Last year I made a goal to take all the major Amtrak long haul lines at least once. In effect, I had become a rail fan as a result of riding the Empire Builder across the top of the country from Chicago to western Montana and back. That 32-hour ride (one-way) was such an engaging and fun experience that I had to have more of it.
This year I will add two more lines: the Southwest Chief, which retraces the old Santa Fe Trail through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico and the City of New Orleans, which follows the Mississippi River all the way south to the Big Easy.
In explaining why I find train travel so appealing, my ultimate mission is to encourage others to take the train and thus help grow a constituency that may act as enthusiastic lobbyists for a public long-haul transportation system. I believe that re-building the rail system we disassembled after World War II in favor of an extensive air and interstate highway network is one of many ways we might steer ourselves toward a more sustainable energy future.
Beyond these environmental and political concerns, trains can provide Americans with at least one other option to the frenzied and frustrating tangle of our airports and freeways. And, passengers can witness the fantastic landscapes of our country unavailable to them when they fly 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet or drive 70 on the superhighways. They may find that “Slow Travel” is as aesthetically pleasing and romantic as the Slow Food movement has been because it encourages people to notice and savor the landscape.
Slow travel is not about covering miles to reach a destination but rather about allowing yourself to be transported from one world to another by letting the land speak to you. This is especially available to passengers on the Southwest Chief.
As the train rumbles, squeaks, rattles and sways, you move from one time zone, one region and one reality to another. This constant rhythm and sonorous background is soothing to the soul and it engenders a solitude that’s good for reading, writing, thinking, dreaming, contemplating or sleeping. Of course, a lot of people tune into the Internet, play video games or watch movies to pass the time. However, if you gaze out the window and study the panorama before you, you open yourself up to a new awareness focused on the “life of the land” and its history.
As you pass the tall corn of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri you realize how it is possible this grain is so plentiful in our food products (and biofuels), and that the golden brown wheat of Kansas will provide our daily bread. On the Colorado plains where the buffalo once roamed are grazing cattle that will be meat for our tables. This state’s forests and rushing rivers are quite a contrast to the eroded hillsides, gullies and dry riverbeds of the desert lands and reveal the important role water plays in these parts. The flat yellow plains of New Mexico support only a handful of trees while the mountainous areas are covered with fragrant sagebrush, junipers and pinion pines under a clear blue sky. Big square buttes sit atop humpy mountains. No wonder the ancient peoples who lived here 10,000 years ago concocted a nature religion.
Throughout the journey in lonely, secluded places TV antennas poke out of small prefab houses or mobile homes while at night their soft, yellow lights capture the essence of home, comfort and tranquility. Then, the wood-frame farmhouses with their collapsed, sun-blanched roofs confirm that an old way of life has disappeared.
Everywhere are fences and in key places are tall or short telephone poles with crossbars sometimes crooked by design. These signify the effort to civilize the land. What time and energy it took to construct them! But they are nothing compared to the mountains where sedimentation, uplift, water and erosion have formed them over millions of years.
Trains go through towns, most of them old downtowns, with late nineteenth century Italianate architecture, a refreshing change from the predictable glass and steel skyscrapers of our modern age. Worn-off lettering on their red brick walls advertise businesses long gone but not entirely forgotten. Train stationhouses vary in color, style and materials but the sentiments of the people coming and going there are the same: broad, happy smiles of welcome to family and friends or tears and somber faces saying goodbye.
America’s junkyards sit along the rail lines in nearly every town with their rusted out cars and heaps of concrete and twisted metal. They are a pretty dreadful sight! These remains represent the past, too, the industrial past, as well as the clarion call for a new, more sustainable way of life.
Wagon Mound is a teeny-tiny town in northeastern New Mexico with a giant-size butte. Amtrak’s route guide indicates that it served as a landmark for pioneers going westward on the old Santa Fe Trail. Imagine their relief when they saw it after a six to eight week journey over 600-700 miles from western Missouri. The butte is a sign for me, too, that my 24-hour journey from Chicago is just about over, only I’ve spent it in a comfortable setting with soft seats, adequate food and water and safety.
In truth, long haul trains are romantic and sensual because other than keeping on schedule, time is not a priority. For one thing, you are treated to good, old-fashioned service. As you board the train, the conductor and attendants welcome you, handle your bags and offer you pillows.
The seats are very comfortable and you have a lot of legroom and a big window to look out. The lounge car provides an even better view with a clear top ceiling. It also provides electrical plugs and Internet connections. The dining car gives you almost a 360-degree view and if you time it right, you can have your breakfast during sunrise and your dinner at sunset. On my return train I had dinner over the grassy Colorado plains where a bright yellow sun dipped below the horizon as purple mountains stood tall in the background amid the reds, pinks, blues and lavender clouds streaking the sky. There’s not much as scenic or simple as Nature’s paintbrush!
Railway workers tend to be jaunty and a little quirky rather than staid and technical like airline pilots.
“La Junta (Colorado) is the next stop,” says the announcer with an emphasis on the “J” and ending the word with a lilt.
“Here is beautiful, downtown Princeton (near Chicago),” he says another time.
In the dining car wait staff routinely joke around with each other and with passengers. Many people who work the rails are avid rail fans themselves, only they are able to play the part. Dinner is an especially exciting challenge for the servers who must contend with a wobble here and a jerky turn there. This alone is cause for conversation.
My attendant on the way to Santa Fe must have been a history buff as he shared stories about key points of interest once we reached Colorado and New Mexico. For example, he told us about the Civil War battle in Glorietta, NM (I didn’t know the war was out there) and alerted us to a particularly scenic spot. Going through such places make them real rather than abstractions on a map!
Trains are a safe way to travel. Conductors and attendants pass through the entire train from time to time throughout the trip to make sure all is well. They help you if you need anything, have a question or just want to talk a bit. In other words, they have time for you and give it rather freely.
If you book a sleeper, an attendant makes up your bed in the evening and tears it down in the morning. He also makes sure you have water and coffee during the trip and access to the New York Times in the morning.
Stretching out on a bed at night is a welcome change from the day’s seated position. The bed vibrates a little amid the thumping of wheels on tracks, but it provides a better sedative than Sominex.
Throughout the night but especially during bedtime and morning you hear the occasional slam of compartment doors as well as the low creaks and squawks of train cars rub against each other. Someone might walk by in pajamas on the way to the bathroom or shower. This is train culture, too, and it’s a fun diversion from ordinary conventions!
Taking a shower on a train is a particularly unique experience and not just because you are in a moving object. One shower stall is supposed to accommodate everyone in your car and somehow everyone who wants one gets it. Actually, this is a rare opportunity to share space and you see that it really works. The shower is a tight squeeze but the water is hot and the hand-held nozzle gives you greater flexibility to bathe your entire body.
I’ve slept in coach in my clothes for 34 hours and I’ve taken a shower in sleeper class after an overnight. The latter is surely better, and I felt clean, refreshed and ready for a new day. Amtrak provides soap and clean towels.
Riding a long haul train at night has its own special enchantment. Streetlights and building lamps glow slightly higher than the horizon. A lonely car moves through a sleepy town. Red warning lights flash and clang their bells at crossings. Tall, dimly lit grain elevators rise up in farmlands; they are the rural skyscrapers. Little red lights blink at the top of communication towers. Finally, and most importantly, you get a rare view of the stars.
Yes, yes, yes, there are disadvantages to the train. They’re not always on time. The aisles are small and making it difficult to walk as the train bounces on the tracks, especially when you must pass people going in the opposite direction. You excuse yourself, maybe laugh at the struggle, figure out who goes first and politely pass. Actually, this is an example of what goes on in public space, a phenomenon we have gotten away from as we rely on private transportation, our cars, to get us to where we want to go.
In truth, trains are among the last public spaces left in our impersonal, high-security, privatized society and they demand a different kind of behavior. You must interact with other passengers—strangers—in a respectful, face-to-face way. And, people seem to want—and conductors try to ensure—an environment that is absent the omnipresent cacophony of electronic devices and boisterous talking simply because you all are travelers on the same train. Of course, the Lounge Car is available for those who prefer more spirited interaction.
As with any public space, trains beckon you to explore them in a number of ways. You can walk from car to car to stretch your legs, use the restroom or get a snack. You can go to the Lounge Car to play cards, observe the scenery or just find a new place to sit. You can also go to the Dining Car for a delicious meal at a table that is complete with a tablecloth, cloth napkins, real silverware and friendly, unrushed servers. Because space is limited and every seat a premium, you are seated with other passengers if you are alone or traveling with one or two others. This is how you meet some interesting people who are usually willing to share their lives or some stories with you.
And, then you learn something else about public space that is totally unexpected: the passengers develop a degree of trust among themselves. In riding with people a long way, you at least recognize them even if you don’t talk to them. Some you get to know through casual conversation. That’s when you realize that our more privatized society has actually cut us off from each other and made us more suspicious that some unknown thug will jump out from the shadows to rob, beat or kill us. The train reminds us that indeed there is another way.
Finally, the return home after a long cross-country train ride is particularly sweet because the time you’ve spent and space you’ve traversed are now a part of you—and, you’ve traveled it slowly!
Photo is of Olga at the Lamy, New Mexico station waiting for Amtrak's Southwest Chief