I heard it often growing up in a small Midwestern town — the rhythmic click-click-clack of the wheels on the metal rails. It was like a secret, coded message that was both a greeting and invitation: “Come aboard.”
When the passenger cars slowly passed the railroad crossings, I waved at unfamiliar faces. I wondered about them and their final destinations.
With the recent release of the new film version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” I decided it was time for me to “Come aboard!”
My and husband Joe’s journey began shortly after midnight in Cleveland on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Arriving in our sleeper cabin, we found our attendant had already prepared our beds with crisp white linens. Within minutes, we were lulled asleep by the rhythmic rocking of the train.
After a good night’s sleep, we walked to the dining car for breakfast which was included along with lunch and dinner in the price of the sleeper cabin.
After breakfast, we returned to our cabin to find our attendant had returned our beds to their daytime positions — as a sofa. We realized that while our cabin may not have been as luxurious the Orient Express, it was comfortably equipped with a private bathroom and shower and a full-length mirror as well as an upholstered chair.
As we sat looking out our large picture window, I thought of Philip Larkin’s words: “Traveling by train provides an environment where all sense of being in a hurry is gone.”
Later, we were awakened by the whistle blowing and the conductor announcing that we would soon arrive at Chicago’s Union Station. Here, we would board the Zephyr, America’s version of the Orient Express, and appropriately named after the Greek god of the west wind, Zephuros.
As we walked to the Metro Lounge, we marveled at the classic beauty of the station. Built in 1925, its architect definitely lived up to his words, “Make no small plans. They have not magic to stir men’s blood.” Equal to almost two city blocks with two grand staircases, massive Corinthian columns, marble floors with a 300-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight and brass lamps, it was clear why the station has been hailed as “one of America’s finest indoor spaces.”
We found our Zephyr cabin identical to the one on the Lake Shore Limited. We headed to the train’s famous observation car. We were amazed at the spectacular bird’s eye view of the landscape that surrounded us since the car is surrounded by glass and furnished with comfortable swivel chairs where passengers can enjoy snacks, cocktails and the company of other passengers.
Talking with our fellow travelers was our most popular pastime. In the dining room, the staff seats passengers with different guests for every meal. Without newspapers, television or Wi-Fi, we perfected the lost art of conversation. We also learned that “there are no strangers, only friends to be made.”
Some of our fellow passengers were quite eccentric. Others were quiet and reserved. All were a delight.
One gentleman was an avid fisherman who travels the country for the “best fishing holes.” Ruddy complexioned with piercing blue eyes, he had a contagious laughter that resonated throughout the dining room.
Another couple, binoculars always in hand, were lifelong Audubon Society members who rode the train, “to follow the bird migrations.” They had spent their careers as health care workers and said, “We are now free as the birds we follow.”
Willie Nelson has a double, and he was on our train. With long salt and pepper hair tied in a ponytail and a swagger to his walk, he was always humming a country tune. At dinner, he assured us that he never had had a bucket list, because, “Why have a bucket list when you can kick the bucket when you least expect it?”
There was a distinguished couple from the United Kingdom who had flown to New York from London and were now taking the train cross country “to see how the colonies were doing.”
A couple, who had served around the world in the Peace Corps, fascinated us with their encyclopedic knowledge of third world countries.
A tall, curly haired, bespeckled young man in his 30s told us that he had been a modern-day “Easy Rider,” until a life-threatening accident made him turn to trains to see the country. He now rides the train several times a year “to clear his mind and gain new perspectives.” He always had a black and white composition book in hand.
More traditional was the wiry and silver haired octogenarian, a retired PBS executive who always dressed in jeans and sports coat. He mesmerized us with his stories. Most impressive was the speed with which he maneuvered the narrow hallways and constant swaying of the train with his cane.
My favorite was the Corsica born, French raised, Canadian educated, multi-lingual Bali resident world traveler. In the late sixties, she said she had even traveled down the Amazon River with just her guide.
A modern-day Agatha Christie could definitely weave a murder mystery around these characters.
There were also stunning landscapes all around us. Like a virtual picture book, America unfolded before our eyes. These were the destinations I had imagined as a child. Through our picture windows, we had front row seats to the greatest nature show in America.
And nature performed with fiery sunrises and sunsets that exploded across the sky, and rainbow colors that spilled out from the horizons over the landscapes. The High Desert swept before us with shades ranging from mocha to amber to sienna and to russet. One could imagine silent cowboy ghosts and their horses, Pony Express riders and Native Americans protecting their land.
We saw golden aspens in Colorado and towering evergreens in the High Sierras covered in snow with the Colorado river meandering below. We felt the presence of pioneer ghosts with their wagon trains crossing this beautiful but devastatingly dangerous area.
We saw Ruby Canyon, once the bed of an ancient inland sea, its red, sandstone cliffs ascending 1,000 feet like castle spires. The Colorado looked as smooth as silk stained with black or green ink.
There were endless acres of harvested fields in shades of brown, awaiting winter, fields that were surely “amber waves of grain” in the summer. There were also quaint villages with village greens and Victorian gazebos. In the dark, a kaleidoscope of lights unfolded as the trained passed through major cities.
As we were nearing our final destination, the cobalt blue waters of the San Francisco Bay shimmered in the sunlight. Seeing this last page of our virtual picture book was like nearing the last page of a fine book. There is a sense of loss, a sense of melancholy. But, just as with a good book, one remembers the characters for a lifetime. I knew I would never forget my colorful fellow passengers or the stunning natural vistas.
I would also remember the little girl of eight or so standing at a railroad crossing with an woman friend as we rolled past. They had heard the whistle blow and had stopped as the crossing gates came down. Since the train was moving slowly, I was able to see the child wave to me the way I had waved at her age to passengers so long ago. I saw her head turn to follow us.
Was she thinking of faraway destinations as I once had? Was she listening to the same rhythmic click, click, clang?
Perhaps she, too, decoded the sound as I had: “Come aboard!”
Contributor Marti Skarupa lives in Sun City with her husband Joe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org