Riding American Rails, Part 3: The Middle West


At some point in the Illinois suburbs skirting around Chicago our train dipped underground and into Union Station. The Great Plains die with Chicago’s massive skyline and the sheer amount of people under the overwhelming number of sparkling lights this city offers up for the holidays is an encouragingly impressive display of humanity’s good will and might. The train station is thick with lines of people boarding longer lines of trains all ready to spider out across the United States, sending sisters to New England and aunts into the South, daughters to St. Louis and sons into Pittsburgh. We’ll spend the night again on a train, the Capitol Limited, after a good long day and night behind us.

All of the vast flat farmland of Oklahoma and through Missouri disappeared into the previous night as we tossed and turned, but slept, the darker hours away. I woke to a window filled with the purplest-black silhouetted clouds fronting a bright pink sunrise sure to make any neon jealous. The entire Eastern side of the train was coated in the color, and only a thought or moment or so later, it was gone, giving way to a more naturally pink and blue fade.

A few hands of Go Fish and lunch in the all glass sightseers lounge and endless reaped fields dotted by tiny small town middle Americas and St. Louis and the Mississippi River and small talk with fellow passengers later we had crossed the height of the Great Plains. While it was no The Darjeeling Limited, our trip was certainly soulful, solid time spent the boy and I together and with our fellow humans.

A woman told us of her life traveling North America with a musical troupe and her uncertainty with our young new President while her grandson screamed toddler havock through the dining car. An old and hunchbacked geiser, speckled faced and bleary eyed, talked us through every stop he’d ever ridden to or from. A teenage mom talked to friends on her cell phone while her son and Tristan played with eachother through the seats. Drunks drank into the night and early birds shared the sunrise with us.

Finally, back in Chicago, we ate pizza and smoked cigarettes and had a few local beers with my sister; she showed us around town until it was time for her to catch a flight. We were all headed to Pittsburgh, but she’d leave Chicago 2.5 hours later than us and arrive a dozen hours earlier.

The travel alone was worth the journey, as crossing long distances, seeing people, meeting places, always is, but I found something more in this one. I’ve long been disenchanted by the Christmas season: it comes much to early every year and tradition and family has been swallowed up by consumerism and Coca Cola-esque branding. I’m no Scrooge, and I love to walk under lighted tree lined streets with hot chocolate and my family as much as anyone, but the day itself has been tainted, and so I tend to spend it celebrating with just our own little family rather than wanting to chase after every grandperson and in-law in the land.

But Thanksgiving has not had it’s basic idea replaced. There has been little desire by corporate America to become the driving force behind the holiday. No specific, expensive decorations to buy, no presents to lavish–you don’t even have to buy eachother cards. The original spirit, which is simply that family gathers together and everyone brings food and shares in merriment (and maybe a little football) until they fall asleep, is the same as it always has been. The stress of pleasing people with gifts they don’t want or quadruple digit credit card debt is exchanged for big hugs and maybe a little too much pumpkin pie. And I, simple and honestly, look forward to it.