Trains are notorious for being behind schedule. At least Amtrak trains are notorious. My husband, kids, and I have experienced that on numerous occasions: broken down engines that required a LONG wait and a “tow” home; stopping and waiting for a cargo train with more seniority to pass us, on their way to delivering goods; and then weather that delays or slows travel.
It’s not so bad, unless you need to be at a certain place at a certain time. Especially at Christmas, since it doesn’t get postponed for delayed trains. But sometimes being behind isn’t so bad at Christmas, either. And that’s what the following story is about—a train and some passengers moving on a pre-ordained schedule, while God was working out His own. At Christmas.
If you’ve always enjoyed train travel and taken some rides, you’ll appreciate this story. If you’ve never ridden a train, you’ll still appreciate the wonder of it all, and, if the feedback I’ve received is any indication, you’ll want to book your next cross-country trip on one!
A Heavenly Timetable
Andrea Arthur Own
After plunking himself next to me at the breakfast room table, my husband, Chris, gave me The Look, the one warning me his overachieving brain had hatched another big idea. “How about breaking from our normal Christmas traditions this year to take a train trip to Seattle and then across the country to Milwaukee to spend Christmas with my family?” he asked.
I grinned. Now this was one of his better ideas! We were both captivated by a train’s magical, romantic allure. With two young sons, ages six and two, I knew romance was unlikely, but I hoped for magical. I didn’t have to think twice. “Let’s do it!”
Chris delved into trip planning, and on December 21, we all boarded Amtrak’s luxurious Coast Starlight in Los Angeles for the first leg of a seventy-four-hour odyssey. When the train departed the station, we were already enraptured and delirious with anticipation.
We spent the first day learning to dine, balance, and promenade successfully without being decorated by our food, ricocheting off narrow corridor walls, or rebounding into another passenger’s lap. Moving between the jostling cars also required a new skill set. Our boys erupted in belly laughs as they perfected their train legs and learned how to buckle themselves into our sleeper compartment’s top berth. We relished hours spent in the spacious lounge car playing games, learning magic tricks, nibbling fancy snacks and Christmas chocolates, and surveying breathtaking landscape. By day’s end we felt like train travel pros. And we were in heaven.
In Seattle we departed the Coast Starlight and boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder to journey east. When we stopped in Spokane around midnight, I was grateful to be ensconced safely in a heated sleeper since the outside temperature registered below zero. But my cousin’s winter train trip horror story of his Amtrak breaking down and toilets freezing over made me slightly uneasy.
In Spokane we remained on our train and awaited the arrival of another Amtrak carrying connecting passengers from Oregon. Assured the wait would be short, we went to bed thinking we’d sleep through most of Idaho. But when I drew aside our room curtain at sunrise, the “Spokane” station sign greeted me. We hadn’t budged an inch. Our train was now six hours behind schedule, and we languished for another three hours before the awaited train finally arrived. After those sleeper cars were carefully attached to ours, we departed.
We soon crossed the Washington-Idaho border, turned northeast, and zipped across the Idaho panhandle. As we neared the entrance to Montana’s Glacier National Park, alabaster snow lay around us in all of its dazzling, virgin state. Only an accumulation of deer tracks in several areas near the rails revealed life stirring amidst the powder-cloaked ground. Towering evergreens bore mounds of snow on their outstretched, bowed limbs, inviting us into their secluded winter wonderland. To us Southern Californians, it all looked so…Christmassy!
When we emerged from the pristine backwoods into a sprawling meadow, a sprinkling of rustic log cabins balancing geometric-shaped snow stacks greeted us. Some single-story cabins were swaddled in snow to their eaves. They appeared to be hibernating contentedly, patiently awaiting their owners’ spring homecoming.
The only thing distracting us from this breathtaking spectacle was our slowing train that soon screeched to a stop. We peered out windows in curiosity before learning that the rail switches had frozen, which meant rail switching had to be performed the old-fashioned way—by hand. To accomplish that feat, the engineers would shovel through snow and then chop out ice binding the tracks to access the switches.
My husband and I locked eyes. Quick mental calculations confirmed we wouldn’t make our scheduled arrival of early Christmas Eve. I hastened to our room to verify the heat still worked and then tested our toilet’s water flow. So far so good.
After two backbreaking hours spent hacking and scooping in freezing temperatures—while most passengers munched snacks in train car warmth and admired the sublime scenery, and I test-flushed our toilets several times—the crew safely completed the rail switching, and we were once again on our way.
But some fiercely agitated passengers became persistently vocal about their displeasure. Many were making train connections in Chicago for passage to East Coast cities, and now they’d likely arrive too late to enjoy Christmas festivities with their families.
Yet as their agitation level increased, our family’s joy skyrocketed. The train crew didn’t have control over the weather, and we knew they were doing their best to get us safely to our destination. Our boys certainly weren’t keeping track of time. This was an adventure! And I was determined not to allow a schedule failure to derail our enjoyment. Doggone, if we ended up spending Christmas Day on that train, I’d be telling our boys Bible stories and leading them in caroling! Couldn’t these complainers be grateful they didn’t have to endure frigid rooms and frozen toilets?
Finally, to avoid hearing the escalating, sometimes salty passenger complaints, Chris and I ushered the boys into our room and shut the door. It was already after dark on Christmas Eve.
As we rolled through North Dakota under a crystal clear sky, I was mesmerized by the spectacle outside our window. A full moon illuminated the ice-clad, iridescent prairie for miles, transmitting an ethereal appearance to the far-reaching landscape. The voluminous orb engulfed the ebony backdrop, its light blotting out any surrounding starlight. Powerful. Magnetic. Blinding. Fearsome. Its incandescence bored through my eyes right into my soul.
The dazzling star guiding the Wise Men to the King flashed into my mind. Was that light they followed with such urgency so glorious and mesmerizing? So…intimidating? A tangible presence of glory invaded my senses. But instead of joy, my heartstrings reverberated with an unexpected, disquieting fusion of humility and fear. I felt exposed. Reflexively, I looked away and lowered my eyes. “No wonder the Wise Men immediately fell on their faces and worshiped him,” I murmured. “They didn’t have a choice!”
The light remained with us as we departed North Dakota and crossed Minnesota and Wisconsin. It illuminated the rails for miles. We felt bathed in it. The sense of glory and power remained, and the fear soon melted into a soothing sensation of divine, protective love. It was the next best thing to a caroling Heavenly host! At 2:00 AM Christmas Day, we arrived safely at our destination.
We’d already received our Christmas present, though. The Creator’s finger had been displayed across three thousand miles of dazzling panorama. Even in the “dead” of winter, we witnessed signs of life bearing testimony to his presence.
If the train had been on schedule, we would have arrived during daylight hours and missed the radiant Christmas Eve moon reminding us of that miraculous night that forever changed the world. The night that truly gives meaning to Christmas Day. We would have missed the peace and magical events that often seem mundane to jaded eyes.
Although there was celebration with family yet to be enjoyed, our hearts overflowed with the magical gift of our Christmas train, which traveled on its own, heavenly timetable: late, yet right on time.
May you all enjoy your own “magic” this Christmas. In fact, be on the outlook for it!
God enjoys surprises. J
If you’re interested in reading more family friendly Christmas stories, pick up your own copy of this year’s Chicken Soup for the Soul Joys of Christmas book. This story, and many others, will keep you laughing and smiling this Christmas and for many years to come!
So, until Monday, may your week be full of blessings that you receive and give, your heart be full of joy and thankfulness, and your days be filled with laughter. Build a little heaven in your life right now, and watch your heavenly garden grow!
When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on earth. ~ A. W. Tozer
Image by Google and Andrea Arthur Owan