You can’t travel anywhere in this region without hearing the sound of a nearby train.

These iron horses are the muscle of our country’s history and a few of weeks ago one very special express warmed the hearts of thousands of children in our region.

On Saturday, November 21st, the 67th Annual Santa Train made its annual trip from Pikeville, KY to Kingsport, TN.

Loaded with 15 tons of gifts and toys, Santa Claus, Wynonna Judd and over 100 hundred volunteers and guests spread holiday cheer all over three states.

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For three generations, The Santa Train has made this journey and besides treating the families with holiday tidings the CSX Railroad know how to show their appreciation to the peoples of the Appalachian coalfields.

Together with Food City and The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, they jump start the Christmas season too rolling eight historic passenger cars loaded with goodies into 14 towns across Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

This year, it was my fortune to enjoy this one-of-a-kind excursion on the main line through the coalfields.

Even the mention of my chance to ride the train brought envy among family and friends. I’ve watched the train roll into Kingsport every year and this year, I’m forever thankful for my friends at the Kingsport Chamber who invited to be a part of this legacy.

It was a gorgeous day and the sky was a deep azure blue when we met in Downtown Kingsport on a Friday afternoon.

Two chartered buses were parked in front of the Chamber of Commerce offices ready to drive this year’s passengers to Pikeville, KY – the main rail yard for this year’s journey.

Marybeth Kench one of the Chamber’s organizers met me at the bus with a her glowing smile. She’s been working for the past several months organizing this event and her confidence and genuine excitement was a great way to start the day.

After stowing my carry-on under the bus, we were on our way up Highway 23 – north into Virginia. The sun cast long shadows over the Powell Valley as they are cradled by the mountains of this region.

Our bus arrived in Pikeville just before sunset and after checking into the Hampton Inn, I quickly jumped back outside to explore the city before nightfall.

I was surprised at how much has changed since my first visit in the seventies as our high school band participated in a holiday parade.

There’s been lots of changes, but this town still has a wonderful small town charm. So much so, that Norman Crampton cites Pikeville as of one of the “100 Best Small Towns in America.”

There are a number a new structures in the downtown area including a new city park that was decorated with plenty of color for the holidays.

Later that evening, the organizers had plans for the Santa Train guests to enjoy dinner at the new Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center. This complex is a striking landmark in the middle of town and hosts lots of special events throughout the year.

As we all gathered around a catered buffet, we could hear the sounds of a basketball game below us complete with sqweaking sneakers and referee whistles.

At dinner, I enjoyed conversations with Dave Light with the City of Kingsport, Jerry Petzoldt from The TCI Group, Alderman Tom Parham and Kannishka Biddanta with Adaptcore. We shared our enthusiasm for trip ahead and our hosts concluded dinner with an outline of safety procedures aboard the train.

From there, our buses left for the hotel. It was early though and despite our 5am departure, several people gathered at Champs Sports Bar to enjoy few drinks and conversation before the end of the night.

Champ’s is a popular local watering hole in Pikeville and although there was only one pool table, a jukebox and a few televisions screens, the place was warm and friendly.

Back at the hotel, it was hard to sleep and I guess the excitement had me waking on every hour, so by the time 4am arrived, I was ready to get up.

Everyone met in the lobby at 5.00 and after a few strong cups of coffee, we were ready to board the buses again. Still trying to open my eyes, I was surprised to watch St. Nick himself take a seat up front and with a few “ho-hos” and we were on our way.

The bus ride was quiet as we drove through the cold morning air. It wasn’t long though before we rolled into the CSX Shelby Yard. It was surprising to faintly see several people standing along the tracks waiting to catch a glimpse of Santa and his helpers.

We made no haste getting on the train and according to the press packets we received earlier, I would be riding on the Michigan car – a special car just for the media. We were whisked on the train and reminded of our “three points of contact” – feet on the steps and two hands on the boarding rails.

Inside, there were blue packing crates neatly loaded with goodies and marked for boys and girls along the left side of the walkways.

All of the guests had assigned cars and I sat at a table along with Steve Hawkins and Joe Gregg from WCYB. Among some of the other media were Erica Yoon – shooting photos for CSX and John Osborne who was also covering the event for the Kingsport Times-News.

I was a pleasure to meet local blogger “Country” too. I always enjoy meeting my virtual friends in the real world and her blog, “Country’s Chatter” has been an item of interest for several months. Her popular blog includes a wealth of personal insight about country music artists and regional performances.

Also in the media car were folks from Kentucky Educational TV and an entire camera crew from Nashville based cable channel GAC (Great American Country) which was filming a segment that will air on December 12th.

I’ve never rode a passenger train and must admit I felt silly when I wondered why the people were moving outside. I expected something a bit more like a subway, but the Santa Train was off and seemingly gliding on our way to the first stop – Marrowbone, KY.

It was still pitch black when we arrived at 6.45 am. I could see several people running alongside the train as it eased into the stop.

The helpers had bags of toys and were positioned by the doors ready to step down off the train and distribute sacks of goodies to children on the outskirts of the crowds. Meanwhile, Santa headed to the caboose to toss candy and other treats from the back of the train.

The train stops were timed according to the crowd size. The bigger crowds enjoyed longer stays and the engineers had horns to warn workers and media to be back on the train as they were keeping a tight schedule.

I didn’t get out on the first stop and decided to wait till Elkhorn City, KY which was about 30 minutes away from Marrowbone. By then the sun was rising over the Eastern mountain tops and a low lying fog cradled the trees as rolled slowly past the Big Sandy River.

wynonnajerryIt was here that I caught my first glimpse of Wynonna Judd.

With her children Gracie and Elijah following close behind, Wynonna passed through the media car to join Santa in the caboose. She was tanned, wearing a black coat with brass buttons and a black conductor’s hat that framed her deep red hair. She had a vibrant smile and was waking up like the rest of us as the train made its second stop.

As soon as I stepped off the train, I could hear a chorus of children screaming Santa! Santa!

A frenzy of young and old alike were rushing to get a glimpse of the man in red and stretching their arms into the air to catch the gifts pouring out of the train from all sides.

boyandgiftMany of the kids were bundled up in coats and hats and some had runny noises, but their eyes were like saucers as they all strained to get a glimpse Santa.

There were some 600 people gathered at this first stop with cars lining the streets as old men were clinching steaming cups of coffee as everyone else scrambled for gifts hurled from all the around the caboose.

My camera was busy too and time passed quickly as I heard the first horns to get back on the train. That was the sign the the train was leaving and suddenly, we were rolling again heading further down the line to Toms Bottom, Haysi, Clincho and Freemont KY.

Riding a train through the Appalachian mountains is a scenic adventure that traverses a landscape accessible only by rail. From cascading mountain streams, rolling farmland, rocky ledges and several tunnels, I’m sure that few people have seen the region from this perspective.

From time, to time, we would make a turn and you could see the train ahead – winding its way around the bends. One of favorite moments were when the tunnels would engulf the train in darkness.

There was a camera in each car that was focused on the view behind the caboose and it was almost mystical watching the daylight disappear into a thin circle of light as we pierced our way through the ancient mountains.

Besides having Wynonna Judd on the Santa Train this year, The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce awarded two gentlemen with a chance of lifetime.

Earlier in the year, The Chamber had a contest inviting people to describe in an essay why they would like to ride the Santa Train. Two winners were selected and both were on the train today.

Seventy-year-old Thomas Sargent was delighted to be one of the winners. His daughter nominated him and describe how her dad had followed the train most of his life.

In an interview with Susanna Jackson from Great American Country, Sargent described how he be taking plenty of photos with his new digital camera and commented, “Seeing the kids were a real treat to me.”

Later in their hometown of Dungannon, both men would be welcomed by banners from the crowd and were pictured tossing gifts with Santa and Wynonna.

The crowds turned into large mobs as we made stops in Dante (pronounced “Daint”), VA and St. Paul. Thousands were on hand and the temperatures warmed so that the golden glow of the afternoon sun made the stopover seem like a town circus.

grampsonSome folks were complaining about how the adults seemed to be grabbing up all the gifts and that may have been true in some cases. However, I saw plenty of smiling voices and little arms stretched to the sky hoping to grab a plush animal. There were also plenty of volunteers handing out bags directly to the children all over the grounds.

In St. Paul, Wynonna made her way into the crowd and was swarmed by local fans. She’s got an approachable personality and seemed to make time for everyone. A native Kentuckian, I recall her saying, “These are my people.”

Back on the train, Wynonna was running a bit behind and gave an interview to a large group of media cameras as the train had a long run between stops in Virginia.

We all moved into the Greenbriar car and Judds’s handlers adjusted her makeup and checked the camera angles. I had my Iphone and recorded much of the interview from over the top of Joe Gregg’s camera who together with WCYB asked some interesting questions to the 5-time Grammy Award winner.

Wynonna described the trip as an “emotional rollercoaster.” Starting the trip in tears and moving to joy along the route.

A few years ago, Wynonna’s mother Naomia was a guest on the Santa Train. When asked if her mother had any advice about the trip, she said her mother described the journey as “one of the hardest things you’ll ever do and one of the most memorable.”

grampsandgrandaughterReferring to the children, she said that it was nice to distribute Twinkies, but she could see into the eyes of the children and toys were what they wanted. She also noted that she would work hard in the future to bring awareness to the train and find more funding including perhaps inviting all the Judds on a future ride.

After the interview, I made my way toward the back of the train.

Passing through several cars there were volunteers all along the way and still plenty of neatly packed crates with gifts for the rest of towns on the way to Kingsport. Nearing the caboose, the lights were off, but I could hear the faint sounds of “Silver Bells” and Wynonna and Santa were talking nostalgia – waxing romantically about moon pies and RC Colas.

As the train rumbled past the rivers and farms, Santa and Wynonna would wave at people who were watching the train from their doorsteps. Ed Moore from Food City was near the back too along with Frank Waldo with Teleoptics who still seemed fresh even though the train had been pouring out goodies for over 8 hours.

Just past Duffield, the train started to slow over Copper Creek.

Driving up High23N, you can see a tall railroad trestle which the locals consider a historical monument on the landscape. I’d always wondered what the view looked like from the top too.

As we inched on to the 8-story platform, I could see ultra light airplanes following the Santa Train. Several cars were parked along the highway shooting pictures as the train prepared for its final stops in Kermit and Kyles Ford, VA.

Near Kingsport, we passed the old Rotherwood Mansion and I could hear some of the people on the train narrating Kingsport’s history. As we traveled alongside Netherland Inn road, I recalled that Kingsport was first a shipping community – built upon the passage of salt and other supplies that arrived on flatboats at John King’s first port and boatyard on the banks of the Holston River,

At the time, the city traded the promise of railroads in the early days for steamboats – envisioning a future based on the river. The railroads went to Jonesborough, but it wouldn’t be long before every town had rail access and that no doubt paved the way for Kingsport to become “The Model City.”

From our offices in downtown Kingsport, you can hear the trains every day. You can hear the thunder of cars as they link to each other and everyone knows what the train horn blasts sound like from our perch on Main Street.

This time however, I was rolling into town from an elegant passenger car and still numb from a busy day of travel. I imagine there were plenty of children sifting through the loot the Santa Train left behind, but here in Kingsport, old Saint Nick was getting ready for a hero’s welcome.

Kingsport’s Annual Christmas Parade never starts until Santa rolls in on the train. When we finally arrived around 3pm there thousands lining Main Street.

When the train stopped, Santa and Wynonna made their way through the crowd like rock stars. After a brief moment talking to the crowds, they both jumped on top of two trailer beds and began to fling the remaining toys and candy into the crowd.

santaWynonna signed a few autographs after the toys were gone, but Santa Claus boarded one of Kingsport’s bright yellow fire engines and from high atop the ladder, he yelled “Ho-Ho-Ho!” The bands began a cadence and the Christmas parade began.

The 67th Santa Train was an incredible experience – so much so, I wish everyone could take the trip. For those who made the journey this year, the day was a rich experience and I’m certain everyone involved with this project painted a rainbow of happiness all over the coalfields.

For the kids along the way, I’m sure they’re already bored with the toys that were catapulted from the back of the train. However, I bet they’ll have a story to tell for the rest of their life about how St. Nick came to their town. If no one tells them any different, they’ll be there next year as well to see what the bearded fellow brings aboard the Santa Train.

It’s important that I thank the Kingsport Chamber for an unforgettable experience and plenty of kudos go to the Nashville-based public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox for one of the most organized and touching events of my lifeline.

Together with CSX Railroad, the fine folks at Food City, the Santa Train is a legend now told round the world.

Even though the Santa Train is over, I can still hear those voices calling out Santa’s name and the sparkling hope in every eye of the children who waited on that train that morning.

If there’s one thing that’s certain about the Santa Train – it’s a ride of hope and journey filled with joy.

Merry Christmas everyone!