Two Trains Running

I used to travel by train. From New York to Ann Arbor, Flagstaff to Boston, Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Morgantown, West Virginia, I would watch the country roll by my window in “one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast,” to steal a phrase from Jack Kerouac. I had my own case of American wanderlust, but although I, too, had done my share of cross-country driving, I didn’t know a Neal Cassady who might take me anywhere I wanted to go. For me, then, the train was perfect. I could hit the (rail)road, watch the slow unfurling of the landscape and, in the process, meet others who were similarly predisposed. A long train trip is like a lost weekend -- you drink too much, and flirt with the wrong people, and sometimes you get taken for a ride. Once, pulling into Chicago‘s Union Station a few days before my wedding, I lost every cent I had to end an all-night poker game; 30 minutes later, I had to borrow cab fare to meet my wife-to-be.

I haven’t been on an overnight train since, but not long ago I found myself telling a sanitized version of this story to my 5-year-old son, Noah (downplay the drinking and gambling, focus instead on the sheer sensual rapture of seeing the sunrise from the lounge car of a rolling train), as we drove north on the 5 to Fillmore, in Ventura County, a former Southern Pacific branch depot that‘s reinvented itself in the last decade as the home of the Fillmore & Western Railway, whose restored equipment spans most of U.S. rail history. Noah is crazy for trains, as much as I ever was, and it’s not uncommon for us to spend a Saturday riding the Red Line or climbing on the derelict engines at Travel Town in Griffith Park. With its hundred-year-old steam locomotives, 1920s passenger cars and a 1949 dining car, Fillmore seemed a place where we might have a more involving experience. At the risk of sounding naive, there‘s something compelling about a vintage railroad, something connective, as if you’ve been granted access to another time. And if Fillmore‘s main street, with its facade storefronts and blocky brick 19th-century station house, has something of the quality of a movie set, the idea of the past retaining even a vestigial presence is nonetheless profound.

Of course, Noah and I went to Fillmore for a more essential reason: to ride. Although the Fillmore & Western supports itself by renting rolling stock to Hollywood, it also offers weekend excursions, which run for an hour or two through Ventura County’s citrus groves before circling back to where they began. We boarded a refurbished passenger train and found facing seats, while a banjo player serenaded us with “Rock Island Line.” Once we started moving, a conductor in period clothing punched our tickets, and Noah curled against the window, head to the glass. Watching his face as the train rocked along the track bed, I saw the same wonder I‘d felt at his age, when my family would take the commuter local from Grand Central Station to visit my grandparents in Connecticut -- the young boy’s fascination with machinery, the strangely fluid thrill of steel wheels on rails. “Look,” Noah said, pointing out the flashing red lights of a crossing gate, “it‘s just like ours.” He was right. The design was identical to the model my wife and I had given him for his birthday, which now stood, along its own loop of track, in his room. In fact, except for scale, there was little difference between the two train setups -- both were simulacra, elaborate amusements and nothing more.

The day we went to Fillmore, the town held its annual Rail Festival, which, in addition to trains, featured a Wild West shootout, an array of vintage tractors and a host of vaguely historic activities like panning for gold. Although, as child and adult, I’d seen hundreds of these secular passion plays, this time I came away with the unshakable sense that trains were becoming another archetype, contrived, irrelevant, both larger and smaller than life. Even Amtrak was selling its routes by invoking a distant era, when half the joy of traveling was the journey itself, and if it was difficult to see a way around this -- what is the role of railroads in the jet age? -- it was, I believed, our loss, reducing trains to the level of museum pieces, no longer vital to our lives, or to the way we see ourselves.

On the way home, I asked Noah if he‘d had fun. He nodded. His favorite part, he said, was the snack bar, “because they still have those in real trains.” The answer reminded me again of my own rail travel, and I began to imagine another train trip, when Noah would be older, when we might ride cross-country, or at least overnight. Maybe we could go to Chicago, or San Francisco, feel the rails beneath us for a while. I turned to mention it, but Noah had picked up a pad and pencil, and was drawing something full of sharp, straight lines. Only later, when he handed me the picture, did I realize he’d been after much the same thing -- creating train tracks between my past and his future, tracks that ran directly from his imagination into mine.

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