The Train to Chicago
Missing and making connections
by Rena Seltzer
From the August, 2018 issue
My life in Ann Arbor began as a U-M freshman, when my mom and I filled her banana-yellow Volkswagen Rabbit with most of my belongings and drove up US-23 from my hometown of Columbus. Unfortunately, she couldn't chauffeur me back and forth on holidays and vacations.
That turned out to be a hassle. The worst was when I couldn't find a ride and was reduced to taking the Greyhound. The three-and-a-quarter hour drive to Columbus stretched to seven hours, or even nine hours as the bus meandered through Ypsilanti, Detroit, and every tiny hamlet between Toledo and Columbus. I envied my friend Julie Rosen from Chicago, who could hop on the train anytime she wanted to go home.
My dad is from New York, my partner grew up outside Philly, and we both have relatives in Washington, D.C., so as my own children grew, going to the city generally meant trips out east. But last year my work required monthly trips to downtown Chicago for five months. Friends and family cautioned me not to trust the train schedule, so mostly I drove.
But in June we determined that we wanted an adventure. I would take the train out Thursday afternoon, when being late wouldn't matter, and the rest of the family would follow the next day.
My older son gave me a ride to the train station, where, sure enough, I learned that the train was delayed. Waiting on a bench outside, I struck up a conversation with an anthropologist who lives and works in India and was on her way to spend the summer in Madison. I realized that her mother, a former U-M professor, had written an influential article that I recalled from my undergrad days.
A passenger poked his head out to tell us that the train had been cancelled. Amtrak would send a bus, but it might not arrive for four hours or more.
The anthropologist, realizing that she would likely miss her
connection, quickly booked a rental car and invited me to share it. The passenger who had alerted us needed to get home to Chicago, and then a Swedish tourist overheard us and asked to join the group. The passenger's elderly father managed to fit all four of us and our luggage into his car and drove us to the rent-a-car place.
The passenger turned out to be a circus arts performer and teacher who had trained with Ringling Brothers. The Swede was an engineer for Volvo who was meeting his wife in Chicago after a conference. We talked the whole way.
The engineer had the most memorable tale. One of his favorite parts of his job is a test in northern Sweden that involves driving trucks in circles on frozen lakes. Once, the ice suddenly gave way and an entire truck fell through. The driver bailed in time, but it took quite an effort to raise the truck from the bottom of the lake.
Buoyed with stories and good cheer, the time passed swiftly. Before I knew it, the anthropologist was dropping the performer off in Pilsen, and the engineer and I headed to our hotels in the Loop.
My family's trip the next day was much less eventful. While I was in my training, they kayaked on the Chicago River and toured the Art Institute.
Our train back to Ann Arbor on Sunday was on time. It proved to be a pleasant and relaxing way to travel--but not nearly as interesting as my trip when the train never came.
[Originally published in August, 2018.]
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