Caroline loves trains. Sometimes she goes to a railroad crossing that's a thirty-minute bike ride from her home, cycling along a small, dusty, sun-drenched path. She stands near the barrier and watches a train or two go by. Once in a while, she goes with her friend, Starry River.
One summer Wednesday, Caroline hopped on her bike and rode along the sunbaked dirt and sand trail that was bordered by yellow and ochre rocks and led into the desert. As usual, she was wearing denim shorts, a white t-shirt, and slightly dirty sneakers. Half an hour later, she arrived at the crossing.
She was sweating. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and leaned her bike behind a red rock.
Everything was silent around her, not a single birdsong or animal cry. Sometimes, a warm, gentle breeze stirred the sand, causing strange swirls of dust. The sun-beaten rocks seemed to be sleeping, like slumbering elephants in the savannah. The sky was deep blue, and the sun was a huge ball of fire, drinking up everything and drying it out.
Caroline listened to the silence.
Suddenly, in the distance to her left, she saw the black snake she had been waiting for along the horizon. The 2:27 train. At first, the dark serpent seemed immobile along the line that separated the blue sky from the dazzling yellow. Then she saw it slither across the sand. At that distance, she couldn't see the tracks.
The train approached slowly. The girl recognized the powerful diesel locomotive, with its three headlights lit up on the front: one above, two below, forming a triangle.
The ground started to tremble as the huge train drew closer, especially the locomotive.
As always, she was surprised by the "ding, ding, ding" of the gates that came down and blocked the road to prevent any of the few cars that might pass from crossing.
Then she heard the rumble of the big locomotive. It was moving quickly, raising a cloud of dust. She felt the friction of the iron wheels against the hot tracks.
Our friend stood in awe as she watched the front of the train pass a few feet away from her. She waved to the conductor, whom she could see behind the glare of the windows. The whistle blew, probably in response to our friend's greeting. The little girl felt her heart beating to the rhythm of the powerful machine.
She counted the train cars that passed one after the other, with the steady sound of the gaps between the rails that had been laid on the rocky ground.
The noise subsided little by little. The dust settled on the ground and the last car disappeared far away to her right, behind the hills.
Caroline got back on her bike and rode home. The memory of the passing train still filled her mind, as did the sound of the whistle that had shattered the desert silence.
The following Wednesday, she returned to the crossing at the same time. She was carrying a big piece of cardboard folded in three on her bicycle rack. She had written "Hi, I'm Caroline" on it with a large black marker.
As the great train approached, she unfolded the cardboard and showed the conductor her name. He smiled and gave her a thumbs up through the open window to let her know he had seen it. The girl watched the long train until it disappeared into the hills.
She smiled happily.
She returned the following Wednesday. The heat was even more intense. The still, seemingly motionless August air was suffocating.
When the train passed, the conductor was holding a piece of cardboard in his hands. He held it out of the window of the locomotive. It said, "Hi Caroline. I'm Paul."
The girl waved for a long time with her hand, and when the last car had disappeared, she had counted eighty-eight in all. She was touched, and wiped a tear from her cheek.
Then she got back on her bike and returned home. She told her best friend, Starry River, what had happened.
The following Wednesday, accompanied by Starry River, she returned to the crossing, despite the storm-threatening sky. Caroline had brought a large cardboard sign on which she had written, "Hi Paul."
That was how they met that summer in August. It was always the 2:27 train.
The days went by, school started again, and it was soon October. It was a little cooler outside. More frequent thunderstorms swept the sky and the dirt roads.
Caroline had long dreamed of riding in a locomotive, up front with the conductor, watching the landscape roll by and feeling the tracks under the train. Her wish was reawakened by her trips to the railroad crossing.
One Wednesday, she boldly wrote in blue marker on a piece of cardboard, "Paul, I want to ride in the locomotive."
The great train rolled by, with all three headlights on, the roar of the engine, the rails, and the whistle, along with the "ding, ding, ding" of the lowered gates and the dusty swirling sand. Paul seemed to read the message written on our friend's sign.
He gave a vague wave through the window as he drove past. Big trains can't just stop like that, on command, anywhere.
Caroline returned home, full of hope. She thought about it every night as she went to sleep.
The following Wednesday, she returned to the crossing, just before 2:27. She was waiting for "her" train. Would it stop for her?
The locomotive arrived with a roar, kicking up dust, headlights on. The whistle blew as the bell rang to announce that the gates were being lowered. The window was open.
Paul was holding an envelope in one hand, and he was pointing at it with the index finger of his other hand. Then, pointing at the girl, he threw it out the window.
Caroline watched the whole train go by.
When the rumbling had faded into silence and the dust had settled, when the gates opened and the ringing stopped, she rushed to the railroad tracks and grabbed the letter that had fallen into the underbrush.
She took it over to her bike, sat down on the ground against a rock, and opened it. She feverishly read the message.
"Hi Caroline. Come next Wednesday with your mom or dad, before 2:27. I'll stop the train at the crossing for ten seconds. You can get on and ride to Kayenta. We'll get there at 4:01, then a friend will bring you back in his truck."
Caroline clutched the envelope to her heart. She was so incredibly happy!
Starry River was looking forward to joining her the following week.
On Wednesday, the two very impatient girls arrived at least half an hour early for the meeting, accompanied by Caroline's mother. They secured their bikes to the foot of a cactus with a good chain so that they wouldn't be stolen.
Finally, the train arrived. First in the distance, as a snake on the yellow sand under the blue horizon. Then the hissing of the tracks, the dust, the big headlights on, the roar of the powerful engine. The "ding, ding, ding" of the barriers followed. And then, with a clatter of dust and noise, there was a high-pitched squeal of metal wheels sliding on the rails. The huge train stopped.
"Come on. Get on."
"Can my friend come with us?"
Caroline, Starry River and Caroline's mom climbed up the steps onto the locomotive. The door closed behind them, and the train started to move.
It was amazing! What a joy to see the bright screens, the switches, the levers, and all the train's controls all around them.
Through the windshield, they saw fascinating scenery passing by. They watched the tracks disappear under the locomotive. They gazed at the viaducts they passed, and the little stations they went by without stopping, a few of them with people on the platforms who watched the big train roll by. It was so much fun! They could hear the "ding, ding, ding" of the railroad crossings when the tracks intersected with roads.
The tunnels were the most impressive thing. At first, they appeared in the distance like the gaping maw of a mighty dragon lurking in the sun that was about to swallow them. They watched as the beast's massive mouth drew ever closer. And they went in! It was pitch black. And then, finally, they could make out a spot of light in the distance; it grew and grew, and they emerged from the other end of the tunnel.
Caroline told Paul about her life in the mountains. Then she explained that her parents now owned a hotel in Blanding and that life was easier.
Starry River jumped into the conversation. It's hard to say which of them talked more.
They were so happy.
Paul watched them enjoy the ride, smiling as he listened to them. He told them that he lived about eighteen hundred miles away, on the other side of the country. He lived alone because he didn't have a family.
The train stopped when they arrived at the Kayenta station. The girls got off onto the platform. Paul introduced them to a friend of his who worked for the railroad.
"Jimmy, will you drive these two girls and their mother back to the railroad crossing near Blanding?"
"I sure will," he replied. "I'm leaving now, and we'll get there in two hours. Unfortunately, I only have one seat in the front, next to the driver's seat. So, if they want to stay together, the girls will both need to sit in the back seat. One of my windows is stuck halfway down, so it'll be a bit windy back there."
And so, the man took them back to their bikes, Caroline and Starry River sitting in the back seat with their hair whipping around in the wind. You know them; they've seen it all. They're not afraid of a little heat, a little dust, a little sun, or a lot of wind.
Days went by. On Wednesday, November 27, Caroline was at her regular spot near the gate. Paul held up a sign in the window:
"Come to the crossing next Wednesday."
Caroline smiled. What was going to happen the following Wednesday? Would her conductor friend stop the train again? Would she have another chance to get on the locomotive?What was going to happen next Wednesday? The girl kept wondering to herself.
When the train arrived on December 4, it didn't slow down. She didn't hear the squeal of the wheels on the tracks. She only heard the rumble of the locomotive and saw the light of the three headlights in the dust. The whistle blew, overpowering the bell at the railroad crossing. "Ding...ding...ding..."
Paul held up a neatly tied brown package. He pointed with his index finger to tell Caroline that it was for her, then threw it out the window.
The train continued on. Our friend waved for a long time.
When the last car disappeared, she rushed along the tracks. The package had rolled down to a muddy riverbed. She cut the string with a pocketknife and eagerly tore off the brown paper. Inside, there was a beautifully wrapped box packed in bubble wrap to cushion the impact.
He had written, "Merry Christmas, Caroline!"
The girl tore off the delicate blue and red paper and found a miniature locomotive, identical to the one Paul was driving. She loved it! What a wonderful gift! It was perfect.
Caroline showed it to her parents, her little brothers, and her friends at school. Of course, everyone knew the story of the friendship between Paul and Caroline.
The following Wednesday, our friend returned to the train with the largest sign she could carry on her bike rack.
This time, she had written, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..." fifty times.
On Wednesday, December 18, Caroline returned to the train with another cardboard sign on her bicycle rack. She wanted to play Santa Claus for Paul, to give him a present. But how could she get it to him? He probably couldn't stop his train without advance notice. If he didn't stop the train, throwing the gift at the window would be risky. Our friend could miss. The package would fall to the ground, or worse, be shredded by the wheels of the locomotive or the train cars.
So, Caroline wrote on her sign: "Paul, can you stop your train next Wednesday?"
The conductor waved his hand vaguely, as if to say he wasn't sure.
Caroline returned to Blanding with an idea in mind. She wanted to give Paul a beautiful doll.
She told her father, and he laughed about the purchase.
"Come on, Caroline, you said he's sixty years old. Don't give him a doll; buy him a box of cigars!"
"What if he doesn't smoke?" Caroline replied.
"Well, then he'll pass them on to someone else."
"No," our friend thought. "I'll give him a doll."
Her mother was equally critical.
"Sweetie, he's a sixty-year-old man. He'll think you're making fun of him. I mean, a doll, have you really thought about this? Get him a book. A detective novel."
But Caroline didn't change her mind. Her heart was set on a doll.
Even Starry River laughed at her friend, saying that the gift was ridiculous.
"Come and pick something from my parents' store: a pretty blanket, some embroidery, or a Native American craft.
But when Caroline had an intuition, she didn't give up. She bought the doll and had it wrapped.
On December 25, our friend went to the railroad tracks alone, with her gift attached to her bicycle rack.
She laid her bike down on the sand. She took the package, sat down against a rock, and waited. She was shivering with cold and emotion.
Suddenly, she realized that the train might not be running on December 25.
But it appeared in the distance, a long snake gliding between the rocks. Soon the ground began to vibrate.
The "ding, ding, ding" of the gate sounded. The girl saw the locomotive's three powerful headlights coming towards her. The dust stirred and the screeching of the wheels made her heart race. The powerful locomotive braked, and the train stopped for a few seconds.
Caroline rushed over and held out her gift.
"Merry Christmas, Paul!"
"Thank you, Caroline!"
Then, without having time to open his present, Paul got the locomotive moving again and headed for the hills.
All week long, the little girl worried and doubted. "A doll, I must be crazy," she thought to herself. "He probably threw it out along the tracks, thinking I was making fun of him."
The more time passed, the more anxious she became.
"I should have listened to my dad and bought cigars. Or taken my mother's advice about a detective novel. Starry River was right. Giving a sixty-year-old man a doll was a stupid idea. I'll never go back to watch that train again."
Nevertheless, she returned on Wednesday, January 1. Would the train pass by?
Caroline got on her bike and went to the crossing alone. She waited. Our friend had the impression that she could hear her heart beating.
And then the train appeared in the distance. It grew closer, headlights on, and roared past with the great clattering of wheels.
It didn't stop.
Paul stood at the window. He threw an envelope, then took out a handkerchief and waved it out the window for a long time, as if he were saying good-bye to Caroline.
Our friend's heart sank. She wondered why the man was waving goodbye for such a long time as he rode away. She stood motionless in the dust and noise.
Caroline picked up the letter after the last car had passed. She sat down by the river, opened the envelope, and read it.
Thank you for your wonderful gift. You couldn't have known this because I didn't tell you, but I lost my parents when I was very young. They died when I was three and a half years old, and I was raised by an aunt and uncle who were extremely strict. I almost never got any gifts. They often sent me to boarding school. I seldom saw them, and I didn't have much affection in my life.
Later, I learned to live alone. A locomotive driver in his train is a very lonely man.
You won't see me again, Caroline. I'm retired. I've been retired for three weeks, because I'm sixty years old.
I wasn't supposed to drive on December 25 or January 1.
You asked me to stop the train on December 25, so I volunteered. I filled in for a father who was able to spend Christmas with his wife and children. And then I unwrapped your wonderful gift.
So, I volunteered to drive again on January 1 to deliver this letter to you. We won't see each other again, but I will never forget you. I will never forget little Caroline and her sweet, beautiful doll.
That was the best Christmas gift I have ever received. I will never be alone again now that I have your lovely doll. Thank you, Caroline.
Your friend, Paul
Caroline tucked the letter under her shirt. She got on her bike and rode back to Blanding.
She was so touched that she cried all the way home.