You Are Now Free to Move About the Car


I have always preferred train travel over flying, when practical.  I have no fear of flying, and when I do fly, I try to sit by the window because I love looking down at the lay of the land and the tiny cars on freeways.  I am still a kid that way.  I love to fly,  but I would prefer a train because it is a much more relaxing way to travel.

I am old enough to remember regular passenger train service from Hallock to the Twin Cities. This was long before Amtrak.  The Great Northern serviced Hallock, and we had our depot on the west side of town.  It wasn’t a historical site; it was a working depot with baggage cars and ticket windows and a waiting area with a pop machine  and everything.

My dad’s brother lived in Bloomington and worked for West Side Volkswagen. Whenever Dad mentioned to Earl that he was looking for a new car, Earl would have something set aside with the “family discount” price.  Dad would take one or two of us kids with him on the trip to the Cities to see Earl and Barbara (and get spoiled) and then drive home.  For my twin sister and I, our trip was when we were seven.

We left on a Friday night, getting to the depot at 7:00 p.m. to check in and get on the train.  I don’t know if in my entire life, I had ever been so excited to go to the depot.  In past trips, we had gone there when our siblings were the lucky ones to hop aboard the train, and I had always hated that it wasn’t me. This time, I was getting on and riding the train for a real trip for the first time.

Great Northern Dining Car

Great Northern Dining Car

We found some seats and Dad asked if we were ready to go to the dining car.  Since space in dining cars was limited, the porter would put people together whether they knew each other or not.  I suspect that this was Dad’s favorite part of the trip.   He is a social person, if not gregarious.  He just likes to talk to people, even if they are strangers.  He may be talking to them about farming, weather, politics, how much things have changed since he was growing up, etc.  He also likes to listen to people, so people like to talk to him.

We sat down with Dad in the dining car, and the porter put with us a man in a hat.  That’s all that I remember about him, other than that he was friendly and knew how to talk to kids.  He made the dinner enjoyable, and we didn’t mind when the conversation turned to grownup stuff, because we were on a train and the world outside of us was moving.  The train rocked gently on the springs, and we could hear the clicking as the wheels rolled from rail to rail to rail.

When we slowed down for Warren, we barely noticed.  We stopped. Some people got off and others got on. The train stated up again as we finished dinner and went back to our seats.  Mom had packed some cards and games for Mary and I to use to occupy our time, and we played with our Etch-A-Sketches for a little bit.  Honestly, my heart wasn’t in the games, because the world was rolling by and I wanted to watch it.  Fields, trees, rivers, horses, cows, barns.   I had seen all of these before but never from the window of a train.  I could change seats and look out the other side if I wanted to.

Our family had made several trips by car, of course.  We were a large family, though, and there was no room for movement on long trips when nine people were packed into a station wagon, or a Volkswagen Squareback, or Chevy Vega, or some sort of pickup truck.  Yes, it’s true, we traveled like sardines at times.

The train was different because it gave us room to move about without squishing or elbowing a sibling.  When the porter came around with a blanket and a pillow, I was ready to go to sleep. As my eyes were slowly fighting their way shut, I stared into the darkness and saw only the yard lights of the farms in Minnesota.  I only woke up once, and had the strange sensation that the train had turned directions in the night.  I asked Dad about it, wondering if for some reason we were headed back to Hallock.  He looked at me sort of funny and laughed.

When next I woke up, we were close to Minneapolis and I stared in wonder at the tall buildings.  Earl picked us up at the station and took us to their home. We had a great weekend.  We drove a red Beetle with a rag-top sunroof back home on Monday morning.

The next great train ride was from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Churchill on the Hudson Bay in Canada.  This was a much longer train ride, at least 1,000 miles.  The rails have to skirt around both Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba and head towards western Manitoba for a stop in Thompson.

We were a larger group on this trip.  It was the summer of 1969 and my grandfather was still alive.  Our aunt and uncle were with us, along with their kids, cousins close in age to Mary and me.  My brother John and my mother were the other family members on this trip.

We found many ways to get into mischief on this trip, both because it was longer and because there were more of us to think up things to do.  The only real trouble we caused was in The Pas, which is where the train stopped for an hour.  After we had spent about 45 minutes wandering around the station, the call was on to board the train in five minutes.  The conductor was blocking the door at the entry, and cousin Barry was getting impatient to get on the train.  So he told me to follow him, and like a fool I did.

We walked down the row of cars, and to this day I am pretty sure that I had told Mom I was going with Barry.  I am likely to be wrong in this.

Barry and I found a car that was not being guarded and the door was open, so we climbed aboard.  We walked through four cars, including a Pullman sleeping car.  We had never seen a sleeping car except for in the movies, so this was kind of fun.  We made our way to the car where the family had set a “home” for the trip.  We picked out our seats, grinning that we had beat the system and were in our seats before everyone else.  Then we waited.  We waited a bit more.  We wondered why it was taking so long for everyone else.

Then Grandpa came to us, and we could see that he was angry with us.  This was a shock, because I had never in my life had him angry with me.  I didn’t even know that it was possible.

“You boys should be spanked!”  I thought he was joking and started to giggle at him.  This was the wrong thing to do.  “I am serious!  We have been looking all over for you and had no idea where you were!  We were looking at the station, in the bathrooms, everywhere!  The Canadian Pacific are holding this train to find you.”  I honestly have never felt so sheepish in my life, and I felt like crying.

Grandpa saw this and softened a bit.  He explained that he was really scared because they didn’t know where we were. Barry decided to “help.”  “C’mon, Grandpa, relax.  We were here the whole time.”  Grandpa didn’t take that well and repeated that we should be spanked.  As he was talking, Mom came along and then the rest, including a conductor.  He was angry, as well, because we had wasted his time.  Mom was relieved, and she was never able to hide her emotions.  She gave me a big hug.

The remainder of the trip, I did exacly as Grandpa said whenever he said it.  I never wanted to have him angry with me again.  We rolled through beautuful country and the trees grew shorter and shorter as we moved futher north towards Hudson’s Bay.  This was probably the greatest train ride I have ever taken, because the Far North is so fantastically and starkly beautiful even in summer.  Churchill, Manitoba is directly on Hudson’s Bay.  Even though it was July, there were still icebergs on the shore and we climbed on them.

The train took us home three days later.  It was a long train ride, but wonderful nonetheless because I could move about the car as long as I told a grownup where I was going to be.   I could move about and see the world from both sides of the train.

Coast Starlight Scenery Car

Coast Starlight Scenery Car

I have taken one more long train ride, and that was from San Francisco to San Diego on the Coast Starlight.  I won’t rehash too much of it because it was a bittersweet ride along the edge of the Pacific towards the end of my first marriage.  I enjoyed myself until I discovered that the person I was with was thinking about someone else. I had hoped that this trip would revitalize the relationship, but when she told me that she missed her Sam, I realized that my hopes were in vain.

So, the return trip was a sad, poetic one of sitting in the Scenery Car staring at the ocean.  My melancholy was broken only by sitting down with a pair of families, translating for them between Spanish and English.  One of the families was on vacation from Venezuela, and so the Spanish they spoke was a bit more “pure” than what I had learned in Mexico and in college classes. I muddled through.

When we rolled into the station at Oakland, I told her to call her Sam to pick her up.  I would catch a ride with my sister from the station to San Francisco, where I went to bed alone, thinking about the Pacific and Punta Concepcion.  I was going to keep that part of the trip with me even if I had to discard the rest.

I prefer trains, because watching the world move while still being free to walk about the cars is so much more relaxing than flying.  It may take more time to complete the journey, but it gives a person time to look and to think and to watch through the windows on both sides.

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9 Responses to “You Are Now Free to Move About the Car”

  1. May 18th, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Philip H. says:

    As one train buff to another – here here!

  2. May 18th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It really is a great way, especially for people who would otherwise have to drive. Seeing the world as a double-yellow line doesn’t appeal to me.

  3. May 18th, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Norm says:

    I am also a train fan. My grandma lived right along highway 55 in Hoffman, MN, and across the highway was the Soo Line freight train route. Three or four trains would go by every day and I always had fun counting the number of cars. And when I was an undergrad one year I took the Empire Builder out to Seattle and back over spring break. Even though I couldn’t afford very fancy accommodations, the scenery was gorgeous and the ride was trouble free. Now for the past couple of years I’ve lived a block away from the Hiawatha line, and have enjoyed taking it most weekdays to and from first work and now school. I certainly hope a good chunk of the stimulus money goes toward building a more robust national rail network, as it is certainly the cleanest and most economical method of long-distance travel currently available. That and no annoying security lines.

    Now a burning question: Exactly what is the origin of the name Quiche Moraine? The first word is an egg dish, and the second is an area strewn with the remnants of a glacier, but I fail to see how they fit together.

  4. May 18th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Here is an explanation of Quiche Moraine

    The three of us imagine Quiche Moraine as a glare of ice on the Antarctic Continent thinly strew with odd rocks. The rocks are odd because many of them are meteorites that landed on the glacier some time during the last several tens of thousands of years.

    We imagine that among these meteorites a small number are actually fragments of Mars, the Angry Red Planet. These bits of the planet Mars were blasted into space by some sort of enormous cosmic collision. (Perhaps that is why Mars is Angry and Red?)

    Among these Martian Meteors we imagine that a few demonstrate tantalizing evidence for early life on our neighboring planet. We marvel at the potential irony: Perhaps all life on Mars was wiped out by the very Cosmic Impact that brings us these Martian Meteorites.

    There was some free association one night at a bar in Mounds View…

  5. May 18th, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    chanson says:

    I absolutely love train travel too!!! Have a look at the amazing train ride we had on our recent trip to Italy: a playground for the kids, right in the train!

  6. May 19th, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Cool pics of European trains. Carol is right, you should check them out and send them to AmTrak so they know how to do train travel for kids.

  7. May 20th, 2009 at 12:50 am

    James says:

    Ah! Trains.
    In early March 1942, my father, mother, little brother, and I sailed from Honolulu to San Francisco. My father went aboard a new submarine that was about to go to sea and my brother and I got to take our first train ride. We traveled from San Francisco to Seattle, to stay with my mother’s parents until my father returned.

    I don’t remember much about this first train trip. I do remember that we had a room with two pull down beds, one above the other. I was in the top bunk and my little brother shared the lower bunk with our mother. I think we slept for most of the train trip as the boat trip from Honolulu had been pretty harrowing.

    There had been a Pacific storm the whole way. That was by design as the convoy Commander was trying to hide the convoy as much as he could. The plan didn’t work as we came under submarine attack anyway. Not much sleep with big guns and depth charges going off at all hours. And then there was that damn orange kapok life jacket we had to wear 24 hours a day. As a little kid, sleeping in one of those is like trying to sleep while draped across a chair bottom. Your head and arms hang, unsupported, off one side and your legs and feet hang, unsupported, off the other side. The thing is as hard as a rock, you can’t turn, you can’t get comfortable, and you can’t sleep. And then there was the way we were actually trying to sleep which was draped over a chair bottom while wearing that damn kapok life jacket. Despite the conditions, you got to the point where you would just about nod off and then the Destroyers would make another run. Now that really wakes you up wide eyed.

    We were in one of the earliest convoys to sail from Honolulu to the mainland after Pearl Harbor. This was a new experience for everybody, sailing in wartime conditions. Everyone was hyper-vigilant and hyper-imaginative. After the first contact, periscopes appeared in places they have never appeared in before or since and the Destroyers blew the hell out of all of them.

    Little kids in these conditions stay amped until they crash. And with all this excitement going on, it was amped, crash, amped, crash, all the way across the Pacific. The problem was you never had time to crash long enough to fully recover. So, when my brother and I laid our heads down in our bunks on our first train ride, we were so out of it we missed the whole trip.

    In the summer of 1943, my father was transferred from making submarine patrols in the Pacific from Honolulu to the coast of Japan to being an instructor at the submarine school in New London, Connecticut. After he found a place for us to live, we began our cross country train adventure.

    The trip was to be from Seattle to Chicago where we would change trains, then from Chicago to New York where again we would change trains, then on to New London.

    In Seattle, my grandfather took my brother and me up to the head of the train to see the engine. It was a huge steam engine and right behind the engine was the equally huge coal car. There was steam shooting out from different places on the engine and then there were all the noises a steam engine makes when it sits idling. It was a very exciting place to be. After the war, we kids received a Lionel Train set that was a model of this train. If I remember correctly after all these years, we were riding on the Great Northern line.

    We left Seattle in the afternoon. Again we had a room with pull down beds. After getting settled and looking out the window for a while we went to the dining car. We went early as my mother wanted to get us in and out before it became busy. I remember all the white linens, heavily starched, and the heavy white plates with letters in the middle. The silverware was also very heavy, stuff you don’t see anymore, and it had letters engraved on the handles.

    That was the only time I ate in the dining car on that trip. The next morning when I woke up I had a fresh crop of red spots starting to spread all over me. I had the measles. I spent the rest of the trip in a darkened room with the shade pulled. Periodically, I would surreptitiously peek out under the shade until I got caught. Then, it was a darkened room until the next time. We changed trains in Chicago in the middle of the night. We had to wait in the train station for a number of hours before we could get on the train to New York. In New York, it was the same. Middle of the night arrival – wait – finally the train to New London. I think we arrived in New London in the late morning.

    So that was my cross country train adventure and I spent all but the first couple of hours in a darkened room. That was a very difficult trip for someone who is curious about everything.

    To this day I don’t know how my mother survived that trip. She had two very curious little boys in tow, one sick. They had a glint in their eyes about all the new things they could see that they could touch or push or pull or especially get dirty playing on. They were not only going in different directions from each other, they were going in different directions from her. And of course she had to round up the suitcases also. I think herding cats might have been easier.

    I have made other train trips since then. The last was a 28 hour trip with my now wife from Moscow to her home in Ufa in the Republic of Bashcortistan at the southern end of the Ural Mountains. The trains I was on in Russia were electric, old and slow, but almost always on time. They are a nice, if not very comfortable way to see the Russian countryside and Russia is a place worth seeing.

    This seems to have become quite long. I actually didn’t mean for that to happen. Sorry.

  8. May 20th, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Don’t apologize, James! This was a great addition to my story, and thanks for telling it!

  9. May 20th, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Beauzeaux says:

    I have another WWII train story to tell. I was only 11 months old at the time, but the story is part of family lore.
    My father had shipped out to the South Pacific and my mother was taking me by train from Los Angeles to Missouri where her parents lived. I was not walking yet so I had to be carried everywhere. The train was also full of soldiers. I don’t know where they were coming from or where they were going. (This would have been around April 1943.)
    You’ll have to take my word for it that I was an adorable tot and the soldiers more-or-less adopted me for the duration of the trip. They passed me around like a doll — playing and talking with me. They walked me up and down the train whent I was fretful, Fed me cookies and zwieback when I was hungry. My mother often said that she couldn’t have survived that trip except for the help of the soldiers. (I also suspect that it didn’t hurt that she was 22 and pretty cute herself.)
    I love this story but it makes me sad too. Today any young man who shows interest in children is immediately suspected of being weird at best and at worst a pedophile. And a mother who let strangers look after her baby while she took a nap would be arrested at the next station.
    I still love trains though and would travel the world in a train if I could.

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