Ah, the infamous bucket list. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually written one down, yet if you ask, just about anyone can rattle off their top five or six items. I believe we intentionally keep our lists untethered. It’s a brilliant system, really. Frees us from commitment and leaves room for updates as our world view and our sense of the ideal experience evolves. When I was a harried young mother, all I wanted was a good night’s sleep and to stay (sans children, of course) in a European castle. I’ve long-since given up on either of those ever occurring. Sleep, to me, is still a mythical suggestion, and most real castles are not the opulent fairytale fortresses of my childhood imagination. They’re cold, damp, and echo-noisy. I truly doubt people sleep in castles, except perhaps the residents of Windsor.
Lately, I’m becoming more aware of The List, whether because we’re free to travel now with the boys grown and chasing their own dreams, or because I worry about the ticking clock, and getting too old to enjoy travel. I think it’s most likely because I’ve become aware of a tiny hole in the bucket, and of the possibilities that have been leaking out. For example, in January, I had to mentally cross off “Drive through the Giant Sequoia tunnel tree” because the dang thing fell over. And this summer I learned that landslides have buried parts of California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway, a drive I’ve never had a chance to experience. They will be repaired, but the new route might not be the same.
So, when my hubby suggested taking a train to meet his family in Colorado, I just knew it had always been on my list, and I eagerly accepted. I couldn’t imagine anything more romantic than falling to sleep to the clickety-clack of wheel and rail; quiet dinners for two, whispering to each other as a debonair waiter uncorks the wine; or watching mile after mile of scenic countryside fly past me as I wrote volumes of nature-inspired prose.
Silly, silly girl.
It started off well enough. We stepped aboard the Capitol Limited, a massive steel monster headed from D.C. to Chicago. The porter showed us to a tiny sleeping cabin, helped us stow our bags and sent us off to a fantastic dinner. We ate “family style,” which is train talk for “We don’t have a lot of room, so sit here with your new family.” Not the intimate time for two we’d expected, but okay. We chatted with a young father and his 10-year-old son over dinner while the train wended its way up through the mountains, into Harper’s Ferry and the setting sun.
We returned to our cabin to find the porter pulling out the wee prison-mattress. He turned with a smile and said, “Try to get some rest.”
Not, “Good night,” or “Sleep well.” It’s as if he knew.
My idyllic “clickety-clack” turned out to be more of a “screech, clank, clank, JOLT,” filled with stops and starts, lurches and shakes, and metal-on-metal groaning. All. Through. The. Night.
Good thing I’m not a sleeper.
I hadn’t anticipated how much traveling we’d be doing at night. One bonus to sleeplessness was that I could text my oldest as the train pulled into Pittsburgh around midnight and tell him I was waiving in his general direction. He was up, and we e-chatted as the train chugged through town. I must say, Pittsburgh at night, with its myriad bridges adorned with iridescent lighting, is a sight I’d never expected but am glad to have witnessed. I’d put it on my bucket list if I hadn’t already seen it.
We pulled into Chicago for a layover, a story I’ll save for later, except to say I hadn’t put “Stand at the top of Willis (formerly Sears) Tower” on my list. Fortunately for me, hubby had. What a view! Chicago’s Union Station (they’re ALL called Union Station, by the way) brought an unexpected thrill for him when we stumbled across this apparent-bucket-list-item for all men. A simple stairwell, it seemed to me, but to him, you’d think we’d climbed Mt Everest.
Back on the train, this time the California Zephyr into Denver, we again had little time to take in the view before darkness fell. What scenery I did see surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. Early on I recalled the phrase, “down by the tracks” and understood its implications. Once I accepted that we wouldn’t be seeing glorious vistas start to finish, I was able to re-frame my expectations and enjoy the splashes of Americana flying past: junkyards, fancy new windmills, rickety old trailer homes, backyard trampolines, dense foliage, phenomenal murals and graffiti, farm animals, cornfields, and U.S. flags hanging from every possible brace. Glimpses of the hundreds of beautiful stories going on every day across the country. I couldn’t write, because of the jarring train and my sleep-deprived fog, but I enjoyed the glimpses.
Dining remained interesting, despite a menu that never changed. We met new “family” at every meal and swapped tales that our old families have long-since tired of. I found something to love about every guest and every attendant, and more than just their value as future novel characters. Of course, my debonair waiter with the corkscrew turned out to be a series of wise-cracking, overworked servers with orders to keep us moving along. I thought I’d lost my mind when extremely thick-accented Guillermo kept asking if I wanted “basketballs” with my meal. I never realized how much that sounds like “vegetables.” (Go ahead, say it. You know you want to: “You want basketballs with that?”)
The same legs on our return trip took place during the day, enabling us to see much more graffiti and farmland. Still awake, when we passed through Indianola, Nebraska in the wee hours, I used the GPS to tell me exactly where Uncle John and Aunt Peggy’s house was and watched it fly by. It gave me a strange sense of connection—picking out this little home in the darkness, knowing its sleeping inhabitants. (I knew better than to send a text this time).
Romantic? Hardly. Quiet time for two? Not a chance. Writing time? Not a word. But don’t cross Train trip across country off your list too quickly. We had a blast. While our unmet expectations could have ruined the journey, once we reeled in the fairy tale and took the world as it zipped past, we were quite glad we did it.
Will we do it again? I hope so. I’ve heard the train trip across the Rocky Mountains is quite lovely. Doesn’t it sound romantic, flitting through the snow like birds? Enjoying the clear blue skies and crisp mountain air, snuggled in our parkas while Guillermo lights the flambé?
Ah yes, add that to the list.
And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. — Exodus 13:21