Archive for Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Childhood memories filled with train rides

March 11, 2008

I read recently about a new Sky Train developed by the Chinese to take travelers to Tibet.

To place this accomplishment in perspective, the tracks rise to 16,640 feet as they cross the Tanggula Pass near the China-Tibet border. The train is something of an engineering marvel: the Chinese had to advance the technology enough to lay stable rails on permafrost, and extra oxygen is pumped into the carriages at high altitudes.

What a marvelous adventure. Of course, I can remember when any train ride was, by definition, an adventure. I spent a fair amount of time on trains when I was a boy. A few of my family members worked for the railroad, and I've been fascinated by trains since infancy.

There's a certain amount of mystery involved in train travel as well, especially if any part of the journey occurs at night. Wisps of steam shroud the cars, and the night echoes with train sounds and the strange argot of the trainmen. Seen from inside the hushed carriages, silent tableaus glide past as reunions and farewells take place on the platform.

We moved to Kansas City from Colby, in western Kansas, when I was 5, and for at least part of every summer for the next 15 years I returned there to visit my father's family. Colby was served by the Rock Island Railroad in those days, but that railroad had no direct service to Kansas City, so we usually rode the Union Pacific to Oakley, about 20 miles away. In the early days I rode with my mother or one of my aunts, who made several trips to Kansas City each year.

Once we got a little more adventure than we bargained for, I remember. My aunt and a cousin and I boarded the train in Oakley one night, fully expecting to get off in Kansas City the next morning. Morning came, all right, but not Kansas City. We awoke, sitting still, and learned after a few minutes that the train had struck a gasoline tanker at a crossing on the east side of Topeka. There we sat for much of the day, waiting for crews to clean up the mess and dispatch another set of engines to allow us to continue our journey. As we finally got under way again, my cousin and I watched in amazement as we passed the train's erstwhile engines, blackened by the fire that resulted from the collision with the tanker.

Probably the trip that I remember best occurred when I was 10 or 11, I think. My parents decided that I was finally old enough to make the trip on my own. This was heady medicine, indeed. I remember talking with one of the brakemen, or maybe he was a porter, to ask that he please not let me sleep through my station, although I was so keyed up it at first there seemed to be scant chance that I'd ever fall asleep. I kept my face pressed to the window for much of the journey, taking it all in, but somewhere out around Junction City or Abilene I finally nodded off and, sure enough, he tugged on my sleeve as the trained glided in for its brief stop at Oakley.

In the years since I've taken other train trips rode trains across much of Europe during my military service and across much of the United States on other occasions. Each journey starts with some of that same sense of adventure that I felt on that evening long ago, when I first got to ride by myself.

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