This line above is from a song I heard as a kid. Penned by Steve Goodman while on a train ride to visit his in-laws, and years later performed by the son of famed singer / songwriter Woody Guthrie it pays homage to the mystical call of the American Railroad experience. Of course that’s how I describe the tune today, as an adult, but back then I would have just said it was neat. I think that I may have actually taken one train ride as a small boy, two if you count the choo-choo at Disneyland, so I really couldn’t relate to Steve and Arlo’s reminiscing back in 1972.
But the melody was so soulfully beguiling that even though I didn’t quite get the message about the disappearing American railroad, it was nonetheless etched into my memory. The words and music were laced together seamlessly and Arlo’s Guthrie’s performance was subtlety powerful and had an effect not unlike that of a mother holding a child’s face in her hands, comforting him with a “trust me” look.
I didn’t get it then, but I do now. Forty years later I find myself commuting on the AMTRAK and remembering this song; and for the first time I am relating to this tune. I understand Steve’s inspiration, and have no trouble picturing him pen in hand and scribbling down these words. By the way, riding the rail to visit his wife’s family is a true story.
A train ride is an easy place to lose yourself inside of yourself. It’s a veritable breeding ground for daydreams, as peaceful as a walk in the forest or a stroll along the beach. With very little effort you can be totally alone even while surrounded by a crowd. Isolated within your own thoughts, you watch America whiz by through the window you’re staring out of. Nameless faces of total strangers busily and not so busily going about the business of day to day life.
This is where the fun begins for me as I allow my mind to wander, and let my imagination run free. The gentle rocking of the boxcars riding along the track hypnotizes me better than any lullaby and I dream dreams unencumbered by rules or logic. I can place myself into any scene flying by me. Each framed for a nanosecond before replaced by the next one down the line. It is a panoramic view of life in America, diverse in nature and interrupted only by Station arrivals and departures. It’s not hard to jump into any frame, not for me anyway. I get off on being in control of my wild imaginings. I enjoy being producer, writer, director, and star of the one hour and twenty-four minute movie that is my daily commute.
There aren’t any Pullman cars or sleepers on this run, but that’s not to say they do not still exist. You can still go cross country by rail, but in today’s world, who has the time? Or, more correctly, who takes the time? Fast cars and faster airplanes have replaced the railroad we once knew. Sometimes the cost of innovation is higher than we anticipated. We humans are too often allured by what we’re gaining to realize what we’re giving up. Sometimes progress costs more than just time and money, it costs traditions and changes the course of a nation.
Whether you’re riding from one of the Yankee states to the deep-south and the city of New Orleans like Steve did, or you’re commuting from San Diego to Los Angeles five days a week like I do, a daydream is a daydream. Whether your view is “the Mississippi Delta running down to the sea” or the shoreline from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano, an inspiration is an inspiration. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming or going, you always end up where you belong for the moment.
Today I watched the early morning surfers float atop the swells waiting for the next set to roll in. I imagined myself among them, stretched out on my 9’2” Dewey Webber. When we rolled into San Juan Capistrano I noticed the quaint little beach cottages and bungalows and I imagined sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, enjoying the peace and solitude of a new morning as the gray clouds overhead kept the air cool and nippy. And when we left SJC Station headed for my final destination and the start of my work day, I smiled past the anxiety and looked forward to the ride back with the new set of daydreams that would come with it, and the return to the waiting arms of my wife, my family, my life.