What is it about trains?
As I write this, I hear a train whistle nearby. It’s the Wine Train, starting its day of carrying excited tourists up the Napa Valley. What is it about trains that draws us so? Why are they so romantic to us?
Last week, we spent a few days up in the Sierras, and visited a little old railroad town named Portola. Trains are its reason for being, and they have a railroad museum there that seemed almost as big as the town itself. Inside a large barn were a number of old railroad cars to visit, including the private coach of Western Pacific’s president, with its own fair-sized lounge, office, sleeping compartments, and tiny galley, all very compact and, though comfortably appointed, not as luxurious as I would have expected – well-suited to a no-nonsense businessman, not his wife, I suppose.
All along one side of the barn were work areas lined with tools and equipment for repairing and remodeling trains, and parked next to them was an old steam engine, just being restored by the volunteers who give their time, energy, and expertise, free of charge, just glad to be getting their hands full of train grease working on these old behemoths.
Outside were acres of tracks, filled with all kinds of cars available for climbing on, and some even open to explore inside. We spent a happy hour or two clambering around on them, feeling what it is like to work so close to something so big, so heavy and powerful. The couplings alone gave me a little shiver, thinking of the sheer muscle needed to work them, and the horror of being caught willy-nilly in their implacable, unrelenting grasp. Everything was big, ponderous, overwhelming – and so much fun to scamper up and down and all around. I got to walk around inside a caboose – haven’t you always wanted to know what that was like? And we even found an unlocked engine, sat in the engineer’s seat and handled the levers and speculated about the gauges. All that was missing was a whistle chain to pull.
It was a place of imagination. So many stories floated around those old cars, whispering – the engineer, always aware of the massive power under his control and in his responsibility; the workmen (gandy dancers?) in their rough and ready style, laughing in the face of the danger they lived with every day, proud in their conquest and sometimes falling prey to it.
And then there was the president, away at last from the frivolities of his wife’s home décor and socializing, engrossed and intent in his life’s work of heading up this company, leading these men, building a business – and with it, a nation.
Emotion flooded me as we gazed at a troop transport from World War II. It was lined with bunk beds. I found myself thinking of all the fears, all the homesickness, all the false bravado it had housed, and wondered how much real sleep those bunks had seen.
Back in town, we found a train store run by an older man. He had several gauges of model trains on tracks laid out up and down the length of his shop, and he was pleased to have us there, to show us his pride and joy, and to talk. He had lost his wife some twelve years before, and then spent several years traveling the world. That had eventually palled, and he had found a measure of contentment in this little store, among his trains, sharing his passion.
What is it about trains?