In January 2014, a low-pressure weather system moving across the Southern Plains collided with an arctic system out of Canada to create what meteorologists called a polar vortex. The ensuing storms brought record low temperatures and snowfall to New England, the mid-Atlantic and the upper Midwest: For a few days, the National Weather Service referred to Chicago as “Chiberia.”
I was there, in Chiberia, to catch the Lake Shore Limited to New York to visit my sister. Newly separated from my husband, I was eager to submit to the slow living of long-haul train travel. I imagined myself staring out the window, every minute carried farther away from the complications of my life.
The train was scheduled to depart Chicago at 9 p.m., and my husband and I made plans to get dinner first: enough time for each of us to take some private measure of our stalled marriage; not long enough to get into the messy terrain of past grievances or future decisions. But the polar vortex brought a blizzard with it, delaying my train’s departure to 4 a.m. Instead of taking me to the train station after dinner, my husband took me back to his apartment to wait, where we promptly began arguing, cried, apologized, cried more, and wore ourselves out. Eventually he ordered me a taxi and went to bed.
At 3:30 a.m., I stood waiting for my cab on the deserted street as the blizzard whipped snow into funnels around me. My feet went numb, my cheeks grew wind-bitten and raw. Somewhere inside the locked building behind me was the man I’d married, asleep in his warm bed. The symbolism was embarrassingly obvious. Oh, I said out loud, as the taxi finally arrived and delivered me to the train station, as I hauled my suitcase across the snowy platform and collapsed into an empty seat, as the conductor who came for my ticket wished me a pleasant journey. Oh, I kept thinking, and then I was asleep.
I woke up to high-pitched laughter. While I’d slept, the car had filled with teenagers from Toledo. They hopped in and out of their seats as we chugged past riverbanks, forests and farms. It wasn’t snowing anymore, but the world beyond the windows was blazingly white. There was no horizon, just blank white fields running into the white sky.
I walked the length of the train to stretch my legs. Each time I crossed into the vestibules between cars I felt a chill—the weather outside was 40 below with the wind—and then I’d step back into the warmth of the next car.
Midafternoon, the train creaked to a halt. The conductor announced signal trouble ahead. “I think the engine froze,” someone said. It was easy to believe. Frost bloomed across the windows. The power flickered on and off, and the temperature dropped inside the cars. The Toledo teenagers swatted at each other: soft thwaps of fists on sweatshirts, then the plaintive Owww. “I’m calling to let you know I won’t make it for dinner,” the man behind me said into his phone. He paused. “Or possibly ever.” The white sky deepened to gray over the fields.
Hours later, the lights blinked back on and we started moving again. People clapped. The conductor came over the speakers to thank us for our patience. Between the blizzard and the track trouble, we were many hours behind schedule. To make it up to us, he announced, the dining car would be serving complimentary beef stew to all passengers. “Well alright, let’s get that stew,” the man behind me said.
We flocked to the dining car, lining up to receive foil-wrapped dinner rolls and steaming bowls of beef, rice and beans. It seemed the whole train had showed up for dinner, and the crew ladled out portions as fast as they could. Where had they gotten so much stew, we wondered aloud. It wasn’t on the menu. Did every cross-country train carry an emergency stockpile, the way ocean liners carried lifeboats? Warm, hearty and unexpected, that stew was our lifeboat—not just sustenance but a more elemental form of comfort.
I’d lost track of my geography. I only knew I was somewhere between Chicago and New York, where a bed waited for me in my sister’s apartment. I’d be there in the morning. And I’d move there six months later, ready for a new landscape and a fresh start.
But I didn’t know that yet. After we carried our stew back to our seats, the man behind me pulled out a mini bottle of wine and poured a thimbleful apiece for me and the woman across the aisle. I watched our reflection in the night-blackened windows, how comfortable and familiar we looked laughing over our bowls. The Toledo teenagers sprawled out in makeshift beds on the floor near the luggage, and the train sped over the frozen fields, carrying us toward daybreak.