Station to Station: The Joys of America’s Trains
I’m not a person who’s driven by rhythm—not a rhythm that others can detect, anyway. But two forces have long had a hold on me: the almost physical pull of the ocean waves at the shore, and the rocking rumble of a train car.
We all know too well that the plane trip, once a great adventure, is now purely transport—something to be endured. You reluctantly surrender a block of your life to an insipid Garry Marshall movie in the name of distraction, and afterward spend the rest of your captivity checking your watch every five minutes and imagining that wonderful moment when you can unbuckle and step off this bloody thing. Air travel is about the destination. The train is about the journey.
Comparable in price to flying, the cost of riding the rails is time; but it’s not so much a cost as an investment. When you make the commitment of hours or days, you commit also to possibility. There’s time for a narrative to develop as your trip unfurls—not to mention the prospect of meeting someone impossibly interesting (preferably with a strong resemblance to Cary Grant). True, if you have a wedding or a deposition to attend, by all means take the air bus. I’ve spent untold hours sitting in stations and read books from start to finish waiting out unexplained delays on the tracks. Traveling by train is an excellent form of exposure therapy for those seeking to conquer control issues.
The train brings out a vibe of courtesy and civility—or maybe gentler types self-select for this mode of travel. To be sure, there are boors—mind turning down the sound on your video game, pal?—but the concentration is far lower than in the skies; and when they’re not practically sitting in your lap, it’s easier to mentally make your space your own. You can curl up, stretch out, walk around. And you can feel the ground beneath you.
A long-distance train trip offers a dramatic break from the population density so many of us take for granted, and a chance to glimpse the peculiar charms of the Flyover Zone up close. It’s nice to gain a mental picture of map names like Minot (flat) and Wisconsin Dells (endless farms of tract housing amid waves of lush green grass). As you pass through these vast open lands, local bystanders wave—from yards, from canoes. Sometimes in festive groups; sometimes one lone kid, wishing he were you in that moment—as you wish you could be him, just to see what it would be like to live in his world. I still regret not jumping off in Rugby, N.D., to witness the Dylan Karaoke Night trumpeted by a saloon letterboard.
The beauty of the train is that it allows you to go through these places at an easy enough pace to gain some appreciation for them…as you continue along the road to the next place. The lure of the small town is powerful, and susceptible types are best off to just keep on moving, like compulsive shoppers driving past an outlet mall.
Long afflicted by wonder and some small envy of folks who have no use for cities, I succumbed to the lure some years back and left my West Coast Shangri-la for the simple life in a small Southern state. It was, to be succinct, not for me. After a year of rattling around a cavernous, musty house and sleeping with the TV on to drown out the cicadas and my own thoughts, I escaped—and, in need of a gentle re-entry, I did so by train. As my lease expired that November midnight, I lay in a near-coma of mental exhaustion as the Silver Star whisked me away. I awoke the next day in Washington, D.C., disoriented and ravenous. The station was a whirl of gray business suits and indifference. I was back in my element. For two more days I was soothingly rocked, feeling each mile add up behind me, all the way to Seattle for the softest of landings.
A train window frames moments of magic: a mammoth, ice-blue full moon over a crystal clear night in Nebraska, or an operatic battle of lightning bolts during a storm over the boundless purple sky in Utah. In a golden field in western North Dakota, I can still see a quartet of deer leaping a fence to Paul McCartney’s “Lonesome Town” in my headphones, counting off in time like a diving line of Busby Berkeley beauties.
I ride the rails every chance I can drum up: Dodge City to Albuquerque, Milwaukee to San Francisco, up and down the West Coast. I’ve waited alone at remote, unmanned depots and I still thrill over Chicago’s Union Station, where to visit the grand lobby is to step directly into the staircase set piece of Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.”
The names of Amtrak’s routes evoke the glamour of a bygone era: Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Sunset Limited, Heartland Flyer. How can you go wrong? No matter where you are in this country, there’s a train near you going somewhere, going anywhere. Jump it.