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Traveling the Rails

Our adventure by rail from Chicago to Mexico City is my most vivid early travel memory. At least the part that wasn’t muddled by the fog of Dramamine. I distinctly remember mom telling us she didn’t want us getting motion sick on the train so we had better slug down a spoonful of this vile elixir. Never mind that we had been riding the train for hours with no ill effects, the first night brought out a bottle for which I only remember the single dose. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I realized her true intentions: hoping her crazy hyped-up children would finally go to sleep so she could rest as well. I guess if I was facing the prospect of traveling 3,400 miles on a clank-ety train with three small children ages 4, 6 and 8 I would probably have looked to the local pharmacist for assistance as well.

Some 45 years later I can close my eyes and  see my little-self on the platform at Chicago’s Union Station surrounded by soot speckled trains hissing puffs of steam and smoke. The smell of diesel so thick it is etched permanently into my nostrils, better enabling it to be recalled so many decades later. By the 1960’s  the last vestiges of glamorous train travel had faded in America but travel in Mexico was an entirely different story.

I couldn’t tell you the exact route that was taken heading south but according to my travel journal we passed through St. Louis. Looking at a map I assume we traveled through Texas as this appears to be the most direct route. I have always thought of Texas as one of the few states I have never been in but if my assumptions are correct I passed right through  and have zero recollection of the adventure. Sorry Texas, you left zero impression on this 8-year-old. I do know as kids we were pretty bored with trains and according to my notes I spent a good deal of my time looking for other little girls to either play with or perhaps I simply wanted confirmation that other parents subjected their kids to long days on a train headed to foreign lands with parents that didn’t speak the native tongue.

Of course I don’t know where we crossed the border stepping back in time and got on that enchanting Mexican train. The first glimpse of magic began at dinner when we were herded in mass to the dining car which was decked out in crisp white linens, sparking crystal and gleaming silver. This was the very car where I enjoyed my first taste of Toblerone and imagine my surprise to find out this was a Swiss confection and not Mexican! I believe my budding love affair with chocolate  began at the moment I ate my first triangle.

The real wonderland began when we were shown back to our seats which we would never have found without the help of the porter as the entire car had been transformed. Heavy velvet curtains now formed a tunnel behind which we found bunk beds with their own little lights and cubbies to stash our treasures. For three kids that had never slept in bunk beds this was heaven. I remember wanting to stay up and savor the experience but the gentle swaying of the train rocked me quickly to sleep behind the heavy velvet curtains. This train also moved much slower then the American trains and dad would take us out one at a time to stand in the open air between the cars and feel the warm Mexican sun on our faces and watch the world go by. I was on one other Mexican train in the late ’70’s and the experience was far different, but that story will be saved for another day.

As I can’t find a single picture from the trip to Mexico I have included this shot taken in St Louis about 2 years prior to the epic train trip. I recently asked my dad what possessed them to drag 3 kids under 8 to Mexico City. He said it was a combination of wanting to escape the cold Illinois winter and they thought Mexico would feel more “European”, what? I told him I could find a single still pictures from that trip only some home movies and he reminded me he had boxes of slides I could go through. Why did people take slides? For which he reminded me how much fun we use to have dragging out the side projector, and screen along with a bowl of popcorn. I guess I have slides to review…