Riding The Rails With Fred Mertz—A Train Ride From Washington, D.C. To Chicago On The Capitol Limited

It may seem odd but the story of my train trip starts in Madison with a security guard at the airport groping me in ways that were not welcoming. I was pulled from the TSA line to have my suitcase opened and my over-the-shoulder bag examined. As I was having fingers slipped into the waistband of my jeans and hands sternly rubbing up between my legs I asked in probably a less than Midwestern tone what was happening.   As seconds passed an agent said it appeared that I had an ammunition cartridge in my shoulder bag.

Since I am not even sure I have ever shot a handgun in my life and clearly know I would never own one the idea that I had a weapon or ammo in my possession was simply ridiculous.   When they pulled the offending ‘weapon’ from my bag, which had produced anxiety for all, I simply said,   “That is my harmonica! I am going on a train trip!”

To some overly excitable ones that simple instrument of Americana that has made train rides so iconic had created high tension. While the TSA agents watched I simply broke into a big smile and started to put my shirt back inside my jeans, and belt on. Had I thought they would not lock me away I would have even given a quick musical riff.

It was nine days later that James and I walked through the historical Union Station in Washington, D.C., which is located only a few blocks from Capitol Hill. We were about to set out on my first real train ride.   James had done so years before but to make sure this trip was perfect he had bought a sleeper car so the journey would be relaxing and not overly taxing on energy reserves.

With our bags stowed away and the whistle blowing the gentle motion started that moved us away from the station and soon outside the city. It was not long before we had stopped at the Rockland, Maryland station upon leaving a small white church that could be viewed. There in a cemetery is the coffin with the remains of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The images of America started passing the windows. There were sections where the sycamore trees with their peeling bark seemed to be everywhere. The farms with their sloping hills of green looked lush. Horse farms with young ponies bouncing about in the late spring afternoon were as idyllic as the words make them sound. The brown of the Potomac River as we crossed it, and often rode the rails alongside it, seemed to be churning and restless.

James sat across from me and started one of the many books we had purchased on the trip. As I watched the landscapes turn from farm to small town and then back to forests he read portions aloud from David McCullough’s latest book, The American Spirit: Who We Are And What We Stand For. 

As he read portions about history and civics a long train that ran parallel to ours and carried countless cars of coal whizzed by.   Farms gave way to the mountains in West Virginia where the rocks had been blasted to make way for the rails. It was delightful to see bursting out of the seams of the rocks countless rose bushes that had found a way to live and add their beauty for train passengers.

As we entered Harpers Ferry the raindrops started falling from dark clouds that had dominated the skies of the region throughout the day. It was here that John Brown had hoped to start a slave revolt across the South in 1859.

As the evening continued we moved to the observation car and watched as the rolling hills and winding waterways and mountain views continued to pull at the senses. The whistle blew at every road crossing and small town along the way. The soft rumble and jostle of the train cars over the rails made me aware that babies must fall asleep easily on such a ride.

No babes were on this trip but a young sweet-faced Mennonite girl grinned at me showing new teeth starting to grow. She sat next to her family. I said hello and after asking how she liked the ride she smiled even more broadly and told me it was her first train ride. I said “Me too!’ She kept looking and smiling for many minutes as the train rumbled along.

James and I enjoy eating dinner later in the evening so it was perfect that we had selected an 8 PM dining car time.   As we entered the car and sat down I must say I thought of my sister, not a natural reaction at all given the severe differences I have with her. But it was the two of us that commented for years on the scene of the dining car on the Truman-like train that had stopped in October 1992 in Plover, Wisconsin, and allowed President Bush to campaign for re-election. Then the dining car was lit with white tablecloths spread over them, as waiters were ready to take orders.   Now as the Capitol Limited rolled along the darkening night in Pennsylvania that dream for me of eating such a meal would come true.

Our table mates that evening were a longtime married and retired couple from Ely, Minnesota. The conversation flowed, as she was a former employee with a state library associated with the workings of the legislature. The topics of their past train rides and our gardens and past experiences of one kind or another were effortless. The food was really very good and 90 minutes into the meal, which by then had reached the dessert stage, meant that they were yawning and ready to settle down for the night. When James and I asked how the food bills were handled the couple that had traveled often this way said it was already paid for in the ticket for those in the sleeping cars. I had researched so many areas of the trip to be prepared but had overlooked that item. With a nice tip for the waiters, we all departed.

At 11 PM, per our request, Perry, a jocular and truly most helpful Amtrak employee came to put our beds together.   I had launched into The Intimate Lives Of The Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming who is a scholar of the Revolutionary period, purchased at the Library of Congress. James and I placed our books away and got ready for sleep. But that was not easy when there are sights to see such as the colorful lights on the Pittsburgh bridge that demand to be viewed.

With the lights in the car out and the conversations ended it was time to allow the mind to reflect as the dark stretches of the countryside slipped away without making any impression.   It was then I thought of people like Eric Severaid who had ridden the rails in the Great Depression. John Steinbeck was another.   I thought of how Lyndon Johnson, as a young congressman, had made it his mission to get young men out of boxcars and into jobs.

My mind went back to my Grandma Humphrey, who I was too young to ever know before she passed, who always it was told to me, had food for the men who jumped off the train near the family home in Coloma, Wisconsin. The home was near to the tracks where hoboes would jump off and after sleeping the night in the barn and assisting with some chores for food would be off again on the rails.   As the whistle blew and the night scenes passed the images from the pages of history were what lulled me to sleep.

The ride for me was sleep-inducing and I actually was so deep into slumber I had dreams. When I would stir and turn over the whistle in the night was a soothing tonic and I fell back to sleep.

I am not a morning person.   Never have been. But at 6 AM I was awake and heard others rustling about in the train car. I got ready, slipped on my shoes, and walked into the main aisle of the car and it was there I saw Fred Mertz’s double.

He was halfway into his sleeping car and halfway out. But as he stood and folded some clothes it was a sight to behold. On his head was a sleeping cap that came from the set of a Christmas Carol where Scrooge prepares for bed. On his short and round body was a sleeping gown that went halfway past his knees. It was white with thin red faded stripes. In another era, someone would have asked for his autograph. Later I would see him once more dressed for breakfast and he even had the belt pulled too far northwards with his pants pulled high.

I was not interested in food but James and I still made our way to the dining car. And that is when I thought of my folks. On each summer trip out west, there was always the morning coffee and eggs that made mom comment that the smell was so welcome at the start of another day of travel. Then she added, “and I do not have to do the dishes”. With the aroma of freshly made coffee and my first sips, everything clicked.

The eggs and potatoes were nicely prepared and the table guests this time were two men who were veterans. One of them was an African American born in Talladega, Mississippi.   He had served in Vietnam and was now an assistant pastor in California with a Baptist church. He had liberal perspectives about politics and issues and was truly an engaging person.   Soon James was talking about a poem by Hugo and the man was taking notes that he thought might make for a sermon.

After a few more hours of traveling through Indiana, we passed Elkhart which was the inspiration for the Broadway play The Music Man which my high school put on one year. Once we entered the working city of Gary it was only a short time before the journey ended in downtown Chicago.

So why does this all matter? Why does train travel still have relevancy in modern America when a plane can take a person in a matter of a few hours what an Amtrak trip does in 19 hours?

First, everything that is faster is not necessarily better. To see the small towns and villages, the streams and contours of the land allow us to connect with one another as fellow citizens.   So much beauty and perspective are lost at 25,000 feet.

Second, there is something very special about traveling with others and not being strapped to a seat in a flying tube. Walking around and sitting here and there and talking with new folks—such as the two women from New York who decided to travel coast to coast on the train just to have the experience—is relaxing.   Their destination was Seattle.

One of the women moved near me and showed me on her phone where the train was in relation to Hancock on the Maryland and West Virginia state lines. I had mentioned my interest in the place as I had come from another Hancock.   The one we would pass straddled the Potomac River with its north bank in Maryland, its south bank in West Virginia, and its extreme northern edge in Pennsylvania. We talked for about half an hour and had a grand time.

The third reason train travel is important is that it shows the connections we have in this broad nation of many competing interests.   From Maryland and the areas of economic need in West Virginia on across the states to the homes in Gary, there were homes flying the American flag.   Some were on back porches of homes needing to be scraped and painted. Others were on a pole in lawns that were manicured while others needed mowing and then baling. But each time I saw one flying it was confirmation that the tissue that unites us is still there and real.   You cannot see that from the seats of a Delta flight and it is not a small thing to witness or feel.

I cannot more highly recommend that those who read this long account of my travel by train take a similar journey.

6 thoughts on “Riding The Rails With Fred Mertz—A Train Ride From Washington, D.C. To Chicago On The Capitol Limited

  1. Charles Bieser

    I always heard that Mason City, Iowa, not Elkhart, Indiana, was Meredith Wilson’s Music Man inspiration. (“There’s nothin’ halfway about the Iowa way of doin’ things….”). Regardless, enjoyed your journey. Nothing like the train!

  2. Beautifully written piece of Americana. Nice to know that there are still trains in America that aren’t like cattle chutes. I have advised my friends to travel to Canada if they want to take a real train trip.

  3. See the Canadian Rockies from a train. Between Revelstoke BC and Calgary you’ll be traveling right along some glaciers. Unforgettable. We’re going back quite a few years here so hopefully the glaciers and the nice trains are still extant.

  4. Alan

    You should send this to Amtrak. As a rail fan myself, your description of this journey was perfectly written. I know they would appreciate reading it.

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