Sleeping Compartment

As I have said elsewhere, my dad instilled in me that at its best, “life is an adventure”. No where is this paradigm more in play than when you are traveling, when you are likely to be…

1. Having to make decisions about what is most important to bring and not to bring
2. Seeing things you have not seen before
3. Sleeping in strange new places
4. Meeting new people
5. Making more decisions than you normally would

With the wrong mindset, travel can be cast as an arduous logistical chore, long dull hours strapped into a seat, or the discomfort of unfamiliar food, people or circumstances. But when travelling is cast in the light of adventure, I think it is a particularly great experience for kids. If life is a journey, then a trip to somewhere else is a microcosm of life’s journey, a metaphorical education on how to lead one’s life.

When I was a kid I had a lot of travel adventures in the backseat of the car with my dad driving (See “Adventures in the Wayback”) or on a plane looking out the window at the world below

But no travel experience from my youth was more romantic and thrilling than the winter holiday train trip we took several times from our home in Ann Arbor to my grandparents’ house in Binghamton New York. “Over the meadow and through the woods” as it were.

The train originated in Chicago and got into Ann Arbor in the early evening. Since Ann Arbor is a smaller town and just a short stop for the train, we had to wait for the approaching train on a cold outdoor platform and quickly drag ourselves and our luggage onto the train. The conductor then led us to our sleeping compartment – smaller than the classic train “bedroom” compartment, it was called a “roomette”. With our luggage either stowed in the baggage car or in a small “closet” in our room, the seats in the room folded down and a mattress was pulled down from the wall and pretty much covered the entire floor of the compartment. This in effect turned the compartment into one maybe queen-sized bed with a window looking out at the passing countryside.

It was that window, and the view it provided, that was the key to the exciting adventure ahead. My brother and I would change into our pajamas and get into the bed while our parents maybe had coffee or a drink in the lounge car before joining us kids under the covers. The fun was being all warm and snuggled under the blankets while being able to watch the cold winter world go by outside.

The train’s path took us from the Ann Arbor station through Nichol’s Arboretum and by the Willow Run airport some forty miles east into Detroit with a major stop at the big station there. From Detroit the train continued east, and in one of its most exciting anticipated moments, took the tunnel under the Detroit River, reemerging in Ontario Canada. The decent into the blackness of the tunnel, with only an occasional light zipping by for maybe a quarter of an our underground, was one of the big highlights for me of the train journey. After skirting along the southern end of lake Huron, the next few hours were spent in a straight shot across the farmland of southern Ontario through the town of Welland and over the famous Welland Canal south of Niagara Falls.

After Welland, the most exciting moment of the journey was crossing the Peace Bridge over the St. Lawrence Seaway to leave Canada and arrive in Buffalo New York. Picture a small boy in a darkened train compartment under the covers in bed looking out a big train window down through a metal frame railroad bridge at the icy waters below, full of small icebergs, ghostly white against the dark water. Can it get more exciting, more dramatic than that?

We changed trains in Buffalo. I remember, bleary eyed, walking through the huge main hall of the old station, staring up at the ceiling way high above me. I don’t remember the train from Buffalo to Binghamton. I think by that time I was really tired and slept soundly.

It is hard for me, looking back, to remember any more exciting moment than those trips. I took from these experiences a great love of the adventure of going from point A to point B. Even today I like the process of going places. I ride my bike to work, an hour each way, dealing with a cold morning in the winter or a hot afternoon in the summer. A twenty minute car drive to work to just get there does not cut it. And if I’m driving, I love a trip I’ve never taken before or heading to the same destination by a different route.

I still particularly love taking a train whenever and wherever I can. It is certainly not the fastest way to get across California or across the country. But being able to watch the world go by outside and also being able to venture through the different train cars inside is a double barreled adventure. Looking out the window from a plane is amazing, but then inside the plane you are packed in like sardines. Driving your car across country also presents great views of the world going by, even with the opportunity to get off your route and explore another direction, but still you are strapped in your seat.

At my suggestion, my partner Sally and I took the train from Los Angeles to Ann Arbor Michigan and spent the extra money for a sleeping compartment. We packed our own food, a big bottle of wine and enjoyed a forty-hour romantic journey across the western half of our country, through desert, over the mountains, through the cornfields. I think it set a tone for our relationship going forward, that we were going to share the adventure of this lifetime together.

As a parent I looked for every opportunity for my kids to have their own travel adventures. At age 16 we put our son on that same train across the country with his 81 year old grandma with dementia so she could visit my brother in Cleveland and her brother and godson in New York. I think that was an adventure he will never forget and a once in a lifetime opportunity to bond with his grandma before she died as well as gain self confidence from managing the trip.

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