Bitten by the call of the wild

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Travel is addictive. The more you leave home for pleasurable experiences, the greater the pull becomes. Isn’t that the essence of addiction? Now 21 months removed from my former day job, I learn just how true all of this is. Only two weeks ago I returned from a 9,147-mile circle of North America by rail. Yet here comes that old tug.

It comes at unexpected moments. Tonight, by virtue of being married to a successful businesswoman, I accompany her to Track 20 of Washington Union Station, where a BNSF Railway business-car train is parked for several days of Washington meeting and greeting (thank you very much, Amy Hawkins).

But it’s not this train that bites me. I’m nursing my wine, trying to make small talk, when from the corner of my eye, through the half-lowered window shade, I see a train entering the station behind an HHP electric locomotive on one of the lower through tracks that tunnel beneath the Capitol to points south. It’s Amtrak’s New York-Miami Silver Meteor.

The electric motor uncouples. I peer from reception car “Fred Harvey” into the first of the three Meteor sleepers. Hmmm, that could be me, I tell myself, then look up to smile at the people around me. My fellow guests of BNSF, Washington insiders all, engaged in cocktail talk concerning government policy and private school admissions, are oblivious to all this. They work too hard and are too rational to be bitten by the call of the wild.

Two P42 diesels go by down there for the outbound Meteor. I think of the distinctive sound of a P42 whistle, unlike any diesel whistle I’ve ever heard, so sweet that it acts as a sedative, a sleeping pill, if you’re close behind the head end all night.

I ask myself, what’s the tug here? We’re just back from two days of heavy sweating in New Orleans. The weather here in northern Virginia is gorgeous. Yet I know full well what’s at work: The thrill of departure. The launch of a new adventure. Anticipation of what you’ll see when you raise that window shade at the first suggestion of daylight.

This calls to mind what John Shedd Reed told me 40 years ago, when he was president of the Santa Fe Railway. He said that as a kid, his family would travel by way of the California Limited to Pasadena from Chicago every summer to visit his grandmother, whose late husband had founded Marshall Field department store and established Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

The anticipation of the train trip would build for months, he said, until the night before departure Reed literally could not sleep. Imagine a dam, under pressure from the weight of more and more water pressing against it, until it simply bursts. That, my friends, is the anticipation of adventure, the addiction to travel, the call of the wild.

You mean we’re not all like that? I sure am. When the Silver Meteor begins to move, on time to the second at 7:30 p.m., I look up, turn to Cathie and say, “Dear, we should probably leave.” — Fred W. Frailey

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