This past weekend I boarded an Amtrak train from Chicago to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mostly I did it to avoid traffic on the way to visit family, but I also planned a pleasant period of uninterrupted reading.
The verdict? I loved it.
Of course, as a fan of all things sepia-toned, I possess a rather dated mental image of long-distance rail travel, at least in a cinematic sense. To my imagination’s horror, there was no billowing smoke stack. No roaring hiss of steam. No elegant ladies clad in dark corsets, cage-crinoline skirts, waist coats, and myriad layers of confusing accoutrements.
Instead, I watched more recent cinematic beauty blur past my window. A wall of aged trees fell away to reveal open vistas of lush American countryside. Rolling hills. Peaceful lakes. Active farms. Dilapidated barns. The wooden ramparts of anytown USA mixed with the ruins of former manufacturing glory. It’s all there. Green as far as the eye can see, sometimes crossed by an endless procession of steel giants with cables slung over their shoulders, gallivanting across the countryside, carrying electricity and fiber optics to the masses. Great flocks of birds danced above the horizon, their silhouettes in stark relief to the pink orange hues of sunset. Stunning. Beautiful. [Insert More Adjectives Here].
The experience instigated constant wondering. Imagine the allure and excitement in the early days of steam travel. It must have been a filthy, noisy endeavor, but it had the power to change how people interacted with the world. Suddenly, humans possessed the ability to shrink the globe, to travel great expanses in a short period, like children allowed for the first time to cross the street and venture beyond the sight of their own front door.
Today, we are spoiled by the wonders of air travel. Our own unique human experience lets us fly at absurd speeds, leaping half way around the globe in a day. Yet it’s more sheltered. More distant. More abstract. Observing the world from above feels like a scientific experiment viewed through a lens. You’re not part of what you’re seeing. You’re above it, beyond it, more observer than participant. Toss in the airlines’ incessant disregard for passenger comfort in favor of profit, and you’ll notice modernity has rightfully worn holes in the magical cloth of airline travel. Those holes can reveal the lost pleasure of standard gauge steel track rolling beneath your toes, the joy of a journey happening around you instead of beneath you, across a world somehow more tangible despite obvious barriers.
Indeed, there is romance in the rails. I, for one, am excited to ride again, and not just because of the easily accessible cafe car.
Of course, once the sun sets and the views succumb to darkness, you’re left with what seems terribly similar to an airplane flight through particularly volatile turbulence. I didn’t say it was perfect.