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.
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.
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.
This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 9:17 am and is filed under Local History, Mike Haubrich, Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.