Stories about adventure, travel, and living. Hope you enjoy.

Midnight Train to Kentucky

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As a child I was a fascinated with trains. The church we attended faced a railroad track and if I hear a train whistle, I ran to the door to see the train pass. It didn’t matter if the congregation was involved in a somber prayer, communion, or song - I bolted to the front door and then returned to my seat after the caboose was out of sight.

Growing up I had taken two train rides. One trip was to visit an aunt in Massachusetts and the other to go with the grade school Safety Patrols to Washington DC. Both trips were fascinating to me as a boy...

Still growing but in my twenties, I was living in the Washington, DC area and was thinking of visiting my sister in Ashland, KY. There had been a rash of plane crashes and I was not feeling lucky those days so I thought it would be better to ride the train to Kentucky. It would be great fun watching the rolling Virginia landscape rise to the hills of West Virginia and finally follow the Ohio River to the train stop in Catlettsburg, KY near Ashland (near where the borders of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet). The train would depart Alexandria at five-thirty and arrive in Kentucky at six. I would have all day to relax and enjoy the views from the glorious rails. It would be a grand trip.

On the scheduled spring day I arrived at the depot just after five in the morning. I had not slept well due to trip anxiety but was ready to board the train hoping to nap onboard. The ticket window was not open, so I drug my duffle around the practically vacant station looking for help. Upon my questioning, a man admitted that he was an ‘Official Train Representative’ but swore no trains were scheduled that early in the morning. Finally I persuaded him to inspect my ticket. Much to my surprise he informed me that I was right, the train did board at five-thirty, but the ‘p’ indicated it would be in the p-m not a-m. I was twelve hours early. I know he did not pencil in the ‘p’ because it was typed and looked untampered. He was right and I was wrong. As he walked away he had a distinct grin creeping across his face. I felt that when he ducked out of hearing range he probably broke down into hysterics. I broke into the blahs.

I was stuck. I didn’t have money to waste on a cab fare both ways - back home and back to the station - nor had any friends that I wanted to inconvenience by asking them to come get me and then return me to the station.

To make matters even worse, the Alexandria train depot was not exactly a ‘hip’ destination in the early eighties. On a short walk through the neighborhood I found it blustery cold and unfriendly. I retreated to the station to escape the cold. Where others without a place to be were also congregating. Retrieving my bags from a locked locker, I sat and guarded them as I passed the hours. I did call my sister and inform her that I was going to be twelve hours late, meaning I was not going to be at the Kentucky station until six the next morning. There were some conflicts with my niece and nephew getting ready for school but they were going to work it out so that my brother-in-law would be there to meet me.

In a small, day pack I had brought several books so the wait would not be unbearable. There was so little business at the station that day, that when anyone walked into the facility distracted me from my book. What were they wearing, where were they going, who they were, were they riding the train or just looking for warmth, and other questioned streamed through my idle mind as I sat waiting. Soon the ‘Official Train Representative’ would make his rounds through the building and escort out anyone without a ticket. Luckily, I had one.

Five-thirty approached and my anxiety increased. Oddly enough the station was no more crowded than it had been before my train’s arrival. I did notice a few new faces that seemed to be waiting on the train or for someone debarking at the Alexandria Station. Of course they could also be villains checking their watches for when their getaway car would be in position before they robbed me. I needed to board the train, my mind was going wacko!

Finally at five forty-five the ‘all aboard’ call rang out accompanied by a list of towns that we would be passing sometime during the night. Catlettsburg was not mentioned.

Boarding a train is more lax than boarding a plane. To begin with, I guess there is no real cuing area. I could have sat outside the station, talked and smoked with the porters, and watched for the train to arrive - all sitting just a few feet from the tracks. Or I could have sat anywhere inside the station. No one seemed to care where the passengers were waiting. I chose to stay inside the station because it was winter and I didn’t smoke. After the herding call, the few of us that were boarding made our way to the platform and boarded the train. No one took our tickets or checked our bags. There was a bit of information that was given over the public address system, but it was mainly telling folks the train was departing the station, if you were going to ride you needed a ticket.

With ticket in hand I climbed the narrow stairs boarding the train. There was still no representative to take my ticket or to usher me in a particular direction. I decided to turn left and go toward the end of the train. The first car I entered had many open seats. I found an empty pair so that I would not have anyone sitting beside me.

Satisfied with my selection, I stored my duffle overhead, took off my parka, and nestled into my two seats. The seats were comfortable especially when compared to the hard as church pews that were in the train station. I figured the depot’s seats were uncomfortable to help keep out vagrants and discourage passengers from arriving twelve hours early.

The whistle blew and the train lurched forward. We were under way.

One interesting note about riding on a train is that the train’s track and traffic patterns are designed for the train to always travel unimpeded. The train yields to no one. Boats stop for trains, but trains do not stop for boats. Cars stop for trains, but trains do not stop for cars. And pedestrians stop for trains, but trains do not stop for pedestrians. Various signs, lights, and gates warn of the dangers of crossing the tracks. The train knows the crossing is ahead because they blow their whistle warning you that they are coming, like it or not. The train doesn’t even seem to slow down, but instead powers along at a normal throttle as it crosses busy intersections in populace districts.

While you are riding the train it feels regal to sit by your window and watch traffic obediently stop to allow you to pass. You can wave to the cars or instead just ignore them - after all, they are but lowly cars.

As the train picked up speed I stared out the window at the city. There wasn’t much to see, as everything was masked in the night’s darkness. I decided to read instead. Looking into my daypack I dug out a paperback and tried to focus but soon I settled in for a short nap.


The train conductor was standing over me asking for my ticket. Jumping to attention I suddenly forgot where I had placed my ticket! I searched my pack, pockets, and pouches - but found no ticket. Frantically I continued my search.

“Look in your coat pocket,” he demanded.

I grabbed my all weather parka and checked the pocket, sure enough, there it was. I handed it to him. He punched the ticket, returned it to me, and continued down the aisle validating other passengers.

“It’s a parka not a coat,” I added softly as he left. The smug conductor wasn’t right about everything.

I tried returning to my nap but it just didn’t work. I was awake enough to be restless. I didn’t feel like reading so I decided to tour the train. From an announcement I had heard earlier there was a diner car but it was a few cars forward. That was okay, I had nothing else to do. As I stumbled from one side of the aisle to the other I decided that walking on a train was similar to walking on a swinging bridge, without the consequences of falling into the ravine below.

I left my car, passed over the coupling, and entered the next car. Everyone watched as I swayed forward. Out of that car and into the next and a repeated scene. Finally I arrived at the diner car. I sat alone and ordered a cup of coffee and a danish roll. I wasn’t hungry, but I had to eat to be allowed to sit in the booth.

As I ate my dinner I devised methods to extend the time it took to eat the small roll so that I could secure my seat without spending additional money. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the dining car. People were moving about ordering food and drink and talking loudly over the noise of the track. The diner car passengers were seasoned travelers. They spoke of places and experiences of which I could only dream.

It was almost an hour before I outstayed my welcome. Three cups of railroad coffee had me alive with caffeine. As I returned to my car, I stopped to use the facilities. On entering the small room I remembered a peculiarity from my previous two train trips as a child. Curiously I watched the stainless steel toilet as I flushed. Sure enough, the toilet emptied right onto the train track. I guessed that was why there was a sign asking you not to flush while in a town. Hmm.

To return to my seat I had to dodge small children playing in the aisle. They were full of energy, perhaps they too had had a few cups of the diner’s finest roast. I continued to watch from my front row seat as the children tumbled to the cheers of the passengers. You might have thought you were watching a competition as passengers began orally scoring the children’s maneuvers. “Ten” was shouted frequently to the joy of the children. I tried to read but I could not resist the distraction. They were quite good and entertaining. I kept wondering where their parents were. Soon my questioned increased as they left the car, without adult supervision, going toward the end of the train. Maybe their parents sent them to our car to annoy us? Or then again maybe they were part of a circus act. They were good enough. Or maybe... I returned to my book.

Reading was difficult with all the commotion in the car and soon I began to over think my arrival at Catlettsburg. The stop was at six in the morning and I did not understand how I was going to know it was time to debark the train. The train did not use assigned seating nor did it seem as if they had a passenger manifest. How would they know who was supposed to get off the train and where?

In a short while a conductor was coming down the aisle toward me. I’d ask him. As he approached I thought he was staggering, but maybe it was the sway of the train. Speaking with him I understood why he appeared tipsy. He had either just finished gargling with a gallon of mouthwash or he had been drinking. The conductor told me (between slurs) that he would be responsible for waking me. No problem. Sure there was no problem for him, he did not have to get off the train at six in the morning. Immediately I realized I needed a better plan, I felt for sure the conductor was incapacitated and I could not rely on him. I was left with two options, go to sleep as soon as possible so that I would wake early or stay awake for the rest of the night. I delayed the decision (a third option) and decided to return to my book.

There were two young women sitting across the aisle from me. I assumed they were sisters because of their similar looks. Pretending to read I had overheard there names. They were of the special southern two name variety, such as Betty Sue and Linda Lou. The sisters were both short, portly, and had a distinct backwoods twang to their voice. I immediately pegged them as West Virginia hillbillies of the first order.

I tried again to read, but I could not help but glance at the sister’s antics. Betty Sue, the woman sitting closest to me, was standing in her chair and trying to access the overhead luggage compartment. Opening the bin she pulled the large suitcase down in an arc and allowed it to swing into a pendulum, missing me only by inches.

Startled, I gasped.

Betty Sue giggled at her near miss. With the suitcase positioned on their seat she opened it. Inside the simple green Samsonite case was junk food nirvana. There were snack cakes with cream filling, chocolate ones glazed with chocolate, oatmeal cream pies, and sugar coated breakfast tarts. The assortment of candies rivaled any convenience store’s selection with all varieties of chocolate, caramels, and nougats. There were chips that included mostly the corn and potato varieties. And lastly, not to be out done, was their selection of chewing gum, bubble gum, and gum drops. To wash the food down there was at least two six packs (I couldn’t keep staring for an accurate count, without being rude) of Mountain Dew, naturally.

Betty Sue thoughtfully selected her snacks and stored them in the crevice of the seat away from her sister. After securing the food vault she tried lifting the massive case toward the storage bin. She could barely raise it shoulder high while standing in the chair. On Betty Sue’s encouragement, Linda Lou joined her and helped boost the case into the bin. With the joy of victory they gave each other high fives.

I felt like applauding.

Once seated Betty Sue began feasting on her snacks. With each bite she tantalized her sister until after a brief conversation, the sisters exchanged seats and Linda Lou stood in the seat to access the suitcase.

I couldn’t understand why they both didn’t stock up while the case was down, but the whole process was repeated.

Once again, the suitcase swung freely from the bin and barely missed me. Linda Lou giggled with excitement as she opened the case. Earlier I thought her sister had laughed because she nearly hit me with the suitcase, but now I saw that was not the case. I was only a slight obstacle sitting in their path. They were only after the goods. My egotistical presence was of no consequence to them.

With a routine established, the sisters worked together to place the suitcase back in the bin. I had thought about helping them lift the suitcase but I couldn’t muster enough goodness and chivalry to overcome the comic joy of watching and listening to the sisters perform their stand-up routine. They probably gave the same performance at the diner or wherever they worked.

Back to my book I scanned a few pages before the sisters interrupted me again. They were arguing over who had eaten what. Each sister blamed the other for eating some of their favorite food and for disrupting their diet! Once again, Betty Sue jumped up on the seat to retrieve the case. Swinging it toward my nose again, I moved out of the way just in time to avoid a collision.

She delved into the case as the lights in the cabin were suddenly dimmed. It was ten o’clock. There were no reading lamps. It was dark except for the foot lamps along the aisle. Betty Sue and Linda Lou giggled continuously as they played grab bag selecting their goodies in the dark and guessing what they were.

I was in big trouble. I had two problems. The first had an easy answer, I just needed to move to the window seat to avoid the sister’s swinging their suitcase. The second problem was more critical, I didn’t have the money to spend the night in the diner drinking coffee but I had decided that I needed to stay awake. There was no way the conductor would be sober enough to wake me.

I sat in the darkness against the window as the sisters giggled, fussed, and laughed the night away.

Seated against the window. I closed my eyes and rested as I tried to think of how to stay awake all night.

Once the lights had dimmed, the car turned silent. The only noise was that of the train as it made it’s way through the hills of West Virginia. All was dark inside and outside the train. Everyone was quiet as they tried to sleep. I grew more tired as the rhythm of the rail lulled me to sleep. Trying to pass the minutes with a catnap I awoke to the sisters talking.

With a small flashlight the sisters were examining a document and discussing their work. I pricked an ear to hear better. The masquerading sisters were not sisters at all but instead best friends who worked together as scientists doing research at the university!

I could not believe my ears as they spoke of their work in chemical engineering. Evidently they were working on methods of increasing coal burning efficiency. They had been in Washington for a convention and had nothing but fun.

I felt small as I sat there in my judgmental face eating mud. I had stereotyped them as country bumpkins coming home from the big city and nothing more. Though there was absolutely nothing wrong with them being two country bumpkin sisters who worked in a diner, I was thrilled they were engineers. I wanted to apologize to them but then remembered I had not said a word to them.

It wasn’t long before they were into the food again. I looked at them in a different light but didn’t want to risk moving back to the aisle seat. They could kill someone with that suitcase!

As I awoke I realized it was daylight and the train had stopped. Trying to clear the dreams of the night I noticed the train was slowly beginning to move. The sisters were gone. I looked at my watch, it was a few minutes after seven.

The conductor did not wake me! I slept through my stop! I had to get off the train and call my sister, right now!

I grabbed my daypack, parka, and slid it to the aisle seat. Jumping up I opened the bin and grabbed my duffle. With a dash I was at the door and down the stairs. I stepped from the train just as it was picking up speed.

Still dazed I looked around. A sign posted on the depot read, “Welcome to Huntington.” Shaking my head I tried to understand what I was reading. I was in Huntington, West Virginia. I had not passed my stop, I was not there yet! I got off at the wrong station.

I ran into the small station and found a man who seemed to be an official train representative. He informed me that it was hours before the next train came by going to Catlettsburg. He suggested that I catch a ride with Lester in his cab. We might even beat the train there. Lester had a fare that was going close to Catlettsburg and would probably let me ride for free. If I was nice.

I put on all of my nice and minutes later I was on the way to Kentucky. Lester thought that we would arrive at the station just a bit after the train. The fare was a very kind executive with Ashland Oil suggested to Lester that they take me to the train station first and I wasn’t even paying to ride.

Lester weaved through the traffic along US60 as we made small talk in the cab. Lester’s family was doing fine and his son was going to graduate from Marshall that spring.

I joined in the conversation and told them about my train trip. They seemed envious of my misadventures.

Lester interrupted the grand narrative telling me that the train station was just ahead. The train seemed like it was just stopping as we arrived at the east end of the parking area. I said my thanks and shook hands as I jumped from the cab.

Thinking quickly I told Lester and Bill through the open window, “I’m not even going to tell my sister about the taxi ride.”

They answered with smiles and laughs as they left the parking lot.

Stealthily, I walked along next to the stopped train. Approaching the station I could see my brother-in-law and sister waiting at the west end of the depot. They definitely had not seen me arrive in the cab. A big smile came over my face compliments of my taxi ride.

I called out for my sister and greeted them with hugs and handshakes. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about the trip. They had called the train station to check on the schedule and were notified the train was running late. Thankfully, the delay made my arrival easier on their schedules. My sister never seemed suspicious of my approaching them from the non-passenger train cars. Huh, maybe she thought I just rode in the baggage or caboose.

I was full of energy as I put my bags in their small station wagon. As we drove away I thought of the day in the train depot, the diner car, the children tumbling in the aisle, the sisters, the condutor, and the taxi ride with Lester. I smiled and hummed, “leaving on that midnight train to Kentucky.” Sorry, Georgia and Ms Knight, the train to Kentucky was an adventure.


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