TNSoul Mate

Fathers & Guns


Center City



Painting Eyes


Icons of Affection


Blue Moon





Blurry Pictures

Entirely Myself

Preface & Reader Response

It is not what we see, but rather what we think, feel, and integrate of what our senses tell us that matters.




by Jerry Murley

Trains run through me as complex and strong as the network of rails entwining the face of earth. [1] My thoughts and sensations of passenger rail travel are continuous, interconnected, and too purposeful to overlook. My Irish grandfather, the Memphis yard master, would well know this complicated web of links and switches.

Though I took one short train trip from Germantown, Tennessee, to the Memphis Zoo in the first grade, it was not until about 1958 that I took my first long train ride. My mother, Elizabeth, describes the journey this way:

"Jerry was about nine years old, and Deb was about seven years old. Gerald was on a housing project in Houston, Texas, with partners Wallace Johnson and Kemmons Wilson. On one of Gerald's trips to Memphis, the three of us rode back with him to see Houston and see the kid's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Murley, Sr. After a week in Houston, Deb, Jerry, and I boarded a train for a return to Memphis. We boarded the train late in the afternoon. What a trip!

"The train was not too bad. We had some good seats on leaving Houston and had just settled in reading and eating when the train made a stop. We suddenly went from a quiet trip with no other children to a large group of black college-age boys and girls. They were all returning to their college in Palestine, Texas, after a holiday break. They all took Deb and Jerry under wing and entertained them; they were so nice to them for that 140-mile part of the trip to Memphis.

"After the students left us, we had our pillows and were ready to nap our way to Little Rock, Arkansas. In Little Rock we changed trains and pillows very late in the night. We arrived at Memphis Union Railroad Station at 8:00 a.m. My brother-in-law, Johnny, picked us up and drove us home to get some real sleep in a real bed that did not sway back and forth, stop and start, and produce that constant clicky-clack, clicky-clack sound."

The giant leap in my train enthusiasm began in Europe in spring of 1972. Taking a train was just part of everyday life in and around London. While hitchhiking from London to Florence, two young women kindly put me on an overnight train from Brussels to Sraussburg so that I could get some sleep. In Italy, and later that fall with a Eurail pass, I traveled the length and breadth of Europe by train, often traveling overnight and sleeping in a shared train cabin open to whoever took a seat first. The clicky-clack sound that annoyed my mother was the soothing rhythm of home to my ears. I felt safe and cozy sleeping, eating, reading, writing, and conversing with strangers on trains. Views by rail of the countryside and the hidden facets of cities were incomparable to any other form of distance travel.

* * *

Often times my wife, my son, and I took extended vacations together. Almost as often, the journeys transformed into unexpected mystical tours. It would be difficult to find this sort of experience during a routine week at the beach. The key was not to over plan nor under plan the trip. An under-planned trip would entail following strict routine or picking and booking a destination without advance reading and curiosity. Just-right planning was my wife's forte. I outlined a broad itinerary, transportation scheduling, and lodgings, and did the booking. My son provided the easy-going, wide-eyed enjoyment of the novelty and break in routine. The three of us converged on the same plane of wonderment. The root of vacation is vacate, but a vacation also means to inhabit. A great vacation is heightened awareness, a giving over, a risk-taking, and an abundance of trust in fellow beings and mechanical probabilities.

It is not what we see, but rather what we think, feel, and integrate of what our senses tell us that matters. The congenial company of others alters the experience of travel, honing and fastening our remembrances.

I recall that my family of three bought a three-stop Amtrak rail-travel pass for less than $700. The cost could have been as much as $278 each for two adults and $139 for my son. We traveled all summer on that one ticket. The first trip was from Chicago to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Flagstaff and finally Albuquerque. That was considered one stop, even though we stayed a day in Flagstaff. The second trip was from Memphis to New Orleans and back. And the third was from Little Rock to San Antonio and back. This was an incredible bargain – and it was the rail trip of a lifetime.

We flew for $99 each to Chicago and departed on the train late on the afternoon of our arrival. Though sleep in the ample upright seats was not as ideal as hoped, mainly due to sounds and lights and the restless shuffling to find comfortable head support, we slept two nights in a regular coach car on the train. By the first morning, we were approaching Denver. From Denver to Grand Junction, we spent most of the day in the spacious observation car. My son wielded a book we had bought that explained every sightseeing detail we would encounter along the route. [2] He enjoyed being the authority in the observation car, with adults coming to him for information about the world passing outside the large windows.

That second evening, west of Grand Junction, we took a more formal dinner in the dining car. The scenery was spectacular that evening. As in a dream we saw the West in all its peculiarity and glory. [3]

The next morning we were in Nevada, heading to the Sierra Nevada mountains through Reno, Lake Tahoe, and the Donner Pass. Every day the skies were clear and the pageantry out the windows rolled continuously like a perpetual John Huston movie. The train slowly approached San Francisco later in the evening than scheduled. We hardly had time to check into our hotel and walk to dinner. We were dead tired and badly in need of sleep – too tired to move much about the city.

The next morning we boarded the Coast Starlight headed for Los Angeles. The scenery along the edge of the Pacific was breathtaking. In Los Angeles we ate dinner near the train station and afterwards boarded the Southwest Chief for Flagstaff. For this overnight leg, my wife and son shared a sleeper cabin. We stayed the next night in Flagstaff, taking time for a bus tour of the Grand Canyon. From Flagstaff we picked up the Southwest Chief again to Albuquerque, where we rented a car. After a night in Albuquerque we drove to Santa Fe where we ran into a June snow storm. After exploring the area around Los Alamos and Taos, we headed back to Albuquerque and drove on to El Paso. There we made a one day foray into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, before flying back to Nashville. [4]

Spectacular in every way, the journey was relaxing as well. Nothing more strenuous than climbs at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, were attempted. Otherwise we drank in the diverse culture, cuisine, and landscape. It was an unforgettable trip composed of many small parts that somehow worked together and on schedule but without hurry. We circumvented the West and swallowed it up in one long luxurious sip. No one will ever convince me that there is a mode of travel available today that is superior to rail. All else is fast food, tedium, and wasted roadkill.

* * *

Today I am captivated by movies and TV dramas that feature train rides, especially those set in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Westerns capture some of that, but rail travel featured in BBC productions on Masterpiece Theatre make England forever the queen of passenger-rail service and appeal. You can't help but be drawn into the steady English commuter train with wooden doors on every cabin and cabins serving as venues for chance encounters, astute observations, and, occasionally, murder.

I truly pity those who have never traveled by train. They have missed one of the rewarding experiences of living in modern times.

When I left Europe, I bought a three-piece suit and told my host family in London that I was destined to be a railroad executive. Before I left, and especially my first year home, I wrote and sent many a lunatic-laced letters advocating for more passenger rail service in the United States. [1] This was all, obviously, to no avail, but I do not regret the cause, the passion, or the effort. I have gone back in time to those letters to witness and revive my enthusiasm. I don't think I could write about the past without reference to personal correspondence and journals from the period. One cannot capture the raw abandon, hope, and energy of one's former self otherwise. I say former self, but I don't think it ever really withered; it just lay dormant.

Today, my son, who rode his first train at about age nine, as I did, and who did much travel by rail in high school and college, in Europe and the Northeast, rides the train for much of his travel at home and abroad. For that I am thankful. He has trains in his veins, too. He has community in his heart. He has conservation in his head and actions. I may have lost one personal skirmish for public transportation in the early 1970s, but we may be winning the longer, broader battle for resource sharing, conservation, and sanity.

* * *


1. Youthful letter to a Tennessee congressman about passenger rail service in the South (1973).

2. Swanson, J. and Karsh, J. Rail Ventures. Sixth Edition. Ouray, Colorado: Rail Venures Publishing, 1994.

3. Amtrak's American Travel Planner 1995 (page 33).

4. Amtrak National Timetable (Fall/Winter 1994/1995).


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