Going to Chicago, Dec 1997

Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier

The train’s rolling now, and I’d best start this before it all becomes blase.

After a much too hectic day getting ready for this trip (which involved much too much garbage duty—from moving our stuff in and all), we boarded The Capitol Limited, an Amtrak train to Chicago from DC. Ours is a sleeper car, and we’re neatly stuffed into a little room that makes our house look large. At least, we can appreciate it more than many people could.

It’s an amazing experience, this train riding. You get to sit on a fairly comfortable chair or “sofa,” and watch the world go by—slowly. We’re both so tired from the moving experience, it is an even more appropriate way to get to Chicago than we’d thought when making the plan to travel this way.

We’re moving north, as I write this, and the sunset is the most magnificent I’ve seen since living on the Pacific ocean. Every once in a while, the now rural landscape will go from gorgeous to breathtaking, especially when a forest opens to reveal a river running through it, with the sun (or, its retiring light, to be more exact) painted gloriously behind it. I think we’re getting even more vibrant an experience, because most of the trees are deciduous, and we’re able to see through them to the fire-red horizon. It’s been less than an hour, this trip so far, but I’m already heartily endorsing rail travel.

This ticket includes a “full dining experience,” as we’ve been told more than once. Melissa and I probably last rode a train together when we dined on the Dinner Train, a cute old train that runs a meaningless route in the Seattle area as an excuse to serve a meal on a train. This train, although nowhere near motionless, will certainly beat the Dinner Train for stability in motion, and we haven’t even tried it yet.

Morning. Dinner was OK, as far as food’s concerned, and great, regarding the company. Train dining, it turns out, is “communal” in the same way that seating at K-Paul’s (Paul Prudhomme’s New Orleans restaurant) is. Last night, we were seated with an older couple (later 70’s) who, like more than a few people on this train, spend whatever travel time they have on trains. The guy has a hearing problem, which was evident soon after sitting down. With that, as so often happens, he had a “strong” voice. The thought of evening conversation with this couple was rather disspiriting. But, two hours later when we said good night, we felt we’d made some friends.

Hammond (has to be from the South, and North Carolina, in this case) currently owns a string of movie theaters in the Greensboro area. He started his career, however, as a doctor, doing his early studies in Philadelphia. They spend much of their lives traveling, and it sounds as if they always did. There wasn’t anything we could mention, nor any place, that they weren’t quite familiar with. Easily the most cultured lives I’ve yet encountered. For years, they made the four-hour trip from North Carolina to a box at the Kennedy Center opera house, and we’re hoping to see them there on some special occasion.

Sleeping on the train is an experience I’ve yet to have (even though it’s now 9 in the morning). Let’s just suggest that it takes some getting used to, and is probably often denied to us light sleepers.

Breakfast was more lightly attended, but our table eventually filled with a couple from Wisconsin. In fact, from a town they thought we’d know as the birthplace of the Republican party. No, we didn’t, actually. We’ll remember it for the future, however. Whatever it was.

The countryside that passes so conveniently by as we make our way, late, into Chicago, is much reminiscent of my North Dakota youth, although there are far too many people (dozens) and less than flat terrain for it to truly be North Dakota. I think we’re in Indiana at the moment. I’ll go back to watching that scenery, and, who knows, maybe dropping off to sleep—finally.

Later in the afternoon. We’re here in Chicago. Barrington, actually, at the moment. We got off the train in downtown Chicago, and then Rebecca (Melissa’s sister) picked us up. The big disappointment, I guess you’d say, so far has been the weather. Yes, there’s a wee bit of snow here and there out in the suburbs, but nothing like the five-foot levels I had imagined. Even had to take my overcoat off, as it’s just too warm to stand wearing it. Our few-day trip has been characterized by carrying too many clothes, compounded by the need for more formal wear than normal, what with Madame Butterfly at the Chicago Lyric Opera House tomorrow evening and dinner with one of its stars afterward. Which reminds me.

We’re sitting in Rebecca’s car touring downtown Chicago, when she decides to call the opera star and finalize plans. So, picture us in this car on a warm winter noon amid skyscrapers listening to the speakerphone as Wendy White tells us of her adventures so far on the Lyric stage. Madame Butterfly features the star soprano (Katherine Malfitano, in our case), together with her servant (sung by Wendy) and her son (usually played by a little girl). Recently, Wendy (reputed to be of ample figure) was talking backstage with the four-year-old playing Butterfly’s son, when the little girl’s eyes locked upon Wendy’s ample bosom. As if transfixed, the child reached out and squeezed her breasts. “Wow,” she said, “just like pillows!” Wendy fell down laughing, as did anyone who witnessed this. The other stories we’ll save for the opera fans among you.

Anyway, time to get this off. We hope holiday plans are smoothly underway for you. Our plan to bring Christmas cards with us on the train succeeded only in so far as physically bringing the cards. It proved impossible, for a variety of reasons, to actually write or address any (most of the other required items having been forgotten in the rush to the train). For the time being, anyway, please let this stand as a card from us to you for the holidays. We think of each of you as we compose and send these notes of our travel adventures, and have been encouraged to imagine that enough of you en joy reading them that we’re not bothering you too much in sending them. Let each of us have an adventure or two to tell each other when next we meet.