Apr/May 2014 Travel

Take the Train

by Ann Starr

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Don't we say it's the journey that counts? But when we fly, we're relieved simply to clear all the hurdles of regulations and comfort between our destinations and us. What counts is to be successfully reunited with our luggage. Ah, but the train: It's a journey through a long tunnel of discovery, with the promise of arrival at your planned destination.

All aboard! Step right up. Don't undress. Keep your shoes and belt on. No need to fill the gas tank. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the views of farm gate, grassland, and mountain gorge. Roll across the land of Teddy Roosevelt and Woody Guthrie on routes shaped by Native Americans' seasonal migrations, by Black currents flowing north and west, by the needs of industries dependent on these very rails for existence. America isn't a fly-over or drive-by: This land was made for you and me. Admire its vistas from the observation car.

I've taken three of Amtrak's inspirationally named cross-country trains from Chicago to the West Coast. The Empire Builder barrels across North Dakota flatlands and oil fields to Glacier National Park and on to Portland, Oregon. On the California Zephyr, climb from Denver through the Rockies and rice fields to San Francisco. The Southwest Chief chugs across Kansas, up the Raton Pass to New Mexico's red mesas, and through reclaimed deserts to Los Angeles.

The names of these trains reflect American might and confidence, when upward mobility was a birthright; when parents urged their children to dream big, to achieve and to overcome. When immigrants became heroes of industry and culture. Riding these trains is to participate in the spacious dreams that built them.

As the Zephyr makes its great, arcing ascent out of Denver, its streamlined engines pull their load into the Rockies with gulps of deep determination. Passing into mountainous majesty, I am wholly invested in the slow-moving technology that shows its sweat and moves at a pace that matches my breath and pulse.

A few years ago, I learned that friends from Illinois were planning to fly to visit family in Austin. In my rail enthusiasm, I encouraged them to take the Texas Eagle. They could leave in the afternoon and arrive at dinnertime the next day. They'd enjoy the views from the glass-enclosed observation car; they'd have no O'Hare hassles. I convinced them.

Their trip was a bust. They suffered in the roomette they purchased in the sleeping car. The raucous roar of the engine kept them awake most of the night. The rest, they slept poorly. In the observation car, they were drawn into a bad-luck traveler's tiresome sob story.

“Oh no, no, no." I wanted to explain and apologize at once. I blamed myself for their discomfort. After all, everyone knows what to expect when they fly or drive. But neither is like the train. How I wished I'd clarified the fundamentals. Too few people learn the mores of the rails.

I'd have advised my friends never to book a roomette. On a sleeping car, you've purchased privacy. You can draw the curtains so your neighbors and the conductor cannot glance in as they pass in the corridor that serves the roomettes. You travel in a gated community unless you make the effort to visit the town square, the observation car, which serves all travelers, from sleepers and coaches both. On the cross-country train, it's important to retreat from cramped privacy and roll with the common lot for a couple of days. Train travel reminds us not only of the vastness and variety of the American landscape, but of our people.

A long-haul train is not about first-class. All those connected coaches make a short-lived city on rails, composed of micro-neighborhoods, with citizens who live in peaceful fraternity. There are Blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics; Amish, Muslim, Rastafarian; rich and poor. There are retirees off to see their grandchildren, and families out to visit national parks. Students are going home to Oakland from college in Chicago; Japanese tourist groups can't wait to see the Gateway Arch and hear Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill. It's people at leisure, business people scared of flying, desperate people moving cheaply with only a suitcase.

As you walk the long, slip-sliding corridor from one car to another en route to the observation car, the dining car, or to buy a beer—to stretch your legs, or to visit the bathroom—you see all of these people. Some you'll get used to seeing. Those will become your familiars because they, too, will be going the distance, bound for the Coast from Chicago, not debarking at LaJunta or Lamy, Garden City or Gallup. You'll come to feel the bond of the hard-core, long-distance traveler.

To the coach passenger boarding in Chicago, the conductor assigns a car at a specific location in the train and a seat number in that car. Anxiety sweeps the crowd as people stow their luggage on the first level (luggage compartments, five bathrooms, handicapped seating, two dressing rooms). The travelers shove a little, heading up the narrow stairs to claim their positions in the sunny coach. The cars fill up quickly. I, like everyone, hope to sit alone and spread out on the empty seat, but I, like everyone, have to smile politely and introduce myself to the inevitable seatmate. I just send up thanks when I get the window.

My most recent seatmate—on the Southwest Chief—was a skinny, pierced youth in baggy jeans and a floppy hoodie. He clutched a smartphone to which he addressed intermittent, hangdog apologies to a loud voice whose words I couldn't catch. After hanging up, the boy fell into silence for a while before he launched into further apologies, for some reason directed to me. The poor child was traveling, he told me, from Chicago to Sacramento. Anticipating my confusion, he offered that he knew we were headed for Los Angeles, at the wrong end of the state.

He'd taken the train that morning from Carbondale, in southern Illinois, to Chicago, arriving at nine o'clock to catch the Zephyr at two. Alas, he'd waited all day at the METRA commuter station a couple of blocks away, never noticing the lack of Amtrak activity. As his hour approached, he found the courage to ask from which track his train departed? By the time he reached Amtrak's Union Station, he could see the last, red-lit car of the Zephyr grow smaller and smaller as it chugged westward and away, St. Louie-bound.

His mom was really pissed. Amtrak put him on the Southwest Chief as a courtesy. He wasn't sure how he'd get to Sacramento. Maybe his mom would drive 400 miles to pick him up.

Later, I was moved to offer my hapless friend an apple, but by then he was already having a beer with the two bechained, muscular, skinhead German youth sitting across the aisle behind the elderly Amish couple. It turned out that Melvin and Barbara had been speaking “Dutch," or Amish German, between themselves. The Germans understood them, as the peaceful couple had comprehended the Deutsch spoken by the Germans. The mutuality of understanding was gratifying to all lions and lambs—and even to me, who loves both coincidence and good will—so everyone was beaming. Everyone except my disconsolate seatmate, that is. The beer helped him sink even farther into his hoodie and sorrows. He folded himself into his skinny chest and fell asleep.

On all the trains, after a few stops, the crowds thin. After the first cities—Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis—more people leave than board and the conductors will work with you. If you are polite, you can detach from your traveling companion into a vacated pair of seats, where you can spread out. Coach seats are spacious. They have lots of legroom with adjustable footrests and leg rests both. At night, from the extra space of that empty seat, with both leg rests extended, a nice little bed can be made.

At ten o'clock, the gracious train crew turns out the lights, and silence falls over the coach cars. The dining car steward and the club car's concessionaire have already announced opening hours for the next morning, so no one will be jangled from precious sleep by early announcements.

Unless you sleep upright with your head on your sweetheart's shoulder, you will bed down on that empty seat and yes, it's true, you will sleep poorly—just as you would in the privacy of a roomette. Everyone on the train sleeps badly, turning around this way and that like dogs fretting for a better position. But then at dawn you wake to find yourself under your own neatly draped coat, blanket, or shawl. Most likely it was gently placed across you during the night by the hands of a considerate conductor. Or maybe by the skinhead.

It takes two nights to reach the West Coast. Since all the trains leave Chicago in mid-afternoon, it's not until the first morning that you begin to understand that those people seated around you are indeed your neighbors, and that your neighborhood has taken shape. The folks across the aisle have shared the trials of the night and the eventual success of sleep. They ask—or you do—if they can bring you back a coffee from the club car; you ask if that's their book of crosswords on the floor? They are still here, not gone in the night, and so are you. Whether you converse or not, you'll feel the camaraderie of proximity for a thousand miles. You'll know where your seat is when you return to the car, look down the long corridor, and see their faces.

The sinuous motions of a long, continuous train can be jarringly magnified in a small space—in a box like a roomette, where they can feel abrupt and personal, like shoving. In coach, the train's motion extends into a gentle swaying. Walking along the aisle, I have to steady myself by touching the seat backs for balance, to clutch handles as I pass between cars. But when I lounge in my seat with my legs up, looking out the window—even when I shift my position at night—then I feel that the train contains and rocks me, stimulating my deep memory and reflections—the peaceful parts of the mind that don't appear to me when I'm rushed or pressured.

The train is never going to be about a good night's sleep, but it's always a place of dreams. It's a restless place too, where every individual movement is equally part of the rocking lullaby, part of the "rumble and the roar."

So: All aboard! Take the train, and whatever your destination, you'll get there. It's the journey that counts.

But first, you've got to get on board.


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