Some midnight, mid-continent, streaking across Kansas on their honeymoon sleeper, my parents made me. The Westbound Santa Fe Chief from Chicago to the City of Angeles was perfect Eros — slow love and a syncopated sleeper car. My mother had retired at age twenty-one from her wartime years as a station telegrapher on the Wabash Railroad. In the toss-up between her railroading and marriage to a young forester, my father won. But not for very long.
Though he stole my mother away from her first steamy, steel love, he couldn’t take trains from her blood. Riding the rails runs in our family like a dominant gene. Some families pass along sharpshooter eyes or stolid legs like roots — but we inherited a hobo waywardness. In my mother’s family, trains are home.
Our Uncle Clark was a hobo. My first memory of my mother’s brother was dropping him off at bleak railroad crossing in the southern California desert. Uncle Clark always carried his trombone in its battered case slung over his strong shoulders when he rode the rails. It was bigger and more valuable than his tidy knapsack full of Mother’s meatloaf and pimento cheese sandwiches. As we watched enthralled, Uncle Clark knelt by the tracks listening, as if in prayer. After a long while he leapt up, slung his knapsack, trombone, and bedroll over his shoulder; and then he sprinted off. But where was the train? Uncle Clark counted aloud as he ran, shouting with what I instantly recognized — though it was rare in adults — as joy.
Suddenly the ground thundered and, as if called, a train caught up with Uncle Clark. It slowed a little, but not enough to be caught, even by my uncle, quick and gangly as he was. Undaunted, Uncle Clark let out a piercing whistle. From the black square shadow of one boxcar shot a long arm. In a flash, my uncle grabbed it and was hoisted inside the gaping door. We never saw the other hobos; we only heard them guffawing at the show they’d given us sadly settled folk.
Not too long after that, our parents yielded to their children’s clamor to take the train from Los Angeles to the Midwest. The first night in our drawing room, my toddler brother frog-kicked my father out of the top berth and his fall knocked Mother silly. Unperturbed by the hubbub above, my baby brother and I played Parcheesi in the bottom berth. I remember most the horizons that gently curved both Earth and steel tracks as we rollicked along. The world was wide and open — and so we were. We even tuned in to my father’s lectures on the changing flora and fauna blurring by us.
“This used to be buffalo country,” he’d say wistfully as the mountains, ranches, and prairies swept by.
We imagined shaggy ghosts grazing in the sweet grass. Sometimes Father, always the scientist, would quiz us as if it weren’t summer vacation at all.
Cities and settling down seemed so silly to us when we saw the vast green mirage of corn, the mesmerized cows who kept chewing their cuds even as this thrilling leviathan shrieked alongside them. Such spaciousness, we decided, made daydreamers of animals and people. My brother and I gazed out the window at the cows, chewing our own bubble-gum cuds, our eyes half-lidded. We’d even forget to blow bright, competitive bubbles. After all, our so-called Pleasure Dome was already a cool, blue bubble.
Trains still run through my nomadic family like steel in our blood. At every turning point in my life, I trust a train to carry me along a new track — around curves, through tunnels dark as dreams, in an unbroken embrace of the Earth.
Adapted and updated from “Hobos at Heart” by Brenda Peterson reprinted from The New York Times Travel Section.
Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Great Read” and Indie Next by independent booksellers, and Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of America’s Wild Wolves,” chosen by Forbes as a “Ten Best Environment, Climate, Science, and Conservation Book” of the year. Her kids’ books are LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild, Catastrophe by the Sea and Wild Orca. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Oprah, and on NPR. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com