Tuned into trains

Let me tell you about my train trip out West. I know, you’re asking yourself: What does a train trip have to do with loft living? 

First off, leaving for vacation when you live in a condo is incredibly easy. I turned off the air conditioning and the power strip to the computer. I put our three plants in the sink and doused them with water. Ready.

Second connection: the train. Being on a train was a surreal parallel, since trains are a large part of my everyday experience at home, where I live right above the train tracks.

At home, trains are fun to watch but not so fun to hear. If I leave the windows open, which I love to do, a train going by means a long pause (depending on the length of the train) mid-conversation. I’m sure the South Minneapolis folks under the flight patterns can relate to this sentiment. Sitting on the balcony often means putting my book down to cover my ears, lest the train cause any more hearing loss. I’ve already begun embarrassingly cupping my ears during conversations in busy restaurants.

Is sleeping in a train seat similar to loft living? It is in that the train itself can make sleep difficult, though for different reasons. In my condo, the clattering of metal cars often awakens me at 2 a.m. Forget sleeping with the windows open, which I consider to be a downfall of loft living: lack of natural airflow. It’s possible, of course, that this extra-loud clanging comes from a freight train, and at this point, I feel I should clarify: I was riding Amtrak; not hopping a freight train.

On the train, noise wasn’t a problem. The problem was how to contort my 6-foot-plus frame into a comfortable sleeping position in the coach seats, which are just as luxurious as first class airplane seats (or so I was told). Being on a train is surprisingly less loud than living in close proximity to one. Sure, you can overhear people’s conversations, but who doesn’t love to hear strangers make awkward small talk about gluten-free crackers and health care? The train itself doesn’t make much of a racket while you’re aboard. You would hope that as I dozed in my seat, the roar of the engine would cover the sound of my gentle snoring, but alas, on the trip home, when my husband was travelling with me, he had to elbow me throughout the night. I probably snored in oblivion on my solo trip out to Portland. Whoops.

My favorite part of the train ride was in the dining car on the way out West. At this point, I was traveling alone, so I was seated with two adult sisters and their mother, who were traveling to Seattle, while I was headed to Portland.

“So, on the schedule it looks like at some point the train is going to split in two?” This was a theory I had been wrestling with for the past 20 hours. While the train brings out the chattier side of many folks, I’d kept my headphones on and not encouraged much conversation in the observation car.

Vivian, who explained that the family was taking the train because of her fear of flying – a sentiment dear to my heart – had been eyeing the beautiful trees and waterfalls we were passing in Glacier National Park suspiciously.  We appeared to be on the edge of a cliff.

“What?” Suddenly the preposterousness of what I’d said struck me. “I sure hope I’m on the end that someone is driving!” she said, and we all four laughed raucously, causing other strangers dining together to long for a table so instantly simpatico as ours.  We continued over the Continental Divide and Hazel took a hot pepper out of her purse and added it to her dinner. We were the fun table.

You’ll imagine my shock and glee when, back in the lounge car, an announcement came over the speakers. “We are looking for two passengers headed to Sand Point. Please get back to your seats so you are sure to reach your correct destination.” And then later, “The dining car will be heading to Seattle. The lounge car will be headed to Portland.” A conductor came through the lounge car and encouraged us to return to our assigned seats.

As I’ve retold the story, some more knowledgeable people have cut in to explain that the train stops in Spokane in the middle of the night and another engine comes. But I’m not interested in the facts. I’m more interested in the Harry Potter-like mystery of a train that housed passengers for both Portland and Seattle when I went to sleep and then carried only passengers going to Portland when I woke up. My writing group, being women of poetic images, had similar ideas to mine when I conveyed this story to them. When I broke the news about the second engine and stopping in the night, they looked disappointed. “I had imagined it not even stopping!” my friend said.

That’s how I was imagining it that day on the train. Safely in the lounge car, which I confirmed with other passengers was really headed to Portland, I thought of my new friends from dinner in their car further up the train exclaiming, “What?! That woman at dinner was right!” I wanted to go find them so we could share one last laugh over the absurdity of the train splitting in two, but I didn’t dare. I needed to stay put, lest I be in the wrong car at the fabled splitting time.

Post vacation, everything back at home was in order. The plants survived; a little temporary wilting never hurt anyone. Sitting on the balcony, I have a renewed interest in the trains below. I watch intently, hands covering my ears, but the cars always seem to stay together. So far. I’ll spot a magic splitting train one of these days.

Carissa Jean Tobin lives in a condo in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband. Her hobbies include creating humorous surveys for friends, lounging at the Wilde Roast Café, and administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to interested family members, friends, and strangers. She teaches kindergarten in North Minneapolis.