Less Than Glamorous
Just to be clear, for those who have never had the pleasure of riding the rail, train travel is less than glamorous. Even the Orient Express isn’t what it used to be. Once a luxury, modern-day train travel connects numerous stops and less-than-reliable timetables. No bartender pours glasses of champagne in the club car while Bing Crosby croons about the upside of snow; in fact, you’ll be lucky to purchase a bowl of overpriced Campbell’s soup. Most people utilize the tracks as an alternate form of commuting from the city, not a vacation to see the countryside.
Imagine the irritation of drivers stopped at a train crossing especially when the train slows down. Passengers in their cars sit anxiously waiting for the final car to move its way on down the line to allow crossing traffic to get on its way. And at the end of the train, how often is there a cute red caboose bringing up the rear? Never – that era of train travel no longer exists. In fact, most trains seem to be a mismatched collection of graffiti-tainted box cars strung together like a seemingly endless hodge-podge of tractor trailers not worthy of eighteen wheels of their own. With unknown contents and mysterious destinations, these hauling bins seem empty of cargo and character, lacking romance and ridership.
No Sleeper Car
We climb the narrow stairs onto the Amtrak in mid-afternoon with barely enough time to snap a photo while boarding to capture the memory. Away the silver tubes pull from our simple station and we spend the first hour seeing our familiar city from vantage points we miss from our automobile’s limitations of the existing roads. We peer into backyards, some dumping grounds and some miniature meadows, and we glimpse behind the scenes of our city as we stop periodically in the suburbs and depots near our hometown. Just when we pick up steam and the train begins its rhythmic clatter, we slow down for another town, another passenger, and another stop on our travels north. Walking loses any semblance of grace as if every passenger attempts their first steps out of infancy.
And through the night the pattern repeats: depart a station, leave another town behind, fall back asleep to the rocking of the passenger car, awake to the squeal as the train slows into another town, bounce awkwardly as the engine fumbles to a stop, and listen to passengers try to find their seats as the train lurches again and the passengers attempt to doze until the next application of the brakes. Somehow, this is not how the song sounded when Professor Harold Hill hopped across the Iowa state line, but at least I can say I’ve ridden the rails.