When I was 18, I returned to college in Indiana with my good friend Pete after the winter holidays. We followed an itinerary that neither began where we started nor ended where we were going.
I’d booked us tickets on an Amtrak train that departed from Union Station in Washington, D.C., and my mom grumbled about driving us there, as there were several stations much closer to our house in suburban Maryland. I don’t remember what my motivations were for wanting to board the train in the city rather than from the more convenient park-n-ride stations outside the beltway. Perhaps it seemed more adventurous. I was new to travel, but I liked to think I was not: I dreamed in journeys, devoured travel books, and planned out routes across continents I had never visited. I studied languages, because I assumed they were the tickets I needed to get where I was going.
We boarded the train late in the afternoon on a cold New Year’s Day. The sky was an unrelenting steel gray. The air smelled of snow. Late nights out drinking with friends caught up with me just after the train slid out of Washington, and I came down with a cold. My head filled up, and I was sneezing, wheezing and sniffling before we even crossed into West Virginia. We soon grew hungry for dinner, but I don’t remember visiting the dining car, only that we had little money and ate the Christmas cookies my mom had sent along with us. We joked about being stranded on a train to nowhere with only cookies to sustain us. I sneezed a lot. Pete was an exuberant travel companion, and we wandered through the train’s cars as if we might be able to get somewhere else. As darkness fell the train grew chilly; I shivered in my wool sweater, and later, in my coat. I suspected a fever.
I remember climbing the steps to the domed view car, and sitting mesmerized as the train’s light revealed a slim, moving snowscape that blackened at the edges. The view of the mountains of West Virginia was like an old film. Trunks of trees flickered past in black and white. At some point in the night we tried to sleep in our seats. Between my stuffy head and inability to get warm, I remained awake for much of the trip. Pete dozed off for a while, and I remember feeling lonely when he did. I rummaged in my bag for more cookies (we were down to the last few) and tried to read a book I’d gotten for Christmas.
In the morning, the early morning, the part of the morning that still feels like night, we reached our stop: Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was eager to get off the train, get warm, eat a hot meal, take some cold medicine, and climb into the familiar cot in my dorm room. The train squealed to a stop and we waited with our bags behind some other passengers at the door, feeling the cold night air seeping in. When the doors opened, we stepped out into nothingness. My memory places us in a vast field of broken cornstalks plowed under for winter, an enormous Midwestern sky full of stars above. But surely that’s not where Amtrak passengers disembark at five in the morning. What I know is that it was cold; the kind of cold that penetrates even the warmest coats and makes your breath catch and freeze. What I know is that an Amtrak employee directed us to a shuttle bus waiting on a nearby road. We scrambled for the bus, our breath made visible in the winter darkness, and shivered into our seats. The bus driver told us we were headed for the Amtrak station, in downtown Fort Wayne. I pictured the vast train stations of Europe with all of their conveniences. We let ourselves imagine McDonalds, and our stomachs growled.
The “station” was in a strip mall. No McDonalds — nothing, really. Just Amtrak representatives, closed storefronts, and chairs for waiting. I don’t know what I had expected to happen when we arrived in Fort Wayne. The city was nearly three hours north of our little college. Did I think we would simply change trains? Were we planning to take a bus? Did I realize Fort Wayne was so far from our destination?
I think I did not.
And so when we asked about getting to the school, we were told to go to the Greyhound bus station a few blocks away. It did not open for a couple of hours. We waited. We ate the last of the cookies. Pete smoked the last of his cigarettes. When the bus station was open we lugged our bags through the frigid dawn, where we learned that a bus to our college town had to go through Indianapolis and thus would take more than five hours instead of two and a half and cost $75 each, money that neither of us had. Seventy-five dollars was nearly half of my spending money for the next 10 weeks. I remember huddling together, counting out our cash and coming up short.
We trudged back to the train station, defeated and hungry. We freaked out. Pete tried to call his mom from a payphone. We considered begging for money. We considered hitching. Pete began asking if anyone in the Amtrak waiting area was headed to the college or the town. He got a lot of shaking heads and a lot of looks.
And then, a few hours later: “Are you guys trying to get to E___?” It was another student from our school, a senior who recognized Pete. He had driven to Fort Wayne to pick up friends arriving from Philadelphia, and he could give us a ride, he said. My relief buoyed me throughout the uncomfortably jammed car ride to school: Five students, their bags, and a guitar squeezed into a tiny Toyota.
Record rains had fallen in Indiana that winter. The fields we passed on the way back to campus from Fort Wayne resembled frozen lakes; the landscape was devoid of color. I felt that the excitement of my first term at college might not sustain me through the winter months. We stopped at a McDonalds and though the three of us pressed together in the backseat with the guitar and a huge duffle bag on our laps couldn’t move to reach our wallets or get out of the car, the student who’d rescued us from Fort Wayne bought us breakfast. He wouldn’t let us pay him back when we got to school.