An excerpt from “Shadow Rails”

In the summer of 2008, I find myself needing to travel one-way from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Portland, Oregon.  Normally, my method for solo travel would be a hunch-shouldered plane ride in coach, but this time I hesitate.  The great inconvenience of the post-September eleventh world is the airport, and I’ve dealt with one too many underpaid security guards with their please-step-back-throughs.  At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been on the Greyhound enough times (once) to know it’s not for me, so I begin to research the only option I’ve never explored.  For the first time in my life, I choose to travel cross-country by train.  I’ve been on trains before, of course, having traversed Great Britain repeatedly during my study-abroad semester of undergrad, but those trips clocked in at an hour or two and were in coach.  This time, I’ll pull out all the stops—first class, sleeper car, the whole shebang.  Nevermind that I’m an underpaid graduate student.  I want to see if the clock can still be turned back, maybe a century or more.  I want to find out where the tracks lead when I don’t meet them at perpendicular angles.

Rose-colored glasses securely fastened, I arrive at the Milwaukee Amtrak station on a late July afternoon, accompanied by my worn backpack, a borrowed suitcase, and a friend from whom I’ve bummed a ride.  Because he is a good friend, and stronger than me, he carries my suitcase into the lobby for me as I wrestle the bulging backpack over my arms.  Watching him tote my luggage, the halcyon visions of 19th century privilege begin in earnest.  This won’t be an irritable day spent in security lines and cramped airport seating.  I’m getting on a passenger train, just like Bill Hickok, Mark Twain, and the dozen other sepia-toned faces in my imagination.  I’ve forgotten the five hundred bucks I dropped for sleeper accommodations and the fact that a one-way plane ticket would have cost maybe one-fifty, because Agatha Christie never wrote about a Murder on American Airlines Flight Sixteen.

© Chris Drew 2012

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