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William Van OrnumAugust 04, 2010

“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” Paul Theroux and I share this memory, only I lived near the tracks of the Chicago and North Western.

“Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places,” continues Theroux, “a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to--like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass.”

Trains can be silly, like Thomas the Tank Engine, or have features cherished by entire cities, like the MTA stop in the Bronx next to the new Yankee Stadium.

The train I took was one-half mile long, had three dining cars, four dome cars, and a bevy of coach cars and sleepers; two engines with the might of 10,000 horses pulled everything from Toronto to Vancouver, four nights and five days altogether. The Canadian is the flagship train of Via Canada, and it barrels through forests speckled with dew-drop lakes, prairies that glow from golden canola fields, and mountains reaching two miles in height.

Like the Liturgical Year, there is rhythm and meaning to each day. Mealtimes are benchmarks for fellowship and conversation; it seems everyone is happy to talk about their life. When you sit in the last dome car and grasp the incredible momentum of mass--upon which you are but a tiny thing--you wax philosophical: How much is life like this journey? What choices do we have to truly alter the 70 years of our life? How much is determined by the rails, or by God’s will? We recognize that we have no say in the passenger list; perhaps this is why “neighbors” are mentioned so gravely in that ancient prayer. Everyone is connected.

Stations--like the one in Winnipeg, cousin to Grand Central Station in NYC, built by the same architect--represent comings and goings, departures and arrivals, starts and finishes; they represent and evoke deep feelings of separation and loss, whether parents and family, friends and foes, husbands, wives, and partners, or lost loves never to be near again on this Earth. Trains can be sad.

There may be more planes and cars but trains have inspired more songs. Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues” longs to be free like the people on the train when he hears that melancholy whistle through the iron bars. Peter, Paul, and Mary belt out “This train, don’t carry no gamblers” and The City of New Orleans will be “gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” Other songs abound.

Along the way Native Americans, living where beauty, poverty, and sickness coincide, snub the waves and smiles from the first-class passengers. How can they ever forgive? Perhaps we should be wary about telling others about the importance of forgiveness. Evils and hurts live a long time.

When we start to reflect on how it’s the journey and not the destination that count, another bar from a song echoes in our heart, “This train, she’s bound for glory/ If you want to get to heaven then you’ve got to be holy/This train....”


I would like to have a book discussion on the blog here in October/November on the topic of free will in psychology and theology. For those interested I’d ask that you try to get a copy of Mortimer Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes and dive into this exceptional work beforehand. If you can't find it at your local library, you can read it here as a Google book. As you read please feel free to discuss the book with me at ornum@earthlink.net.

William Van Ornum

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Louellyn White
11 years 10 months ago
Love this. Reminds me of riding overnight trains through Thailand and India. Through colorful templed cities, and remnants of southeast Asia's once abundant forests, people selling samosas and other local fare on the platforms, or you could stick your head out the window and shop that way. A fantastic way to see the country. But my train travels began along the Hudson, Grand Central, up to central NY. Always found train travel to be quite relaxing and always reminded of where I've been and where I'm going. That's the great metaphor of trains. Now, I'll have to try this great Canadian express!
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago
Thanks! Maybe some day I will be privileged to travel on a train in Asia. I suspect there must be switchbacks as there must be places where the train climbs mountains.

BTW, I started my journey in Poughkeepsie and took the Maple Leaf to Toronto.
The photo you see is of the Hudson station.

Hear that there are great train rides through the Western desert area in the USA.

Sometimes Via Canada has a 60% sale....and there are many trains leaving Montreal for other beautiful places in Canada.

I was surprised when the train stopped in the middle of Lake-of-the-Woods and a couple and their canoe was unloaded from the baggage car. This train will stop ANYWHERE and pick you up later if you want to go backpacking, etc. It will take you into areas accessible only by float plane or the train itself. Neat!

Thanks for writing. I'd like to learn the history of some of the indigenous people whom I saw along the way. I suspect there is great sadness in their stories.

best, bvo 

11 years 10 months ago
Bill, your beautiful meditation on trains and spirituality (and Canada) is very meaningful to me in many ways.  Growing up in a small MN town was a process for me of leaving it.  I knew from childhood (with guidance from the nuns) that my destiny was elsewhere.  At night, I'd hear the whistle of the train as it passed through my town on the way to Mpls-St. Paul and I'd dream of a life in the "big city".  From age 18 on, my life has been in cities with a part of my heart back in that little town with my extended close-knit family and Catholic parish and the summers we spent on Lake of the Woods in Northwestern Ontario.  My dad had a float plane so we travelled to many lakes and camped on many islands and peninsulas.   Our cabin was located next to a Chipewa Indian Reserve.  Over the many years we lived there we knew many of the Reserve's residents.  My dad cried when his Indian friend Allister Macalister died.  We witnessed the poverty and the alcoholism that ensured after the Canadian government  changed the law that had forbidden alcohol to the Indians.  (I think they are referred to now as the First Nation and First Peoples....not sure of this).  Yes, Bill there is great sadness in their stories.  Great tragedy.

I've always loved train travel-a trip on the Great Northern from Mpls to Seattle and then to Los Angeles via Glacier Ntl Park;  The southern route from L.A. to Mpls and many trips on the Amtrak on the Pacific Coast.   Your metaphor on trains and life is a good segue to your book discussion on free will!!
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago
Janice, interesting the many ways our lives have intersected in the past unknowingly.

I was drawn to Lake of the Woods as a college student and drove a '72 Super Beetle up there to go after the North Woods lunkers. I rented a motorboat and fished all around; as you know this lake has over 1,000 miles of convoluted shoreline and it's easy to get lost so it was a dumb thing to do. Didn't catch fish, either.

I also remember the raw poverty in Duluth, the rusted ships, cheap motels, and the echoes of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which had gone down several years before somewhere up there. Seems to be a special sadness in small-town or rural poverty because in many city "ghettoes" there is at least a spirit of belonging or community and things to do. Alcohol and substance abuse and rural poverty remain co-mingled or more accurately they are welded together with a strong bond that is nearly impossible to break. 

Lots of stories in those lives that haven't yet been told.

Thanks again for your insights.

amdg, bill
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago
An AMERICA Online Book Club?

Perhaps our discussion on Mortimer Adler can evolve into an online book club of sorts. I would love to moderate such an endeavor. If we borrow and extend some of Fr. Jim's ideas from his hugely successful Parish Book Club at St. Ignatius Parish in NYC, perhaps this endeavor can grow. Here is what Father Jim has done:


What do you think? Post here or ornum@earthlink.net. bill 
Louellyn White
11 years 10 months ago
Yup, it's me BVO! Just landed in Montreal. Can't wait to travel by canoe and train across Canada! Haven't seen much of the gorgeous country yet. There are also many many wonderful stories of cultural survival and tenacity among First Nations Peoples. I find it's important to acknowledge this aspect as well, otherwise First Nations are always seen as mere victims. First class sleeper car through India only $20!
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago

Thanks for pointing out that there are many wonderful stories of cultural tenacity and survival.

Somehow I seem to feel that it it expected of me as a White Male to first acknowledge all the wrongs my (?) ancestors have caused/might have caused and then allow  you (or a member of another different racial/cultural group) to expand on this. Maybe I am way out in left field, but this seems to be the "pc" expectation when dealing with many groups of people who have suffered, from those abused in families, by people in their milieu, or by any group that has suffered inequity.

As a psychologist, I have much empathy for those suffering, but sometimes, even more than a few times,  "victimhood" becomes its own self-perpetuating condition where any attempt to suggest otherwise is met with anger-sometimes incredible anger. In a sense, bullying and coercion occurs.

Do you find that others in the USA-talk down to Native Americans by focusing on the problems but not acknowledging the resiliency? In other words, as a member of a different culture than your own, am I allowed to challenge where I see potential secondary effects of victimhood?

If you read this magazine, you will recognize that there are many, many other examples like this.

Would you like to weigh in on this, both from personal experience and as a professional? tx bvo

11 years 10 months ago
I like trains songs too -  "The City of New Orleans", and "I've been working on the railroad"  :)  I've only actually been on a train a few times, though, from Sacramento to Portland, Seattle to Sacramento, and on my one trip to England, from London to Oxford.  What must it be like to ride the Orient Express?

A discussion of free will and philosophy/theology sounds interesting.  I was just reading some posts about that at the NYT philosophy blog (the writer teaches at Notre Dame) ..... one of them is "Your Move:  The Maze of Free Will"

11 years 10 months ago
OOps - sorry, the writer of that post teaches at Reading University.
Louellyn White
11 years 10 months ago
First, I just want to say that I of course, cannot speak for all First Nations people. There are many many different Nations with different cultures, languages, histories, and experiences. Commonalities include being indigenous to the land they occupy, first inhabitants, and a history of earth based culture.

Other, less fortunate commonalities are forced colonization by Europeans, mass genocide, land theft, broken treaties, ...resulting in loss of culture, identity, high rates of disease, unemployment, complete change in societal and familial structure, forced adoption of outside governing systems, abuse, that list goes on and on.

Several governmental policies throughout history have tried first to eradicate Natives, then to assimilate them into mainstream society, then to remove them from reservations into urban areas, then to terminate their federal status altogether. It's only been since 1974 that the federal government has stepped back and said, ''Whoa, wait a minute, maybe we should let these people live their own lives and we should stop telling them what to do.'' They passed the 1974/75 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

There is still a lot of government interference and oversight, sometimes its actually necessary, because when you have such a long history of forced dependency, and loss of dignity, identity, ...people forget how to take care of each other and live with each other. But people are making great strides in governing themselves. The Harvard Project on Nation Building has done interesting research on this.

While I don't think ''White guilt'' is necessary, it's a process that a lot of my students have gone through. That creates a sympathetic response that sometimes perpeutates the victim, warrior stereotype, earth loving, recycling-tear-in-your-eye, Indian (the guy from that 70s commercial, was actual an Italian actor, btw).  Natives are often seen as either ''warriors, medicine earth loving people'' OR ''drunken bums living on welfare.''

I can't say what you're allowed and not allowed to say or do. Everyone will respond differently. But if you understand the history, you can at least understand why people are angry and why you get the 'stink eye'. Doesn't mean it's right. There remain a lot of social injustices and inequities. Where there are oppressed people living in poverty, there are angry people. There is also a lot of unresolved grief and historical trauma that gets passed down generation to generation. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart has done research on this. There are still some people today who can say their grandparents were killed in a U.S. led massacre and many many who suffered abuse in government run boarding/residential schools.

I just find that there are numerous studies done that highlight everything that is wrong, while this is important to create change and better policies, ...people need to focus also on what's working. That's why my work tries to focus on some positive aspects of Indian education, etc.

To understand why you see so much poverty, run down homes, trash, etc. on reservations, you have to understand the history. And know that even in that trash filled back yard, there are still remnants of once vibrant cultures surviving in a sweat lodge somewhere, trying desperately to hold onto the teachings of their ancestors and find their way again to a peaceful existence. This is all they have left, and often that's lost or stolen.
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago
Hi Crystal,

I hope you are having a good summer.

I've been to Portland but have never been on those trains that follow the coast. Would like to some day.


Seeing the series on free-will in the NYT inspired me to resurrect Adler's book. It is a one-book course on Western philosophy with alot of jurisprudence and criminal justice theory thrown in. He converted to Catholicism at age 98.

I really hope you can read at least some of the book-I'm always glad to read your insights and think about them. happy summer, bill
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago

Father George Kyeremeh has sent you a message.
Date: 8/04/2010
Subject: RE: AMERICA Vacation on the Canadian Express
Dear Dr. VanOrnum, 

I enjoyed this article very much and it brings to mind my experience in Ghana in 1992. I was in high spirit to be in a train for the first time to visit my parents in another part of the country. I was happy and I enjoyed the slow moving train until we got stuck on the way due to technical problem. We spent about four hours in the bush full of mosquitoes until help arrived. When I compare that to the trains in America I see the difference. It is a pleasure to be in the train in the Developed World than to be in one in a Third World country like Ghana. Trains always cause excitement in people no matter where they are. Thank you Dr. VanOrnum. 

Fr. George 

we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago
Did we get off-track, starting with an evocative train trip and then talking about past injustices and current attitudes toward First Nation Peoples?

I think not, as the appearances of these people and their towns made a strong impression.

As a blogger I was surprised to hear from Lu...my former graduate assistant whom I have not seen in a long time and corresponded with infrequently. She chose to give up a lucrative career path to follow a deeper vocation-keeping the heritage and treasure of her people alive.

I hope some of you will want to learn more about First Nations Studies; Lu would be glad to hear from you at:

Dr. Louellyn White (Akwesasne Mohawk)
First Nations Studies
School of Community and Public Affairs
Concordia University
Montreal, QC

Her dissertation/book manuscript is: "Free to be Kanienkehaka: Educational Self-determination at the Akwesasne Freedom School"
we vnornm
11 years 10 months ago

Many thanks. By a strange coincidence, I'll have a review of another NTY article 
on this very topic on Wednesday.

Hope you are having a good summer. bill

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