As a young teen, my husband Daniel traveled on Amtrak to St. Louis Missouri with his parents and five siblings. When he spoke of this trip many years later, his fondest memories were of staying up all night in the sleeper car rocking to the rhythmic movements of the train, watching the Texas landscape flash by, playing Gin Rummy as the train clicked along, and trying to pick up girls with his older brother in the various cars. He remembered that trip as one of the greatest of his childhood, and he looked forward to the day when he could share the magic of traveling by train with his own children.
We’d been married 12 years, and had a four year old son, when Daniel was first diagnosed with throat cancer. A year later, with radiation therapy and a life altering surgery behind him, Daniel received his 3rd cancer diagnosis--and the prognosis was not good. As a consequence of the urgent need for surgery immediately following his second recurrence of cancer, we postponed a birthday trip we planned for our son Grayson. The revised itinerary scheduled us to head out by train for a trip to Disney Land the week after we got the third bout of grim news regarding Daniel's condition. The discovery of new cancerous cells meant we needed to make a choice; postpone the family trip once again and schedule further tests at MD Anderson immediately, or hop on the train and set-up the additional tests for when we returned from California. Daniel's desire to create life-long memories with his family, combined with the outside chance that we might be looking at our last chance to take this trip, made the decision for us--we went for it.
Amtrak goes from Austin to LA, and we booked a sleeper car for the trip. As the time to leave home neared, the thrill of taking the train out shined even our excitement about our theme park destination. The anticipation of stepping onto that platform, and beginning our journey, eased the fear and uncertainty of what lay ahead for our family. Daniel was so excited to share this experience with Grayson and me.
Due to an accident that delayed our train, we waited for hours at the station near Cesar Chavez. We made the best of it and hung in there, worried that if we left for even a few minutes we’d miss the train. Our patience paid off, and we gleefully boarded the train at 3:30AM. The three of us loaded into our cabin, which was the wide one at the very back of the train. The trip to San Antonio was quick. We were still awake when we passed through South Austin and within a block of our house in old downtown Buda-- we were all so excited to be on the train that sleep was unnecessary. The adrenaline was flowing and we were on our way!
I’ll never forget seeing the “back side” of so many different places in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The views of West Texas, especially the Pecos River, were breathtaking. Despite the pain that was becoming a part of everyday life, Daniel enjoyed every second of that trip. The absolute joy on Grayson's face expressed exactly the hopes Daniel held close to his heart for his only son. Grayson was in love with everything about the train: the rocking, the loud bangs, the sweet staff in the dining car who fussed over him, the bunk beds he called home for two days, and most of all the spectacular views through our picture window. Our little boy was under the spell of the wonder of rail travel.
We began that trip 5 years ago today, and Daniel passed away one month later. The memories created while we rode down the tracks as a family are indelibly imprinted on our hearts. I am forever grateful that Daniel and I were able to share that experience with our son. That trip on Amtrak will always hold a very special meaning for us, and the sound of the train flying by is always a reminder of an absolutely unforgettable and treasured experience. Grayson, now 10 years old, remembers this trip as his favorite vacation--outranking England, Lego Land, Fiesta Texas, and a Caribbean cruise. When packing to leave for a trip, Daniel's son doesn’t care about the destination; he just wants to know if we can take the train to get there.