It happened 52 years ago, when I was a chubby 6-year-old. My mother pinned two signs to my pinafore, one with my name and address, the other aimed at kind-hearted strangers: DO NOT FEED, it ordered.
Thus humiliatingly labeled, I was entrusted (for a dollar tip) to the care of a kindly railroad porter for my journey from New York City to my grandmother's home in Massachusetts.
It was my first train ride, and it instantly hooked me on travel by rail. All it took was the conductor's sing-song "All abooooard," the lonely wail of the locomotive whistle and the wheels clacking and jolting under my green, plush-upholstered seat.
I've covered countless railroad miles around the world since then, and I still love trains. I say this despite having endured three-hour delays in unheated cars in below-zero weather, sweltering days crossing America's fruited but wilting plain with no air conditioning and, most recently, seven power outages on one 15-hour trip.
No matter. When you're hypnotized at age 6 by the rhythm of the rails and clucked over by a soft-hearted porter who, despite your warning labels, slips you ham and cheese on doughy white bread (gourmet pickings for a kid who knows only whole wheat), you're hooked on railroading for life. Hence my conviction that, when train travel is good, it's very, very good -- and even when it's bad, it's not really horrid.
What has changed over the years is the mood of my train travel. I no longer cruise the aisles exploring all the wonderful "train stuff" -- ice water spigots, long nests of tiny, cone-shaped paper cups and seat backs that flip up and down. Now, as a harried Washingtonian, I zero in on the one most wonderful bit of train stuff there is -- the sleeping compartment. It's a secluded world that rocks as soothingly as a cradle, a compact and private world where frazzled travelers can tuck themselves away for a brief but blessed time.
This is first-class cocooning, and I revel in it.
Of course, you have to be a train person to understand all this. On my yearly visits to my mother in the Midwest, for example, there's no question that I'll travel on Amtrak. This totally bewilders my husband. I've stopped trying to explain the lure of the tracks. He'll never understand. He's not a train person.
A true train person nods enthusiastically when I expound on the good solid feel of a sleeping compartment. It's a feeling that's all around you in heavy, stainless steel fixtures, in carpeted walls and ceilings and in the calming curves -- circles, oblongs and arcs -- that comfort and enfold you. From the high, domed ceiling, inset with long tube lamps, to the columns of soft lights that swell on either side of the mirror and the smooth rounded edges everywhere, there's not a sharp, harsh angle in sight.
For purity of design, the reading lamp deserves to be enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art. Boldly art deco, with a pleasing lozenge shape, it's made of frosted glass with a plump circle of clear, thick glass, set off-center, in its curving base. Elegant!
But for sheer poetry of line, nothing can match the folding sink. It is total perfection in stainless steel, beginning with the ease with which you release it from its deep niche in the wall. A slight pressure on a handsome S-shaped latch, and the five-inch-thick sink lowers gently to your hand. It may be oval or round, but it is absolutely and cleanly perfect, its fine-grained steel buffed through the years to a satin sheen.
The spigot, in a wide, blunt triangle shape, is flanked by flat, winglike faucets, reminiscent of a Valkyrie's helmet. Unseen, beneath the spigot, is a curved slot through which, when the sink is raised, the water surges with a satisfying rush to the tracks below. Another candidate for a museum pedestal.
My recent trip from Washington to Chicago is a good example of a "when it's good, it's very, very good" trip, beginning with a friendly welcome from the sleeping car attendant who gave my vouchers for dinner and breakfast (included in the first-class ticket price) and offered a morning wake-up call, along with juice and coffee.
Those amenities over, I eagerly began my cocooning: I slipped the door shut (admiring its solid, no-nonsense latch); slipped into sweat pants and slippers; uncapped the complimentary bottle of white wine; and propped up my feet on the toilet seat lid. Then the luxury of deciding whether to read, to watch the scenery roll by or to lean back, eyes closed, and give myself up to the soothing, hypnotic rhythm of the rails.
An hour and a half later, rested and dressed for dinner, I enjoyed a steak in the dining car. My three table companions were returning from business conferences and had opted for the train to unwind in uninterrupted, private time.
Happily, our steaks were cooked right to order, the pumpernickel rolls were hot and crusty and the carrot cake was sinfully rich. Things are not always so uniformly excellent, so we delighted in our good fortune.
Then back to my compartment. By then most passengers had tucked themselves away. The corridor of the sleeping car was narrow and dimly lit. The dark, zippered curtains swung heavily as the train swayed. All was hushed. Even the pulse of the wheels was muffled by thick steel and heavy draperies.
As I turned the handle to lower my bed, I marveled at its engineering. Such a bulky object; yet it descended with smooth, heavy grace and snapped into place under a simple but highly functional hook. The windowshade, too, glided in its tracks with solid assurance. It was a rigid shade bordered by a wide, metal strip, and as I raised it up and down several times, I admired its tautness, remembering battles with my flimsy, flapping shades at home.
I fell asleep somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania. Just before I finally pulled the shade, I darkened the compartment and peered into the night. Under a scimitar moon the landscape stretched out in a spectrum of blacks and grays -- deep black hills mounded against a pearl black sky. The train's lights, reflected on the roadbed, created a band of sooty, gray light that ran alongside, as if were paralleling a moonlit stream.
As we rounded a curve, I heard the far-off whistle and saw the headlamp of the locomotive cutting through the darkness up ahead. It was a moment that a train person savors.
Twice during the night I was gently bumped awake by brief stops in Ohio. In the hushed corridor I heard muted voices and the soft thumps of luggage being stowed. Then all was quiet, and I burrowed back into sleep as the train throbbed on.
At 6:55 a.m., I awakened to dark, flat fields. We were on time, nearing Lima, Ohio. In the distance, the sky was faintly lightening. Like water, color -- smudgy bands of blue-gray and apricot-pink -- spread slowly above the horizon. Close up, however, it was still dark. A few dim yellow lights shone here and there, probably in kitchens of scattered farmhouses.
Then, directly below my window, as we pulsed past, was a scene that made me gasp: a plain wooden building with a simple sign, "Cafe." It had one window, a dull square of mustard-yellow light. An empty car was parked outside. Amazingly, I had glimpsed, ever so briefly, a melancholy but powerful setting that might have been a painting by Edward Hopper.
For the next half hour, under a changing sky, the scenes outside were a parade of paintings and movie sets. Hunched on my bunk, I watched, fascinated.
I laughed out loud as a fantastic roadside restaurant burst brightly from the darkness. Watermelon red with white gingerbread trim, it was brilliantly spotlighted and looked like a gaudy Victorian valentine. There wasn't another building, person or car in sight, which lent an air of the absurd to the garish, lonely scene.
Moments later I again caught my breath, for just then the sun broke over the horizon. Pink-gold light flooded the fields and illuminated the spare, clapboard farmhouses so that they glowed with the soft, angled light that infuses Dutch landscape painting.
Then, suddenly, I was gaping into a vast, black pit so deep that the sun wouldn't strike the floor of it for several hours. It was a stone quarry, incredibly huge -- as big as eight football fields and about 150 feet deep with sheer walls. In the early-morning cold, rivulets of water had frozen in icicles that clung like a ragged gray shroud to the face of the dark rock. The floor of the quarry was on many levels -- huge, flat mesas -- with a deep black pool at one end, mirroring the steep cliffs. There was an otherworldliness about the scene that made me shiver, as if I were glimpsing an alien plain or a sinister Well of Sacrifice of the ancient Mayas.
It was just as well that at that moment my wake-up coffee arrived.
After breakfast with two lively young people on their way to a Chicago shopping spree, I hurried back to my compartment, where -- away from demanding telephones and housework -- I read a fat novel for two heavenly, guilt-free hours.
All too soon, the Chicago skyline appeared. Time to put on my shoes and gird myself for the outside world.
On the station ramp, I turned to look back. I felt as wistful as I had when I was 6 years old -- leaving behind all that good train stuff.
Barbara Morris is a freelance writer living in Alexandria.