The idea of a cross-country train trip with my five-year old was not met with great enthusiasm among friends and family.
"You'll have to sleep sitting up for three nights, if you can sleep at all."
"Why wouldn't you just fly?"
"Stuck on a train for that long with a five-year old?"
by Evan Lowenstein
I have to admit that this feedback had me considering aviation from my home in Rochester, New York to my twin sister's in Santa Barbara. But having taken cross-country train trips before, I knew the rails was the right, the best way to go west.
Especially since I'd be taking along Lyndon, my five-year old son. On my first transcontinental trip — on the Cardinal and Southwest Chief eighteen years ago — I promised myself that someday I'd share that most memorable of adventures with my own child.
Our Rolling Home
On April 19 we set out from the Rochester rail station. The Lake Shore Limited didn't arrive from the east until midnight, and I did my best to keep Lyndon awake until we boarded. He was a perfectly sized passenger for this trip. Within a half-hour he was fast asleep — small enough to lay out almost flat in the seat, his beloved toy bluebird tucked in beside him.
As we streaked west through the night toward Buffalo, I immediately began violating my own intention to eschew electronic devices as much as possible on the trip. I had bought my first GPS for the trip, and looked forward to pinpointing our whereabouts, day and night. it GPS worked like a charm, its glowing screen showing our exact location, right down to the tiniest ponds and creeks along the rails. I dozed off somewhere west of Buffalo.
The train stopping ungracefully in the middle of the night woke me up in downtown Cleveland. Outside the window was an interesting combination of Cleveland Browns Stadium, and a giant wind turbine.
The next waking moment was near dawn as the train crossed the Maumee River. Downtown Toledo was in view, and the view was gorgeous in the low pre-dawn light. Being from Rochester, I had a moment of "rust belt" pride as I soaked in the scene — the Toledos and Rochesters and Clevelands and yes, even the Detroits have a lot going for them. I looked down at Lyndon and a palpable grin was spread across his face as he slept. I noticed, though, that when the train stopped anywhere, he would stir — he really needed the motion. That’s my boy — most content on the go.
As the sun rose I took in some bucolic farm towns of northwest Ohio. Most of these towns have handsome brick train stations, but we rushed right past them.
We slowed to a stop near the Indiana border; an eastbound freight train moved slowly past us. This would be my first of several "train tummy" moments, created when a stopped train and train passing in the opposite direction make the eye uncertain as to which train is moving and which is stopped. Lyndon amazingly slept well beyond the dawn, well into Indiana.
At Goshen, Indiana the sun was up and bright, and at a slow section I witnessed a child, perhaps ten, emerge from a modest house in a sharp baseball uniform, with bright red jersey and blinding white pants. It was 7:30 am, but the youngster dashed down the steps onto the succulent green grass, headed for the car. Spring in Americana.
Lyndon had been quietly looking out the window, waking up slowly. He too saw the Chicago skyscrapers on the horizon. I ventured: "I can see the Sears Tower." After a short pause, he replied, "I already know what it looks like from a book so I don't need to see it." I tried again. "Well, what is the Sears Tower for you on a scale of 1 to 10?" Humoring me, he said laconically, "It's a 94 but I want some water."
The Lake Shore Limited delivered us to Chicago just about on time. In Chicago's monumental Union Station, the launching point for many millions of eager, excited trips west.
The Southwest Chief
We boarded the hulking double-decker, Dad straining a bit but trying to maintain the quiet strength of the Sherpa. Lyndon gazed up, mouth agape, at the car. We were assigned to the back of the train, and set up camp in the very back two seats of the very last car — the caboose. It turned out to be a fabulous place to be — a step away from the back window, which offered many a memorable view of the tracks as we whipped (or puttered) around bends, and ran fast along the straights.
I really liked the fact that our car was a mix. There was a family from Chicago, with riders of three generations and an Amish family, also three generations riding, from rural Wisconsin. This family had the single most adorable toddler I've ever seen, in a tidy little black dress and a bonnet. This kid and I stared at each other regularly over the next 2,500 miles.
At Sandwich, Illinois, Lyndon asked for a sandwich. This was merely coincidence. When we both saw the Sandwich water tower just after his first bite, we guffawed in unison. Until the Iowa border at least, every few minutes Lyndon would recollect: "A sandwich in Sandwich." Lyndon has a terrific laugh so I try to bring it out whenever I can.
Past Galesburg, the handsome home of Carl Sandburg and one of those endearing places with an old rail car in the central square, I noticed Lyndon fading. "You look tired," I said. "No," he corrected, "I'm actually only a one on a scale of 1 to 10 tired." Dad: "I don't believe you." Lyndon, without a pause: "Yeah, but I believe myself." [continued...]