One of the most enduring images to come out of the Great Depression is that of the hobo hopping a freight train to get from one end of the country to the other. Even though many of those who did so had been driven to it by economic desperation, for many young travelers the idea of hopping a train remains the ultimate symbol of breaking free. I doubt they’d much enjoy it.
For one, back during the Depression there was a sense of solidarity between the dispossessed that is sorely lacking now. Two, the men and women riding those trains were often heading towards the promise of employment, so there was some measure of hope in their hard travels. Where can you hop off a train and find opportunity now? Nowhere. Third, they were doing it out of necessity, not as an adventurous stunt. Jump on a train and cling to it all night long, only to be arrested in the morning. It might make for a good story, but is no way to live.
All night long I tossed and turned, groaning aloud every time I thought about the hurricane heading for Florida. We approached Kansas City right as the sun was rising, but only had a few minutes to stretch our legs on the platform once we arrived. The women behind me were getting off there. By now I’d determined that I wasn’t sick, sick with depression, yes, but not sick with a cold or COVID, at least not yet.
A whole bunch of riders were getting on in Kansas City. From here on out the train would be full all the way to Chicago. A family coming from a wedding occupied the seats all around me, and the adult son who was taking charge of everyone’s seat assignments and luggage sat down next to me. We rode for twenty minutes without talking, but when I asked to get by him to get to the café car, he was extremely courteous, almost leaping up to let me pass.
In the observation car, with a cup of coffee in my hand, I looked out at the passing farmland, the cornfields, barns, and grain silos, that were familiar to me, having spent most of my upbringing in the Midwest. The way the sun was splashing through the window led me to try meditating, thinking it might have a calming effect on the anxiety that was surging through me. Instead, the yellow light just flashed across my eyelids, and I could almost sense the size and shape of objects the train was passing, as if by radar.
The guitar player from Pasadena, Mark, sat down a few seats away without his guitar, complaining of the rough night he’d had. As we passed through the small farm towns, he talked about another dream he had, that of investing in some property in the country and working the land. Even though he didn’t strike me as the outdoorsy type, that seemed more reasonable than spending all his money to make a record. If I’d done the same at least I’d have a place to live, as opposed to boxes of unsold CDs that had just ended up in a landfill.
Back in my seat, I got to talking to the guy who was coming from the wedding with his family. Turns out he actually worked for Amtrak as a mechanic. Both of us had noticed that the conductor who’d gotten on the train in Kansas City had started off that morning with a full British accent, but that it was gradually slipping away as the day wore on. By the time he got to us to ask us for our tickets there was no trace of it. The mechanic confirmed it, saying yep, he’s a Chicago guy. My thought was that if he wasn’t auditioning for a part in Murder on the Orient Express at his local repertory theater then what was up with that?
When we reached Fort Madison, Iowa, we passed a replica of the fort that was one of the first established in the Upper Mississippi, and later abandoned and burned to the ground by the troops after a siege by the Sauk Indian leader, Black Hawk, during the War of 1812. It was here we crossed the Mississippi River and reached Illinois on the opposite banks.
A few hours later, the conductor, his British accent now only a distant memory, announced that we were arriving in Mendota, and not long after we were approaching the outskirts of Chicago. The mechanic sitting next to me pointed out the neighborhood where he grew up, the street where he went to high school, and even the garage where he worked, once we got into the railyards. The skyline was one I knew well, made prominent by the Sears Tower, which for a while was the tallest building in the world, and now, according to the mechanic is known as the Willis Tower.
At Union Station, we pulled into the subterranean platform area and the Southwest Chief came to a quiet halt. The first leg of my journey was up, and what lay ahead looked to be chaos, thanks to a hurricane that had formed in the Caribbean and was making its way towards my next destination, which was supposed to be Miami. At least I’d booked a place to stay for the night. When I got there, I’d try to figure out what to do next. There are always options, even if you don’t like any of them. Sometimes you need to decide what the least terrible thing is and just go for that.