Family legend has it that my grandfather and his brother hopped a freight train to travel from Illinois to Indiana in search of work. More than eight decades later, my brother and I more casually and safely boarded the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in eastern Ohio in search of history. Our ride was shorter and much more pleasant.
Over the years I've enjoyed another historic train ride (in Winnipeg) and hope to take one more this year (in Santa Fe). I've traveled with Amtrak from Toledo to New York and, heading the opposite direction, to Seattle (although on that ride I was stuck outside Minot, ND, during a freak May snowstorm). I've lounged in sleeper cars and dined in the club car or a more formal dining car. I used to spend as many afternoons as my job and budget would allow riding VIA from Windsor to Toronto, where I'd indulge in theatre or hockey. Trains in my past got me where I wanted to go. Trains in my future are far more likely to be a sentimental journey.
So, on a summer Sunday, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway became a great excuse for a family-friendly great escape along rivers and fields. We stood in the open car to feel the breeze and get closer to nature (my niece pointed out a deer darting into a cornfield). We smugly waved to cars waiting for the train to pass. We watched much of Ohio's history, from farm to brickyard, rush by us. During a stop at the local college's recreated pioneer settlement, we visited homesteads and--my favorite--the school, complete with oil lamps and slates. Then it was a short journey back to the Nelsonville station.
Although a live historic commentary lets passengers know what we're seeing (such as the lone chimney and kiln from a once-thriving brick industry), even more informative is a conversation with the conductor, a train enthusiast who knows just about every other train route worth taking in the eastern US.
Train travel, like most transportation today, isn't as glamorous or accessible as it was in its heyday. I miss the ambiance of the great old train stations, including my favorites Chicago (home to a climactic scene in The Untouchables) and Toronto (where Due South's Benton Fraser fatefully encountered the dangerous Victoria). They've lost much of their historic flavor to modernization. Still, special journeys like those offered by the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway keep the trains running for enthusiasts who want to get away, if only for an afternoon.