Stations of the Heart
Thinking about the Amtrak Writer’s Residency has reminded me of train trips and railroad stations in my past. Some of which I’ve never written about.
The country’s oldest continually operated train station is in my hometown—Jackson, Michigan. When I was going to college, my girlfriend and I often travelled by train, and train stations were sometimes places of sad parting.
After one trip, my girlfriend took a spare seat marker tag—a little stub the conductor puts by your seat to indicate where you’re going—and wrote a note on it, so I’d remember her when we were apart. After the word Destination, she wrote:
Where our hearts and souls are one."
That was 1979. We moved in together later that year, got married after that. The Amtrak stub says “Keep In Sight,” and I do. Her note is always on my shelf, where I can see it when I write. Our hearts and souls are still together, and always will be. I can hear her in the next room as I type this.
One thing that struck me is that I’ve written a lot about trains, but very little about stations. I was thinking about that last week, when I met my wife at King Street Station in Seattle during the week of AWP, the national writer’s conference. The station looks great now, after a $50 million-dollar renovation. Harriet and I lived in Seattle ten years before moving to Portland, and there were a lot of partings and reunions in that station.
Union Station in Portland is also something to be proud of. Last year on Train Day, we saw the White Bird dance company perform Le (Petite) Grand Continental with a hundred or more dancers.
It’s also where I chose to pass out free books on World Book Night. I went up to people in the station and offered them a copy of Alexis Smith’s great book, Glaciers—because what better place to read than on a train. Even the Amtrak ticket clerks took copies, and I ran out right away.
Outside Union Station. You can see the last copy of Glaciers in the bag.
The residency application also made me re-read the first story I ever published, a short piece that won a Seattle Arts Commission grant. It’s called “It Was A New Time,” and it was the basis for what became Wire to Wire.
It’s not available in print anymore, but here’s how it starts.
It was a new time and we rode slam hard, rode it on flatcars and hoppers and bulkhead flats, in empty woodchip cars, gons, auto ramps, and piggies all over the west, the prairies and dirty western towns of district nine—Kalama, Lillooet, Sutter’s Portage, dozens of towns seen from the frame of a boxcar and eyes numb past blinking. Towns of dust, where dirty kids threw rocks at the train—in laziness, not maliciously—and empty towns on the straight flat where the last lit beer sign burned 30 miles into the night. We rode quartermile track, Coe and I, seamlessly rolled rail laid eight to a measure. Every seven seconds on alternate sides of the car, we hit the end of one of those quartermile sections of rail, hit a beautiful ringing rimshot of metal and speed over cement-tied Great Slave track. But time was a fitful helmsman that summer and had not always run so new.
Those beautiful ringing rimshots that train wheels make on the track—I hope to hear them again soon.
The Jackson, Michigan Amtrak station in 2011, and me inside the station in the 1970s. With ping pong balls over my eyes. Because the "Relaxation Expert" where I worked said that was a good way to relieve stress. It wasn't—but it was good for a laugh.
Love and trains, the two great themes. "When the train left the station, it left two lights on behind..."
Posted in Trains