Thursday, January 3, 2008

Training one's mind

If you've ever been to downtown Portland OR, you can't miss the big sign atop the Union Station terminal, admonishing all who pass by to: Go By Train. For the most part, it's advice I've heeded.
     As a consultant and cmty networker, I'm on the road about half the time. As often as possible, I choose the choo-choo to get me where I'm going. (It doesn't always work out: sometimes I'm schlepping books for an event, or traveling to locations so remote that our skeletal national rail service can't get me close—but if Amtrak goes out of business for lack of ridership, don't look at me.)
     I love the train because it's slow. At least compared to a plane. It doesn't travel at 35,000 feet (which I don't believe our bodies were designed for) and you have time to finish digesting what you'd been doing and turn your attention to what's on the menu next without fear of dyspepsia. You even have time to look out the window, read a book, or take a nap—agreeable and rejuvenating practices that have mostly been squeezed out or banished to the very edges of modern life. The train protects my reflective time, allowing me room to pick up a thread of thought and see what I can weave with it. (Why do you think they're called trains of thought?)
     Unlike the plane and bus, your psychic space is not as likely to be violated on a train (traveling as a sardine may get you there quicker, but at what cost?). And unlike the car—that icon of modern mobility—on the train you don't have to pay attention to the road; you can even take a stroll, stretch, or get a snack.
     To be sure, not everyone can sleep well on a train, and it can be a mistake setting up appointments within four hours of scheduled arrival times. Yet for all of that, there is no more civilized way to travel.
     Most of Amtrak's rolling stock was constructed in the 80s—before the impact of laptops and cell phones on everyday life had been foreseen. While most cars have been retrofitted with electric plugs at every seat, they still haven't gotten around to updating the electrical accommodations on the double-decker equipment for the long runs to and from the West Coast. This is both a good thing (mercifully, batteries get drained for the cell phones belonging to people with more minutes than sense, and by the second day out you're not nearly is likely to feel trapped inside a phone booth, forced to listen to what your neighbor had for breakfast, or about Aunt Gerturde's bout with sciatica) and a bad thing (even the nimblest among us cannot always secure the one electric plug per car—usually at seat #55—that was installed to facilitate vacuuming but which will also keep a laptop humming productively for those not prone to motion sickness).
     Yesterday I boarded the eastbound Southwest Chief (train #4 if you're keeping score at home) in Albuquerque. While the train snaked through the snow-dusted southern stretches of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and rumbled up to Raton Pass, I dove into a Sara Paretsky novel, did an acrostic, and basked in the afterglow of two weeks of holiday down-time with my wife.
     This morning I awoke at dawn, just as the train eased into Kansas City 10 minutes early. I had time for a brisk walk to a nearby Panera and secure a large coffee with two shots of espresso (I pretty much know where it's possible to get good java at every service stop on Amtrak's system). The temperature was right at zero—welcome back to January in the MIdwest—yet invigorating. Back on board, I ambled forward to the lounge car to nurse my coffee and the last 60 pages of my pot boiler. About 20 minutes after pulling out of KC, I paused to absorb the full effect as we eased across the icy Missouri River. The random display of pale floes against the dark canvas of the brooding water appeared to me as the liquid negative of lichen rosettes on cemetery marble, or the overlapping mold patterns atop a long-neglected carton of cream. From the train, you can get angles on the landscape you can't get any other way.
     Two hours later I was in La Plata, where I disembarked at the refurbished art deco station and Gigi collected me for the hour drive home. Ironically, the Southwest Chief lumbers within a single crow mile of my home, but the nearest stop is 45 miles away. Living in sparsely populated northeast Missouri (in a county with no stop light), we are lucky to have the train service we do, and I don't begrudge the drive. It extends the trip that much more and allows me time to hear the latest news from home, in one leisurely telling.
     Now, about 22 hours from when I boarded in NM,  I am ready to be home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've taken that same train to Albuquerque from the Midwest. I did so in Christmas 2006 when snows shut down Denver's airport and there were a number of airline refugees on my train. On the return trip, even Raton Pass was impassable due to more snow, so they diverted us through Amarillo and up through Oklahoma and Kansas.

My father caught the train bug from me and traveled the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Chicago this past Christmas. I don't think there's any better way to go.