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Women’s Voices: Finding peace on the rails

As I lay in bed waiting to immerse myself in possible dreams, the silence of the night is often invaded by a distant echo. A rumbling, followed by a faint whistle announces the arrival of a night train passing through East Aurora.

Although these are freight trains, passenger trains ran from the 1900s to 1971.

Where are the trains headed?

I decided to experience an adventure. I would travel by train to Denver to visit my daughter.

My sister and I embarked on a Canadian Pacific Railroad escapade in 1977, beginning in Toronto. We shared a spacious room, and meals were served in a dining car worthy of a 5-star rating. The train took us to Calgary, and from there we traveled by bus throughout the Canadian West.

I was eager to see what Amtrak had to offer.

The Lake Shore Limited, would take me on the first leg of my journey. Scheduled departure was midnight. I was dropped off at the nondescript station, which compared to airline travel, contained no security that I could detect. After an hour delay, where the only entertainment was the droning television coverage of election primary results, the train arrived. I aimlessly followed the few passengers who wearily looked for their cars. An attendant led me to my roomette, and gave me a review on using the tiny sink and toilet which snuggly fit next to my bed. I began to wonder if I would feel claustrophobic in this closetlike space, and decided to leave the window curtains open. I felt I needed to position myself on the bed so that I would not be moving backward. This meant that my head would be next to the toilet. My sleep was sporadic, but at least I was awake to view the night lights of Cleveland.

An Amtrak lounge provided a pleasant layover in Chicago.

I had begun to compare Amtrak with the Canadian Pacific Railroad – one was your first used car, the other a Cadillac. However, I was about to board the California Zephyr, the “most talked about train in America” when it went into service in 1949. It originally featured five “vista dome” cars and four sleeping cars. I now found double-decker cars.

This roomette, on the upper deck, contained no toilet or sink – I would be sharing an airplane-size facility. I guess that was better than lying next to a toilet at night.

One of my car neighbors introduced himself, and it was nice to have a companion for roughly 16 hours. Conversation easily flowed. As much as I enjoyed his company, I did refuse his offer to “cuddle.” I wanted adventure on this trip, and he had provided plenty.

My time in Denver and Boulder went quickly. All too soon, I was making the return trip home.

There would be no interesting companionship on this trip; time went by slowly. I was thankful for Amtrak’s custom of making passengers share dining tables. I looked at a women in her 70s who slipped her hand lovingly through her husband’s arm. I mourned the fact that I would grow old without my husband. I shared lunch with a railroad buff, who pointed out a few highlights, including the fact that we were crossing the Mississippi River as we munched.

A seven hour layover in Chicago was not ideal. I certainly would have had time to explore the city, but feared I would miss my next train.

My weariness was getting the better of me. Everything annoyed me, especially people who put their cell phones on speaker. At one point, I thought a man was talking to me. I started to engage in a conversation only to discover he was talking to his brother on his speaker phone.

Another restless night made me reach a conclusion: The Zephyr traveled through the wide-open plains of the Midwest with few crossings. The Lake Shore traveled through a populated east, with many crossings. Our train whistled all night long.

I had an adventure, but would I consider using that same mode of transportation again? Would I want to be continually jostled and walk from car-to-car on unsteady legs? Could I really function on intermittent sleep.

I found myself answering “no,” but I am reconsidering. I savored the beauty and diversity of this country without the weariness of driving, or my anxiety before flying. I once again would like to wake in the middle of the night, look out my window and witness an endless sky with sparkling stars.

I am more aware of the rumbling of the train, as it slips through East Aurora, and those whistles are inviting me back. I may accept that invitation again.