Riding the rails with Nathan
The train’s lonesome whistle was always magical as it approached my grandparents’ home in Clifton, Illinois. Grandma’s needles didn't miss a stitch as she crocheted colorful doilies. And Grandpa’s eyes didn’t move from the latest events that captured his attention as he gripped the newspaper.
But like most kids, I was totally fascinated with the train coming smack through the middle of town – especially the one in Clifton which was just a stone’s throw from my grandparents' home. In the summertime, I’d run outside, hoping to get a glimpse of the engineer or a friendly wave from the caboose man. Grandma always warned, “Don’t get too close,” as I pushed through the screen door.
Nearly 40 years later, I'm still fascinated with trains. So imagine the ache of nostalgia as my grandson, who was visiting his great-great grandpa, ran through the same screen door, shouting “The train’s coming Grandma!” Nathan is 4 ½ and lives in Maryland. He, too, is fascinated with trains, and a massive generation gap closed for us with the sound of an iron beast roaring through town that day.
One afternoon during his summer visit, we boarded the Amtrak at Pontiac (Illinois) and took a three-hour ride south to Alton. We stayed the night there at the Holiday Inn Holidome, which is conveniently located across from the depot. Then, we took the silver rails home late the next day.
Let me just say, if you haven’t taken your grandchild on an Amtrak ride, it's time to enjoy the good life! If you're blessed with several “favorites,” take them one at a time. The convenience of a car or the speed of an airplane can’t compare to a leisurely train ride. With no traffic to fight and no jet lag, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and listen to the hungry wonder and pure delight spill from the youngster’s eyes. Because from the window of a train, the ordinary suddenly becomes extraordinary!
I’ll admit that somewhere at the root of this trip was the thought of gifting Nathan with memories of the Midwest’s simple beauty. And what better way to see that beauty than from the huge belly of a train – the farms, barns and windmills, and the thick chicory that blooms along the way like a lavender sea that never ends and the Queen Anne’s lace that becomes its graceful whitecaps. Beyond that, the splendid corn and bean fields stretch for miles and would never again look so green than through my grandson's eyes. Of course, since Nathan was only four, I realized that my silent gift would probably remain in the deepest pink of my fantasies – perhaps unclaimed.
In reality, I knew that an energetic 4-year-old boy growing up in the "video-game age" could be totally bored with an old-fashioned train ride. Just in case he got antsy, I packed his little bookbag with a few sticker-book “enrichment” activities. A soft August mist fell, and grey skies threatened to pour down torrents of rain as the train pulled away from Pontiac. But it didn’t dampen the day. Nathan was beaming with anticipation as we climbed aboard. Railing south, we settled in our seats and watched the depot disappear in the distance.
Actually the round trip was much better than I ever dreamed it would be – expanding beyond the whirling windmills and thick patches of chicory and into the captivating throes of Nathan's excitement. His little nose was pressed against the window most of the time as we rolled through the Midwest. The ride tamed Nathan’s restless energies and unbridled his imagination at the same time, as if the train itself was giving magic away by the handfuls. For sure, Nathan was smitten by a world suddenly painted in fantasy pink. And the sun was coming out!
As the train sliced through the landscape, Nathan cupped his little hands around my chin and pointed my nose out the window exclaiming, "Look, Grandma, look!" It was only then that I realized a train ride can take on a life of its own. And for a child, it breathes that life into every speck on the map that’s in its path. For example, when riding in the car, he doesn't get too excited about seeing cows now. But he looked in wide-eyed wonder when spotting a herd from the train's window. It was as if the cows were dancing in the pasture, doing a little two-step just for him as we rolled by. And when blackbirds heard the train's clickety-clack symphony, they scattered from the tree, gracing the sky in a delightful ballet.
Approaching each town, Nathan was fascinated with the train's powerful whistle as it warned everyone to stand by. When cars stopped at the flashing cross arms, they seemed to be waiting just for Nathan to go roaring by. He waved at the people inside, and got a fleeting glimpse of their excitement as they waved back. Nathan was absolutely thrilled with the train’s speed as it rattled along the tracks, going faster than he’d ever imagined. “We’re passing everything, Grandma, everything. … Look, Grandma, look! The trees are running from us,” he’d squeal with peals of laughter.
He wanted to know the name of every town we passed through. A few minutes after pulling out of Lincoln on the return trip, he noticed a pile of railroad ties. “Look, Grandma, Lincoln logs,” he said in excitement. What fascinated me most was that Nathan, in his “let’s-go-somewhere-do-something” heyday suddenly didn’t want to go anywhere; he didn’t want to do anything. Because he was already there doing it.
That short round-trip train ride held more glory for a 4-year-old boy and more enrichment than the sticker-book activities in his bookbag. But once we got home, Nathan’s tameless energies quickly went from reverse to high gear. He was ready to go somewhere, anywhere, and he wanted to do something, anything. The adventure of that train ride was already moving down the tracks of his mind and not looking back -- at least for the time being.
You know the older I get, the more I realize that we’re not sure of much in this world. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that some day, maybe when I’m no longer around, Nathan will hear the lonesome whistle of a train in the distance. And somewhere, in the mist of memory, those golden summer days we spent aboard the Amtrak will flourish like the sound of trumpets, maybe even a full orchestra – clickety-clack, clickety-clack from Pontiac to Alton and back.
He may not remember the Midwest's bean fields, windmills, or the chicory, but perhaps he will remember me, his Grandma Carol. Maybe it will be the scent of my hair, the flower on my hat or the way my eyes lit up when he cupped my chin in his little hands. In my heart, I know that something sweet will come from that trip. Because somewhere, sometime, Nathan will be rolling along in his clickety-clack world and a memory, clear as a child’s eyes, will visit the quiet of his mind. And for one brief moment, his heart will pound in his throat like an echo, green as a Midwestern summer, and it will sing, “Look, Grandma, look!”
Update: The roundtrip train ride from Pontiac to Alton became an annual venture for Nathan and me during subsequent summer visits.
This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL , 1995, and later as a guest column in The Daily Leader, Pontiac, IL.
The Holiday Inn Holidome is a Lewis and Clark Trail site right across from the Amtrak station so there's no need for transportation. The hotel offers free pink pong, foosball, basketball and has a nice indoor pool. Video games and pool tables are also available to entertain kids. Franco's Restaurant has atrium terrace seating which is great for kids -- who eat for free! For more information, call 888-890-0242.
Alton is a charming river town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. For those who want to venture beyond the Holidome, check out www.visitalton.com.