In the Nose of a Locomotive, Skimming through the Dark

Article excerpt

PAUL THEROUX, the travel writer, once wrote, "Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished that I was on it."

For the people of Maine, those lines have a special poignancy, since passenger trains in this state went the way of passenger pigeons 30 years ago. It is a great irony for Mainers that if we wish to partake of the romance of the rails, we must avail ourselves of Canadian hospitality: The Canadian Atlantic Railway still carries passengers from Halifax to Montreal, and Maine is the only place where this foreign railroad traverses US soil, with four scheduled stops and two flagstops.

The only thing more wonderful than having this train in one's backyard is knowing one of the engineers who drives it. Steve Bennett has been with the Canadian Atlantic for 20 years. When I first met him about a year ago and learned what he did for a living, he suddenly became infinitely big in my eyes, and I felt young enough and small enough to slip neatly into his pocket. For a child there is only one type of engineer - the choo-choo type - and Steve's association with the railroad reawakened sentiment in me that I thought had disappeared with my boyhood.

I must have totally surprised Steve with the spirit and animation of my response. What's it like? How fast can you go? How do you know when to blow the whistle? Whew! Were these questions coming out of me? Yes, but in the voice of my 10-year-old heart. Before I knew it, I had Steve backed into a corner, and he uttered the magic phrase that won his release: "Would you like to ride in the locomotive?"

I was sure I had misheard him. I made him repeat the invitation two more times. The next thing I knew, we were waiting at the station in McAdam, New Brunswick, just over the border. It was 9:30 in the evening. Early spring. A sliver of new moon smiled in a velvet sky. A brisk chill put an edge on the clean-smelling Canadian air. From somewhere far down the rails, a whistle split the night. A riot of lights spread itself out on the curve, followed by the silver train. My heart leapt. As the train slipped into the station, I felt as if it were wrapping itself around me. I abandoned myself to it completely, following Steve up the vertical ladder into the locomotive. With every step I took up the ladder, I felt as if five years were slipping away, until I was the 10-year-old again, embracing a dream.

We were high above the rails, the roar of the 3,000-horsepower engine at our backs. …

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