Train Ride Back in Time Through the Driftless

By Riley Hunter –

Have you ever felt like jumping back in time and experiencing the world from the perspective of, as the saying goes, the days when life was much simpler?

Well, I often think about it and try to jump back through the photos posted online so I decided I wanted to live it. I had to question, what’s something that has stood the test of time? It hit me when I heard the whistle’s blowing. How about a train ride? It just might do the trick, and the adventure I’m looking for!  

After booking my ticket and talking with the Amtrak representative, he told me just how much of an adventure I would be on. Suddenly, I was a little kid again. I was overcome with that feeling where you can’t sleep because you are anticipating the next day, nervous with worries of what to pack, and what it will be like while COVID is running rampant through our country. I had to let the current day’s worries leave me and trust that all the travel restrictions and precautions were in place. But to be safe, I would bring my own disinfectant wipes and minimize my interactions. 

I packed my bags the night before and woke up giddy like a little school girl. I laid my outfit out like my grandma would have me do before I slept. I had my daughter drive me to the depot and felt like I was a student leaving for college. We hugged, and I stood outside just looking at the old brick depot in La Crosse, WI that once was, or was it? I stared at the large, dark chocolate mahogany, wooden and square windowed doors. I was instantly taken back in time! The floor was an old yellow speckled tile. The large vaulted ceilings made everyone’s voice echo with excitement. The long wooden benches were filled with Amish passengers and their bags. Before me was the most eye catching, beautiful rounded dark oak ticket booth with its two ticket windows trimmed in gold with gold bars protecting the person who sits behind them. I gazed at the clock, sitting on top with its roman numerals, reminding passengers just how much time they had before they needed to be on the train.

Instantly upon entry, I saw old photos on the walls and was drawn to them. They pictured the exact same ticket booth in a cartoon format. Another four other photos dating back to the 1880’s when the first rail line was put in. Each one with captions telling you the history of how La Crosse became a crucial location for train travel between Milwaukee and La Crosse. The “swinging bridge,” as it is called locally, was built over the Mississippi River to allow barges to pass, was considered “a triumph of engineering” that opened passenger travel and kept trade going on the river. I can only imagine the amount of work the people had to do without the use of modern-day equipment we have now. These photos and the people in them started to make me think that times weren’t as simple as I once had thought! 

My excitement and anxiety was building as I sat waiting, and then it happened.  The man behind the ticket booth comes out to say that the train will be here in five minutes, to gather our belongings, and to get our tickets out and be ready to board the train. Everyone seemed to be bustling with excitement and I decided to walk out the heavy tall wooden doors to the tracks waiting area where we would board. My mind was once again taken back thinking of women in fancy dresses and men in their business suits, smoking pipes, standing under the overpass, waiting to board the train to ride it to the big city. Suddenly, I hear the train whistle blow, and realize the train is very close.  

My previous life experiences of trains had only ever been to watch them as they flew by at high speeds, making loud clacking noises. I remember as a child counting each train cart as they passed by, just wanting to hop on and ride to anywhere. I felt stuck in the small town of La Crosse. I quickly found out my expectations were not the same as my experience. 

The train was very slow to pull in and I could hear my inner child screaming “Come on already – I just want to get on the train and go fast!”  A man appeared, looking like a conductor in the movie Polar Express, wearing what I could only describe as a conductor’s hat and wearing circular glasses. Then, a woman in a long Amtrak coat got off the train and stood beside him, directing passengers to certain cars. The inner child in me was once again alive with increasing curiosity!

Not knowing what I was doing, I followed the Amish guests who were boarding, but I was directed to a different train cart door based off of where I would be exiting the train. I asked the women where I was to sit, and surprisingly learned that there are no assigned seats on the train. She told me that someone would be around to check my ticket. Everyone was to just get on-board and find a seat. I made my way to two open seats, put one of my bags in the overhead compartment, and that’s when I realized the train was already in motion. 

Suddenly, the thought that this train has seen the east and west coasts, traveled for hundreds of years with so many different passengers, caused my brain to be flooded with excitement! 

When I started this journey, I thought the train would be loud and super-fast! It was actually really quiet, and slowed down for each small city along the way. The air on the train smelled fresh as if I was standing in an open field. For some odd reason, I thought it would smell old and musty. This piqued my curiosity enough to look it up on the internet, which I found out that trains circulate the air for fresh air, every 5 mins. 

The seats were so spacious that I could fold the tray down and extend my feet out. Even with pointing my toes, I still didn’t touch the seats in front of me. The seats are made of cloth and cushioned, which made me think of  the “Goldilocks’ and The Three Bears” moment where it wasn’t too soft or too hard, it was just right. From looking around, it was clear that they were comfortable, as there were many passengers sleeping in those chairs. I was quickly pulled into the scenery. There was no snow out, yet it was the start of winter, so the trees were dormant with the dead looking landscape having its own grand beauty. 

When a passenger noticed me turning my head quickly back and forth, he exclaimed, “you do know there is a viewing cart right?” My eyes widened, and I replied … “no, where is that at?” He pointed and I grabbed my bag! I was off to find out what this was all about. In between the train cars is a place called the gangway connection. It allows a passenger to move from one coach to another without the danger of falling from the train. I can say from experience, that moving from one to the next is a completely uneasy feeling. There are two doors and vertical bars to hold on to, but in the middle space you get jostled around quite a bit. Imagine standing on a floor that’s quaking and cracking apart, or as my friend in California puts it- it’s like walking on a waterbed. You get those uneasy butterflies in your stomach. My mind takes me to the childhood game of hot lava as I have to move quickly through or I risk falling into the hot scorching lava. Then there is the coordination battle of foot placement and having to kick the door plates to get the door to open as you center your balance on one leg. As the loud door slid open, there it was! This beautifully bright upper deck train car made up of all windows and seats turned to face the scenery. If you stood in the middle, which I didn’t do long, you can see almost a 180-degree view of the Driftless landscape we call home.  In the later half of the car, there are booths with tables for eating, drawing, and playing games.  The illumination was so bright here compared to the passenger cars where the shades were drawn while people were sleeping. 

Suddenly everything went pitch black! I had my bearings with my feet on the floor, but it felt as if I was floating through the night. I could hear voices, see silhouettes of people, but I could see absolutely nothing out the windows …

Be sure to check out the next issue for the continuation of my journey.

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