Although I greatly enjoy traveling by train, it can be frustrating. A trip along the rails gives you “behind the scene” views of city and country life that you just don’t get from the highway. But that intimate view comes at a price, one not measured in money but in time and patience. As I write, I am traveling on an Amtrak train from Baltimore to Savannah. Not long into my journey I realized that travel on Amtrak gives us a taste of travel in the “olden days” when long distance trips were generally undertaken only by immigrants, servicemen and mail order brides,
The first glimpse of the past comes when I enter the train station. Almost every station I’ve been in was built in the early 1900s, the heyday for rail travel. Stained glass ceilings, marble floors, cast iron filigree – they all give a hint of Edwardian elegance that must have once dazzled passengers who rarely traveled more than a few miles from the place of their birth. Even though the marble may be dulled with years of cheap detergent build-up and the decorative cast iron may be nothing more than a rusted column supporting the cover over a long neglected rail platform, the evidence of the past is still there to remind us that in traveling by rail, we join a long line of distinguished-–Eew! What is that gross brown stuff around the edge of my window?
Yes, travel by rail is glamorous, romantic and most of all distracting. The women in the seat next to me has spent the past two and half hours making beeping noises with her phone and the man in front of me repeatedly laughs with a noise that can be classified as a genuine guffaw. If he were an actor, I’d say he was overdoing it a bit. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to determine which of the two sounds is more annoying. But I digress.
Since this is a statue, it is moving at “dead oxen speed,” also known as Amtrak Mystery Speed
And it’s easy to digress because there’s not much to look at outside at the moment. The trees outside the window are nice enough, but I’ve been looking at them now for at least ten minutes because the train is moving at the speed of a covered wagon. And this is my second example of how rail travel gives us a taste of the old days – slowness. Slowitude. Slownicity. Every time a freight train is rumored to be anywhere nearby, our train has to slow to the pace of a vehicle being pulled by overweight oxen. It gives the traveler time to contemplate the individual leaves on each tree as we pass. If my eyesight were better, I could probably count the needles on the pine trees.
This is what it must have been like to cross the country by covered wagon. The scenery could have been beautiful, but after a while, the view might get a little dull and then possibly hateful. It’s pretty obvious that I don’t have the patience for it.
The third aspect of modern train travel that puts me in the shoes of past travelers is the packing of provisions. For my 12+ hour trip, I brought along provisions comparable to what emigrants would carry on a six-month voyage on the high seas. This included water. (While Amtrak provides water that is ostensibly drinkable, the quality is somewhat akin to water stored in 19th Century casks after that six-month sea voyage.) Also, like provisions for travel in the age of sail, I packed fruit with Vitamin C. You never know what food you’ll find on a train, but you can be pretty sure it won’t include much in the way of fresh produce. Besides, if I left the fruit at home I’d just come back to find it moldy in the refrigerator. Better to bring it along and have it get smashed to a pulp in my travel bag.
That laugh in the seat ahead of me is definitely a guffaw. The beeping stopped for a few minutes while my seatmate made a run to the Club Car, but she’s back and so is the phone. It will be interesting to see whether she makes it to her final destination with the phone intact. Accidents happen and I am traveling with enough water to simulate a small tsunami.
So the phone is an example of an aspect of train travel that is distinctly modern. Thanks to the conversation of the man sitting behind me, I now know that someone in his family has a mysteriously locked bedroom door and no one knows who has the key. As a writer, I am of course immediately imagining the worst behind that locked door – dead bodies, stolen paintings, a secret stash of Peewee Herman videos. People talk on the phone in public as if there were in private, and they say things they never would if they realized other people are listening.
When the train is in range of a cellphone tower, travelers can call people to tell them when the train will arrive. That’s very modern. But we have no idea when that will actually be, because travel time on Amtrak is very uncertain. And that’s a fourth way that trains put us in touch with the travelers of the past. I can tell my sister that my train is due to arrive at 9 p.m. And I can tell her that I will call her when I’m a few stops away to let her know when I think we’ll arrive. But actually I have no idea. Like those in a covered wagon trying to ford a swollen stream or hoping against hope that the creaky wheel doesn’t fall off the wagon, I am hoping we don’t have to stop for too many more freight trains. Or other passenger trains with higher priority. Or herds of cows or aliens or whatever else suddenly causes the train to drop to oxen speed or worse yet, dead oxen speed. It can happen anywhere along the line, 600 miles away from your destination or 600 feet from the station. You just never know.
Perhaps that’s part of the romance of train travel. The great mystery – delays with no apparent cause. And then there is the mystery of the stuff on my window and the strange smell that wafted through the car after our last station stop.
So as I once again contemplate the leaves on the nearby trees, I feel a great kinship with the travelers of the past.
Then I decide to head to the Club Car for a beer. The travelers in the past probably had that, too. At least the lucky ones.
The good and bad of Amtrak travel continues. After I wrote the above I discovered that I could post it from the train because it offers free (if slow) wifi. And we stopped moving at oxen speed and began to move at old wooden roller coaster speed, often shaking so much from side to side that I could not keep my fingers on the keyboard. So forget about proofreading the above post – we will just see what happens when I try to upload…