My grandpa loved trains. And by ‘love,’ I mean a borderline obsession. He grew up in Connecticut, raised by a florist and a Congregational minister in a pedigreed line that dated back to the original founders of New England, and of America. Grandpa became the sixth Congregational minister in that line.
But first, he grew up near the train, in a time when trains were still an elegant means of traversing the grand American continent. Frederick Bradley worked on his family’s flower farm, and looked forward to hearing the train’s whistle. To running alongside it, waving at the people inside, wondering where their journey would lead.
Grandpa told me plenty of stories about trains. As a child, I could hear the whistle, picture the dining car, watch the caboose fading away, feel the wonder of being carried to new horizons. Each Christmas for nearly forty years, my grandma would give her husband some type of train memorabilia: a model car, a painting, railroad tracks. They had a veritable fleet of electric train sets when I was a kid.
Each Christmas, Grandpa would make sure there was a six-foot-long train choo-chooing around the tree, complete with a model conductor, the dining car, fake smoke from the engine stack, and shiny red caboose. He loved to watch it go. So did I. Or maybe I simply got excited because Grandpa got so excited about the trains.
Now I’m on a real train. A train complete with a conductor, a dining car, a caboose, and people waving out the window as they journey to new horizons. I’ve been on trains before, although not often, and usually commuter trains that carry me from one big city to the next. Fancy and fast trains that don’t have the rocking rhythm of their more clunky ancestors.
This train is in Thailand, and is neither fast nor fancy by modern standards. Yet it is still elegant. The railway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was completed in 1921, and I can feel the history in this train car. The pair of facing seats neatly fold into sleeping berths. The ladder to the upper bunk doubles as the luggage storage. The doors between the train cars slide open and shut, and the step between them leaves you with a bubble of adrenaline as you step above the tracks. Polite Thai workers walk between the cars offering coffee, juice, beer, snacks. The bathrooms are shockingly spartan, but also efficient – a hole in the floor through the toilet, a shower hose and a sink to wash up.
You must talk to the people in your berth. You can’t fade away into a wifi world of virtual communication. I met two Germans, a Chinese Thai man, a French family. We muddle our way through various languages to learn a little about each other. Rob improbably strikes up a conversation in Malagasy with a woman from Madagascar, where he lived for two years.
Then it’s time to pull the curtains around each bunk. Lay under the blanket provided, and let the train rock you gently to sleep, lulled by the knowledge that you will wake up to a new landscape, with new opportunities just beyond the tracks.
I thought about my grandpa for most of the train ride, even in my train-rocked dreams. I miss him, and my grandmother who both died too young. I can hear their voices now, as if I could call them up from Chiang Mai to tell them about my journey. About their very first great-grandchild who is riding inside of me on this train.
“Brianna,” my grandma would say, in her warm but precise speech. “Do you really have enough clothes in that tiny bag of yours? ”
“Bri,” my grandpa would exclaim. “How are you? Where are you? Tell me about the train.” And so I did. In my dreams.