engine and no crew and no indication that anyone knew we were there.  For all we knew, there were wolves prowling outside.  And there was no damn club car.

We sat there for hours as the temperature inside the coach converged with that outside.  We wrapped ourselves in everything in our luggage.  We found a package of crackers and discussed which of the other passengers we should eat first when it came time for breakfast.

Eventually, someone noticed we were there  --  or perhaps they found they had to move us to make way for another train  --  and a bit before dawn we were underway and had a quite pleasant trip on a bright, sunny morning across the snowy fields of northern Indiana and Ohio.

After Christmas, we flew back.


  1. Too bad about your experience. I was once on an Amtrak train without heat and wrote about it here.

    I still like to take the train and plan to take it West at Christmas time.

    When on the trans-siberian this summer, I realized that each car has their own coal fired boiler--I assume that means you can keep yourself warm even if the power unit is out.

  2. Sage: I read your post and it was delightful, especially the part about the obnoxious drunk being led off the train in irons at a remote country crossing. And I still enjoy train travel, even if I now realize that Nick and Nora Charles will not be in the club car.

    I remember coal stoves heating the wooden passenger cars on trains from my youth, though they were obsolete even then, as in a train wreck they would set fire to the broken coaches.

  3. Too bad. I've never experience train travel in the U.S., but had a fantastic trip on AMTRAK from Winnipeg - Churchill. I think I need to write about it one day :0D
    Thanks for the inspirational blog.