The distant green mountains of North Carolina are speeding past my train window. I am eating an omelette, drinking coffee, watching America go by at eye level.

The train whistle screams. Two long whistles. One short. One long.

That’s whistle code. It means we’re approaching a highway grade crossing. Whistle code is the law. All trains traveling upwards of 45 mph are required to sound their horns this way a quarter mile before each crossing.

These are things you learn in the dining car.

I have a thing for trains. Always have. When I was a kid, I was one of those annoying little redheaded boys obsessed with locomotives. Some boys were into dinosaurs. Others were deeply committed to Richard Petty. My thing was trains.

I owned all the toys, of course. I had miniature versions of famous locomotives like the Super Chief, the Flying Scotsman, and the City of New Orleans. Also, I could make all the train noises with my mouth. Still can.

But my family didn’t ride trains. We changed our own motor oil for crying out loud. All I could do was park my bike at train crossings and fantasize when trains blew past.

This is why riding trains is a big deal for me. Sure, I realize trains aren’t as flashy as air travel. They aren’t even efficient in our current Jet Age. A commercial airliner averages speeds of 575 mph. This train rarely exceeds 47 mph. But slowness is precisely why I love trains. Trains are laid back.

Yesterday, I boarded the Amtrak’s Crescent No. 20, which left from New Orleans bound for Philadelphia. I almost missed my train because of traffic on the interstate. I arrived in a frenzy, sprinting through the station, and finally reached the platform with three minutes to spare.

I was out of breath. My leg muscles burned. I was stressed. And since I’m used to dealing with embittered airport people, I was prepared to be cussed out by Amtrak officials for my tardiness, and, at the very least, to be groped by TSA officers.

But none of those things happened. Instead, the Amtrak guys were all waiting for me. Hanging out. Smiles on their faces. Everyone seemed almost glad to see me.

“Wondered when you’d get here,” said one employee with a laugh.

They already knew my name, too. “You must be Mister Dietrich,” my attendant was saying, leading me to my sleeper car. She wore a facemask, her eyes were grinning.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I said over and over again.

She waved me off. “Aw, relax, sweetie.”


I am a frequent air traveler. People in airports do not tell you to relax. In LaGuardia Airport, for example, you arrive two hours early to stand in a 49-mile line alongside clinically depressed persons while TSA officers strip search elderly people because someone’s insulin pump triggered a Code Orange security lockdown.

At no point does anyone call you sweetie. The main motto of the airline industry is: “Hurry the [bleep] up, you [bleeping bleeper].”

But on trains, the attitude is “Relax, sweetie.”

My sleeper cabin is the size of a walk-in closet. The toilet facilities are made for a Ken doll. But I slept great last night. Apparently, I sleep better on trains than I do at home. Your body gently jostles back and forth. The ever constant clacking beneath your bones is hypnotic. The occasional soft whine of the whistle isn’t bad, either.

In the middle of the night you sometimes awake and gaze out your windows in a dream state. You see hillsides with distant cattle. You see the stripe of the Milky Way above you, which is perfectly visible out here because these are the sticks.

In fact, that’s the greatest part about trains; they run through the hinterlands. Trains aren’t like interstate highways. Interstates are concrete worlds with Burger Kings, Best Buys, Starbucks, Shell Stations, Red Lobsters, and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

On trains it’s livestock, old cemeteries, clapboard chapels, mountain tunnels, industrial yards, and brick downtowns from bygone eras, back when entire cities built themselves around railroad depots.

I’m on my second cup of joe, finished with breakfast now, wondering why the world keeps speeding up the older I get.

Soon my train is approaching a rural Appalachian neighborhood with faded doublewides and rusted cars on blocks. The whistle sounds. Two long. One short. One long.

Outside my window are kids straddling bikes, parked at the crossing. The kids all wave as we rocket by. I’m waving back.

I wish you could see how giddy they are.

One redhead looks a little like me. I know exactly what that hopeful boy is thinking, too. He’s waving his little arm, thinking: “One day, I wanna ride a train.”

One day you will, kid. And you’ll never get over it.


  1. Christa Gettys - July 9, 2021 8:31 am

    I took the Empire Builder from East Glacier Montana to Chicago, then another Amtrak from Chicago to NY (State). I worked that entire summer of 93 as a Jammer in Glacier national Park giving tours in my antique red bus (number 79 if anyone rode with me) My avatar is from 93 as well lolol That first half I road coach with a gaggle of other Glacier workers and tried to sleep upright, blech!
    I went to the glass car to see the view and nearly choked to death on the only place you were allowed to smoke back then! Not worth it, too stinky, cancery and smokey! I’d thought I’d be smart and save money bringing my own snacks- that I ate within about two hours. The junk food bar was meh. The smell from the dining car was divine! I swore when I took the train again I was going to take all my meals that way!
    It was late night in Chicago when I switched to a sleeping berth!! You described the sleep perfectly! I’m pretty tall for a gal, 5’9, but I still fit, I was thrilled with a toilet and sink in my room. I forgot my camera on the train with a 36 roll of pictures in it and never did get it back, I tried. I’ve forgotten what all the folks I was friends with look like w/o those pictures.
    I slept the entire way from Chicago to NY and was woken up early to disembark…how lovely that was!

    I enjoyed it so much. Leg room, a lovely view from my seat, I wasn’t crammed in like a triple packed sardine. No TSA or anything back then, but I didn’t like flying, it was boring and claustrophobic.

    Last time I flew was 2006, I will never fly again. Beyond TSA, all the extra fees for carry on as well as how much your under packed suitcase costs, and I can’t wear a mask. Childhood trauma has made the past year and half my own personal living hell!!!!

    If I can’t drive, I’m taking the train. I’d rather take a train anyway. I think you are more refreshed when you get there.

    My son was and at 20, still is, just like you. Trains were and are his everything! We bought him every single thing related to Thomas the Tank Engine until he was 12! We have I love toy trains 1-2-3, every Thomas movie until they made them weird (I only like the live action) My son has never heard George Carlin swear lolol Or Alec Baldwin get in trouble (sparkle sparkle sparkle Mr. Conductor) He has no clue that Ringo is the name of the beatles singer lol They are all narrators to him. We have gone to train shows all over NY, We had a HUGE train store here in western NY, sadly they retired. It was amazing!! My son called it , The Big Train House. I can;t remember the real name. We’d go out there as a day trip. He’d play with the Thomas tracks and trains, watch the ‘real’ trains in the train room and as they chugged all over the ceiling of the HUGE store. I’d look at all the wooden toys and trains for him, the Brenda Breyer model horses, porcelain horses, Yankee Candles, and the massive Christmas tree ornament collection for sale. We’d buy a few pounds of the best fudge I’ve ever had (made by the owner’s wife I think) to much on on the way back home (and for a week after, that stuff was brilliant and so rich!)

    We’d take him to train crossings all over the state to wave at the trains. As a kid living in Bergen NY I’d wave to the cabooses (the 70s and 80s) and the guys always waved back, they actually would look for us kids!!

    BTW, trains are a favorite for autistic boys, they are on set tracks and that seems to give them the structure they want to play with. They can use their imaginations but still feel the structure. I laughed when we learned this about five or six years into his life. He’d loved trains since he was born and would hear The Hogwarts Express on the TV, Once his vision got better he loved that scarlet train lol He had his first Thomas track at about 18 months (maybe earlier).

  2. Jil - July 9, 2021 11:45 am

    The favorite part of my vacations was when I was on the train going and coming from vacations with family. Sleeper car was home. And you’re right, it’s like family on board a train. From the moment you step onto that step to the moment you get off, you are welcomed into the cocoon of train traveler’s. Sleeper car was snug but big enough for me and my camera and I were glued to the window looking out over the landscape as towns, countryside, fields, plains rolled by, trying to capture the lives of the folks who lived there. Trains are the best vacation ever. 🙂

    • Sharon E Brock - July 9, 2021 1:24 pm

      My granddaughter and I made a trip from St. Louis to Chicago and back five years ago. What a blast that was. I would use trains every year if Amtrak stopped in Kentucky but they don’t so I have to drive.

  3. Debbie g - July 9, 2021 11:58 am

    Planning the train ride😀😀😀😀thanks Sean Love to all!!

  4. Jan - July 9, 2021 12:01 pm

    Haven’t been on a train in a long while. One of my favorite hazy memories is an overnight ride on a train with my grandmother and little sister … how I would love to do that again. Now I am the grandmother!

  5. Karen Holderman - July 9, 2021 12:03 pm

    Riding a train has been a dream of mine. You have reminded me of doing that. My friends find them tedious. I view them through your eyes. Thank you.

  6. Nancy Crews - July 9, 2021 12:11 pm

    ❤your writing.

  7. Pat Deas - July 9, 2021 12:12 pm

    I love trains also ! Growing up in the fifties in Montgomery Alabama within a block of very active tracks . My sisters and I could hear the trains approaching from a distance and would hop on our bikes and head up the hill to wait for it at the crossing just to wave at the man in the caboose. I can still smell the cattle cars and see the colorful box cars if I close my eyes tight. We had a Aunt that lived in Birmingham and Mama didn’t drive so several times a year we would leave from the beautiful old station on the Alabama River in downtown Montgomery and head north on the Hummingbird! Such wonderful memories,thanks for rekindling them. Just received three of your books from Amazon and can’t wait to dive in.Happy Trails to You !!!

  8. Paul McCutchen - July 9, 2021 12:17 pm

    I agree with you on trains. Haven’t ridden on one since the third grade but I remember. TSA is also a treat with me because I have a plate in my neck and two artificial knees. I have figured out a train tour a number of times but I am afraid it is like the same dream of taking a Harley to Sturgis. Probably will never happen.

  9. Bill Dennis - July 9, 2021 12:26 pm

    Great column (again)! Growing up in my little town, the most exciting thing we did on summer nights was go to the train station to watch the Silver Comet come in. But years ago they pulled up most of the tracks, and our town hasn’t been the same since. Really envy you for getting to do a train ride … except for having to go to Philadelphia!!

  10. Jerry McCloud - July 9, 2021 12:31 pm

    Another good one …!!!

  11. Allison Gilmore - July 9, 2021 12:43 pm

    Sean, I have a 20 year old red-headed grandson who has always wanted to take a trip on a train. His very creative parents recently planned a family vacation to New Orleans. The parents flew from Atlanta to New Orleans, but they allowed my grandson and his 18 year old sister to take Amtrak for that journey. They loved every minute of that 12 hour railway adventure. And they told me that when they arrived to check in at the Atlanta Amtrak station, the folks there were just as friendly and easy-going as you described. Three cheers for friendly Amtrak staff and three cheers for redheads who love to ride trains! 💙💙💙

  12. Jeanette - July 9, 2021 12:54 pm

    I also love trains. I always go alone. Not because I want to, but haven’t talked anyone else into it so far.

    • Cheryl Andrews - July 9, 2021 1:15 pm

      Sean, I love trains too. In our city of Augusta, Georgia there are still tracks in the middle of town. It can be annoying for most people in cars to have to wait on a long train, but I don’t mind.
      Because I love trains!

  13. Karen Erwin-Brown - July 9, 2021 1:04 pm

    Train ride from DC to Birmingham after the blizzard. husband and then 10 year old. Moonlite Snow scene outside window in Anniston . Tank nearby from armory. Eerily beautiful. Slow paced for sure. Our porter was very kind.

  14. Kathy Vadeboncoeur - July 9, 2021 1:06 pm

    Living in Greenville, SC. I have taken the train to Atlanta several times. Also took the train from Tuscaloossa to here & Atl. Lots of Cutzoo everywhere but I loved it!!!

  15. Leigh Amiot - July 9, 2021 1:09 pm

    My first Amtrak train ride was from Charleston, S.C. to Jesup, GA. I got on just before sunrise and fortunately I had a seat on the eastern side. I was offered a pillow, but didn’t need one—I got to see one of the most glorious sunrises ever on that trip. That was about forty years ago. Lovely memory, thank you, Sean!

  16. Barbara - July 9, 2021 1:27 pm

    Rode the Hummingbird from Brewton to Birmingham once–what a treat!

  17. Steve McCaleb - July 9, 2021 1:36 pm

    Railroad tracks are the roadmap to to the REAL America’s heart and soul.Notice I said nothing about GPS……and yes I realize I am a dinosaur. And proud of it.

  18. Dusty - July 9, 2021 1:39 pm

    Thank you Sean for another great column. For years upon years I’ve wanted to travel by train across the country. At 52, one day I’ll stop being that kid waving at the train as it passes by and I’ll take the time to climb aboard.

  19. Dr. Dennis Stalvey, aka Preacher Dennis the Storyteller - - July 9, 2021 1:40 pm

    One of the senior year highlights of high school was the train trip to Washington DC. There were two cars for the class, one for boys and one for girls. The girl’s car was the last one on the train; no caboose. Our chaperones asked for two male volunteers to ride on the girls car as body guards, especially when the train was moving slowly through towns and train depots. Every male hand went up immediately. John Lane and I raised both hands and were selected. When it came time for the girls to change into their pajamas, we two body guards went to the rear end of the train. We were standing on the platform watching the crossties pass under us and feeling the spring night breeze blowing in our faces. After a while the conductor opened the door and asked us what we were doing. We told him we were waiting on the girls to change their clothes and enjoying the light rain and breeze blowing in our faces. The conductor laughed and said, “Hell, boys, that ain’t rain. That’s where they are flushing the toilets on this train.” I still washed my face twice when I shower.

  20. Lulu - July 9, 2021 1:42 pm

    Oh Sean…loved this train ride with you! The only trains I’ve ridden were in Spain and they were absolutely horrific! My husband & I stood in the passageway all the way! Amtrak is lovely though and a treat. They are remodeling now and wow…love the looks and updates…talk about awesome. I wish I could take a long, long trip in one! What a treat. Thank you for this beautiful train ride with you as my guide.

  21. Frances D Lester - July 9, 2021 2:12 pm

    Oh, Sean! You and Arlo make me want to ride the train again! The views into back yards and sometimes windows are so real. Last trip was in the early 60s– need to plan another soon!

  22. Suzi - July 9, 2021 2:13 pm

    I see a train trip in the near future with my grandson , thank you Sean!!!

  23. MARGARET Ruth KLARNER - July 9, 2021 2:43 pm

    You make me want to take a train ride!

  24. Robyn - July 9, 2021 3:16 pm

    Someday I want to ride a train…thanks fir the reminder!! You are the 💣 Sean!

  25. AlaRedClayGirl - July 9, 2021 4:20 pm

    Trains have fascinated me since I was a kid. I would really like to take a train trip some day (the train rides at Dollywood don’t count either). Your story just may make my wish move to the front burner from the back.

  26. Lynn Carol Owen - July 9, 2021 4:25 pm

    I love trains too. Part of that is because we would take the train up to Chicago to visit my grandpatents. Fond, fond memories of those trips. You took me back in time to a very happy place. Thank you.

  27. wfsuga - July 9, 2021 4:33 pm

    I used to ride the Southern Crescent in a sleeper room from Orange, VA to Atlanta when I was in prep school in Virginia. The train didn’t have a regularly scheduled stop in Orange so the station master would have to raise a flag to let the engineer know that there was a passenger who needed to get aboard. I loved it. Your description of the train ride at night gazing out of the sleeper room into the night sky and countryside brought back some fond memories.

  28. Connie - July 9, 2021 4:41 pm

    Taking a trip via train is on my bucket list. I’m going to make it happen one day I hope. Thanks for taking us along on your journey.

  29. wfsuga - July 9, 2021 5:08 pm

    When I was in prep school in Virginia I used to ride in a sleeper “roomette” on the Southern Crescent from Orange, VA to Atlanta. Orange was not a regular stop for the train so the station master would have to run up a flag to let the engineer know to stop because there was a passenger to get aboard. Your description of nighttime in a sleeper room is spot on and brought back a flood of great memories. The stars, the passing countryside, the waving kids. Train travel is such an adventure. Thanks.

  30. Susan - July 9, 2021 5:33 pm

    Beautifully said. We love train travel. It is not about the destination, but the ride.

  31. MAM - July 9, 2021 6:41 pm

    Most of my train rides have been overseas. My mom and I traveled in Europe one summer, almost 60 years ago, and our primary mode of travel was trains. I met a good-looking young Frenchman on one, and we wandered around Rome together, before we went our separate ways never to correspond or see one another again, but it was a memorable trip. A trip between Ankara and Istanbul was also a treat with my husband and two daughters when I was older. One of the last train trips I took was with our older daughter, close to 25 years ago, and it was quite the adventure. A train bridge had washed out, so we were transferred to buses to get around the break and then climbed aboard another train that would end up in Prague. We then took some short-haul train trips to other towns and cities before returning to Germany to head home. Thanks, Sean, for bringing back memories!

  32. Judith Powell - July 9, 2021 6:58 pm

    Thank you for such a poignant piece! I so clearly remember my first train ride 😁 Our kindergarten teacher took us on maybe a 20-mile round-trip journey, and it was the most brilliant thing any of us could imagine! We were transformed, suddenly addicted to the sounds, sights and rhythms you mentioned. It was Heaven, and we never wanted to go back. I’ve had the pleasure of riding several trains since then, all fascinating. But there was something about that inaugural journey 😉 Thanks for reminding me of that wonder and excitement 💗 And thank you for so graciously sharing your talents with all of us!

  33. Linda Moon - July 9, 2021 8:16 pm

    I’ve never been on an Amtrak but I’ve on the Grand Canyon Railway. A redheaded boy was on that roadtrip and Railway with his granddaddy and me. Now, the redheaded young man is on The Appalachian Trail and has hiked approximately 1600 miles. He looks a little like you, and…like you…he’ll never forget the train trip and the Trail. I’m waving to you both right now, and I wish you guys could see it!

  34. Linda Moon - July 9, 2021 8:24 pm

    P.S. I “researched” too late after my post. If a student of mine had done this, they’d be reprimanded. It appears that the Grand Canyon railway is an Amtrak, after all. I’ll blame my mistake on no autocorrect for stooopiditey!

  35. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 10, 2021 1:03 am

  36. Phil Jennings - July 10, 2021 11:23 am

    You’re an old soul. I don’t know your age but your writing brings out your traditional, dependable values I long to see in people.
    Slowing down, observing life and being aware of what’s happening around you is how one enjoys life. Your writing is helping me do just that.
    Memories are popping up in my head and the past is one of which I am proud. No regrets.
    Thank you for being who you are and sharing it with us.

  37. Donia - July 10, 2021 2:56 pm

    This brings back fond memories. My Daddy was a railroad man; he retired from Southern Railroad (later it became Norfolk Southern). Daddy didn’t work inside the trains but instead traveled state to state, working outside in the blazing heat or freezing cold at crossing signals. However, he got a “pass” each year for my Mother, sister, and I to visit relatives in Kentucky. Those rides from Alabama to Kentucky were magical for this little small town country girl. I dearly love trains because of my Daddy.

  38. Marsha S Hinnen - July 10, 2021 4:12 pm

    TY, Sean.

  39. Holley Calmes - July 10, 2021 7:56 pm

    Adore riding the Crescent. I go from Toccoa GA to Philly. But I’d like to know something. It sounds like you could actually see people in the small North Carolina towns…kids on bikes, etc. There’s only 1 Crescent per day, and if I leave from Toccoa at 10 p.m., going north, I’m lucky. I can’t see anything but traffic lights and guard lights throughout North Carolina. Likewise, coming home, we’re asleep all the way through North Carolina, having left Philly at 4 p.m.. I arrive in Toccoa at about 6;15 a.m. if it’s on time. Pitch black all the way. Maybe I read this wrong, but how come you get to see cute stuff in North Carolina when all I see is nighttime? 🙂 I do love riding the train, though.

  40. DONALD L. HICKS, SR. - July 11, 2021 1:52 am

    Sean, I am an old railroader too, although I retired as a worn our AF pilot having gone higher and faster than most. My maternal grandmother was a dispatcher for the SAVANNAH & ATLANTA RR and THE GEORGIA & FLORIDA RR where the tracks crossed at a small berg called TORBIT, GA. I used to spend every summer with her and it took many days to get used to the big steamers going by at night just 4 feet from the depot building at the intersection of the 2 RR tracks. When I was 8 years old she taught me the railroad Morse code and I would send the dispatches for her at night to give her a break. Unknown to her, as she passed in 1944, it led me to Seeking an electronic engineering degree and an occupation in that field in my later life. My wife and I have been happy together now for more than 6 decades and she puts up with all my varied interests, from trains to transistors. I so enjoyed your trip description, as I was determined to take my family of 5 on a train trip, eat in the dining car, do the sleeper, etc., but that will have to be the subject of another time. I am 85 now, and have many, many stories, and wish I had an Avenue to share them, so I hope it comes soon. Thanks again for bringing back thousands of great memories from an old bold Pilot.
    BARTLETT, TN 38134-5507

  41. Bill Harris - July 11, 2021 1:25 pm

    Thank you Sean

  42. muthahun - July 11, 2021 7:30 pm

    Somewhere, I still have a cookbook from the Seaboard Railroad with recipe for peanut soup… that would serve hundreds! I was in my 20’s the first time I took the train from Boston to Florida and slept in a roomette and ate in the dining car and was treated to the same railroad hospitality you describe. Civilized. Sit back and read a book, watch the country fly by, stop at depots, not all of which have been torn down or “modernized”. I remember one in KY with stained glass, old wooden benches, and the sun beaming down on the most perfect “Charlotte’s Web” inside the armrest. Time to ride again. I’m reminded that I’ve missed it! Thank you, sir.

  43. Barbara F. Harrington - July 11, 2021 8:20 pm

    I love a train ride. A track from Montgomery, Alabama to Winter Park, Florida. Wonderful trips. Wish we still had it here.

  44. Helen De Prima - August 9, 2021 2:09 pm

    I grew up on trains; my dad was an executive with the old Louisville & Nashville and took me along on many of his business trips. Now we ride Amtrak and love it! We’ve ridden from Boston to Seattle, south to New Orleans, and t as far as Trinidad Colorado on the Southwest Chief. Yes, Amtrak has its problems, like aging rolling stock and waiting on sidings while freight trains claim priority on the tracks they own, but train travel is still magical and increasingly the best way to go for a multiple of reasons.

  45. Allan Wood - November 10, 2021 10:21 am

    I remember “The South Wind” coming through
    Troy, going from Chicago to Miami in the 70’s. Always wanted to ride. Maybe someday…


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