photo by Sheri Dixon

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Getting There From Here

I love trains.

Not freight trains, although some of them have car after car of totally kickass graffiti treating folks stopped at railroad crossings to an ever shifting mural of urban life, dreams and imagination.

Passenger trains- generally Amtrak here in the US, are the trains who hold a near and dear place in my heart.

I cannot step foot on an airplane without massive debilitating panic, I cannot step foot on a boat without puking my toenails up, but I can ride sea to shining sea in the rocking clickety clack embrace of a train.

The cheap seats are the best seats in the house- the private sleeper cars are tiny and cramped, and would make my heebie jeebie claustrophobia tip into overtime- but in coach, there are windows on both sides from front to back to see out of- to enjoy the scenery in seats that are mightily more comfortable than any airplane seat I've been in.

I've ridden the train from Milwaukee to Chicago, Milwaukee to South Dakota, Milwaukee to St. Louis, Milwaukee to Los Angeles, Texas to Minnesota, Texas to Chicago and Texas to Austin (Texas).

I've ridden the train as a child and with children.

And here's the coolest thing about the train (in my opinion anyway).

When you fly, you're going the fastest (supposedly) way from point A to point B. There is no scenic or relaxing benefit to any part of the flying experience.

When you drive, there is scenery aplenty- but the driver is limited by having to watch...the ROAD, and the passengers keep messing up the schedule by insisting on stopping to go to the bathroom every few hours.

When you take the bus...eww.

But the train is different.

Train passengers are those who want the scenery while not stopping to pee. They want to get from point A to point B but aren't in a terrible hurry to do so.

People on trains tend to not be in business suits, or in a rush, or crabby.

People on trains tend to be college students, retired people, families.

Boarding a plane feels a little like a cattle call- herded up the ramp like so many steers after leaving your luggage to (hopefully) be loaded onto the same plane going to the same destination.

Boarding a train is an Event- the train thunders up, whistle blowing, steams to a halt, and the conductors shout the age-old "All Aboard!" and ceremoniously help passengers up into the train- leave your carry on luggage on the first floor and up to the coach seats on the upper level- it's the TRAIN- no one will bother it. Really.

Once aboard, there's no "Please remain seated till further notice". You're free to wander up to the observation car (where they show movies), the dining car during mealtimes, or downstairs to the bathrooms. Whenever you want/need to.

Kids love the train. They're not strapped into carseats and their ears never pop. Everyone sleeps better on a train than in a car or plane- if it's raining that's an added bonus- the rain sings you to sleep while the train rocks you.

Now that everyone's worried about peak oil, and the cost of gasoline, mass transporation is finally and for real coming to the forefront here in this country- the "rugged individualism" of the US has kept us stubbornly clinging to our "one car per driver/go where we want when we want" mentality.

I know Amtrak gets alot of bad press- the routes are weird, and they generally run late- hours late in some cases.

But here's the thing.

Amtrak uses trains. Trains use train tracks.

All the track in this country is owned by the freight companies, who allow Amtrak to use certain tracks during certain times. That's the problem. Amtrak needs free rein to all the tracks all the time and they could put together routes that serve the entire country and would run on time.

I hope we reach a point very soon where the above can be reality and I hope that once it does, riding the train catches on.

I have yet to see a happy child get off of an airplane, or unfold out of the backseat of a car after thousands of miles of fast food, being poked by siblings and hollered at by parents.

But my son has met new friends on every train trip we've taken, has slept soundly snuggled in the seat next to me, and considered the train ride an integral part of the trip instead of "the icky part before getting to the fun stuff".

And I'll never forget the look on the faces of a grandfather and grandson we met on our Texas/Minnesota trip- a trip just myself and my not-quite-two-year-old son took (something I'd never attempt via plane or car).

If I had to guess, I'd guess their ages at 6 and 66. This pair of adventurers was wearing matching striped railroad hats, and had been on the train almost a month- they were riding all Amtrak routes over the summer with short stops every few days to shower and sight-see.

They were happy, they were excited. They were reveling in just being together for a summer neither one would ever forget.

And that's the magic of Vacation- it's not the destination, it's the company.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, a truly wonderful essay!!! Makes me want to jump on and ride one today :D