11/23/2008

Pedestrian story #55: AMTRAK's impromptu delivery

I had walked up to JPA Fast Mart to get a beer, as a way of taking my dog Billy for a very long walk. The kids were in bed and I wanted to exercise. The night sky was beautiful and I wanted to get used to the cold. I had a mission that satisfied many objectives, and so off I went. I walked down Cherry Avenue and up Highland before heading over the JPA Bridge to the store.

I stood in the Wayside Deli's front-yard while texting someone, and had to pull a bone out of my dog's mouth. He was in heaven. I tied him to a post next to the pay-phone while I went in.

After the mission accomplished, I began the journey home. I didn't even notice the cold anymore. On the way back, I took a right onto Shamrock, even though I was worried about walking down that road at night because of the at-gun-point mugging that happened last week. I decided to go that way anyway, because I figured my dog would keep any attackers at bay and because I really didn't want to give in to fears.

Besides, I kind of wanted to see a train.

Sure enough, as I climbed the hill, I could see a train light illuminating the tops of the trees, and the presence of a train was confirmed by the slight rumbling I could feel vibrating through the air.

Would it be an Amtrak? Whenever I see Amtrak, I get hope that maybe this world can be more like England, with passenger trains hurtling every which way with some level of frequency. I would love to be able to visit relatives via the train on an easy and reliable fashion. I also love the romance associated with the knowledge that these are strangers shuffling through our town, traveling through as opposed to traveling above.

As I approached the tracks, I still had time to cross to the other side. A man driving a van stopped before the guards came down, but decided to risk it. I could have run across, but I wanted the chance to just stand back and watch the train roll through town.

Amtrak engines are pretty ugly and beat-up. They don't look very nice, or very healthy. They don't seem to inspire confidence. Of course, my frame of reference here is England, where the trains are a little brighter, a little more colorful. Trains also travel through much more frequently, something you might imagine is more likely in a country with the population of California in the geographical footprint. There are also very few at-grade crossings. Trains occupy their own universe for the most part.

After the first engine rolled past me, its chiming quiet bells were joined by a screeching sound as the brakes were engaged. The train moved slower, and I got to see the details of undercarriages. I was shocked by how rusty and dirty the wheels seemed. I got to glimpse the insides of the sleeping cars. There appeared to be two levels, and it all seemed kind of steam-punk in a way.
I got to look inside a couple of regular passenger cars, which looked a lot like the ones you see in England and I was filled with memories of traveling around that country aimlessly.

Finally, the train stopped and I could hear people on the train! There was an argument of some kind.

Billy started barking at the train. He hadn't noticed it until it had stopped. Now, I could see a pair of feet on the other side of the train, on the other side of Shamrock. I figured that someone must have run up to the train and yelled at a conductor to move the train out of the way. The feet went away.

Then, slowly, the train started rumbling away. Billy's barks intensified, and I laughed at the train with him, glad I had walked down Shamrock. I am most certainly a trainspotter, but for a moment, I felt overjoyed to have had that brush with Amtrak.

And then I started walking again.

At the first house past the train tracks, a woman frantically walked from the front porch to the sidewalk. I quickly saw that it was the same pair of feet I'd seen, clad in white sneakers. What was going on, I wondered?

"Excuse me, where is the station? Can you please help me? They just dropped me off the train. My kids are on that train and I need them to know I'm okay," she said.

Turns out, she had been putting her kids on the train when it began to roll away from the station. So, they stopped the train at Shamrock, opened the door to let her off the train, and yelled at the window as the train rolled away: "Call the station! Call the station!"

The woman was from Harrisonburg and had driven here to put her kids on the train so they could take the journey to Charlotte. She asked me if I could help her get to the station, because she doesn't know town very well.

Of course, as you might know, there's no way to walk from Shamrock to the station on West Main unless you take the tracks, which is frowned upon by ordinance. So, I told her if she was able to walk back to my house, I could give her a ride to the station. It was a bit of a hike, up two large hills, but it was likely her best option.

She decided to take the risk of walking with a stranger, and that's how I spent my evening and the second half of my walk. I had to tell her that Shamrock was a busy road despite its appearance as a sleepy neighborhood street. She had a tendency to walk in the roadway rather than on the sidewalk.

What else could Amtrak have done? What is the procedure for this type of thing? She didn't hear the warning. But, to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere?

Along our way through the dark, we had a nice chat about trains, planes, the Philippines, Taiwan, teaching overseas. She kept trying to call her kids on the train, who must have been worried sick about her. There's no signal pretty soon after the train tracks head south out of town. She kept trying anyway. Finally, she gave up and we walked along towards Cherry Avenue and back to the house.

Eventually, her kids got in touch with her and she decided not to tell them that she was walking with a stranger back to the station, but I had to tell her to walk a little faster as she crossed Cherry Avenue as a car was fast-approaching. We go to the car, and I had her at the station two minutes later.

As I was dropping her off at the station (which was closed and would have been of no help to her if she had called) She said she thought it must be pretty cool to live in Charlottesville.

And you know what? It is.

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