Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Train to Metamora

The train to (and from) Metamora
About a month ago, we purchased four tickets for a train that runs from Connersville to Metamora, Indiana. 

Metamora, like Brown County's Nashville or Mackinac Island in Michigan, is one of those quaint tourist towns with a local economy built around fudge. When we bought the tickets, we imagined it would be a nice way to ring in the fall – we'd enjoy a slow train ride through the colorful Autumn leaves, buy a couple bricks of peanut butter fudge, then snooze our way home in a sugary daze as the train cars rocked to and fro.

So we bought the tickets and invited my in-laws, then spent the next month blissfully ignoring the fact that we live in Indiana. Because in Indiana, fall is a bastard.

I don't even think “fall” is the right name for the season that happens this time of year, although summer is long gone by now. What should we call these cold, gray, rainy weeks that grip the Midwest in October? “Spite” works, I think; so we found ourselves on the train to Metamora at the height of spite season.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the trees are all still very green during "spite." Of course they are, just to make a mockery of your pathetic attempt to enjoy the cool weather. That didn't stop us from spotting a few changing leaves. We just had to work a bit harder.

“There! That tree in the gulley, I think I see yellow!” one of us would shout, and the other three would crane our necks to look. Never mind that the tree was lying flat on the ground, and that the yellow leaves were fringed with dying brown curls. It was a seasonal color, dammit, and by God we were going to enjoy it.

The train cars were not heated, and the doors were kept open for air circulation. This seemed to be a nod toward COVID safety, but otherwise precautions were pretty relaxed. While signs encouraged us to wear masks in the station and on the train, only about one in five passengers did, which is about as good as it seems to get anymore.

After a ninety-minute journey, during which we saw eleven and a half yellow leaves, we arrived in Metamora. As the train slowed to a halt, the conductor recited the plan: We'd be given two hours to see the town and eat lunch. Five minutes before departure, the train would sound four long horn blasts; if we weren't back after that, we'd be on our own to get home.

No problem! Two hours seemed like plenty of time to get food, buy fudge, and maybe even feed the exotic ducks waddling along the canal. But we hit our first snag just moments after disembarking the train.

Before we'd arrived, my mother-in-law consulted the Visitor's Guide to Metamora and announced that she wanted us to all eat at The Smelly Gourmet. Concerned that she did not recognize a red flag when she saw one, I asked what, exactly, Smelly had on the menu.

“Eight kinds of grilled cheese!” she told us, handing over the brochure. My wife and I scanned it for detail. Besides the grilled cheeses there was also something called "Smelly chips," which were not described in much detail. But ah, what the hell. What's an adventure without questionable choices?

Unfortunately, despite the map in the visitor's guide, we couldn't find the place. My wife finally had to consult with a local to learn that Smelly himself had taken early retirement, and that The Smelly Gourmet was now closed.

After a little more wandering, it looked like Smelly wasn't alone. Shop after shop seemed to be closed, and buildings had gone up for sale. I suddenly felt kind of stupid: What was I expecting a tourist town to be like after two years of COVID? Just how bustling did I think it would be?

Not everything had closed, of course, but this seemed to make things harder on the surviving restaurants. Because there were fewer places to eat, there were fewer options for the tourists, and so each restaurant we visited had lines out the door while harried staff scrambled to get people served. Meanwhile the tourists were grumbling, all keenly aware of the same clock counting down that would end with four sharp whistles.

Eventually we did find a place with a few empty seats, Gold Diggers Family Diner, where we ate pizza, warmed up, and dried off. On our way out the cashier gave my wife a ticket for a "free gift" at a gem shop across the canal, which was irresistible even in the face of the five-minute whistle. My wife and in-laws went inside to claim the free gift while I got sidetracked by a bin labeled "BOOKS - $1." (The bin contained the copies of What Color is Your Parachute? and The Da Vinci Code that all dollar-book bins are legally required to have, but otherwise not much of note.) My wife emerged from the shop with a new necklace in hand, and we all headed back for the train.

The cold rain never relented. We rode back to Connersville, then decided to find some place for hot coffee to warm up before the drive home. Not far from the train station we found a place called Brian's Bistro, right across the street from a courthouse. We ordered coffees and hot chocolate and chai, and ogled the desserts by the register: there was pie and cookies, brownies and cake, all charmingly served from the Pyrex in which they'd been fresh baked that morning. Nothing cost more than a dollar. We couldn't resist the temptation.

And so we sat and we ate and we warmed ourselves up, expecting at any minute for crowds from the train to arrive. But no one else ever showed up. We had the small place to ourselves.

Either/Or

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