Monday, April 08, 2013

I love train travel, and here's why

Mostly, because it's slow.

Most people would consider this a negative, but most people are in far too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Life speeds by and the destinations we seek are far less interesting than the journeys we take to get there. Traveling by plane short circuits the best part of the journey, which is the sense of traversing space and time, going from here to there, and processing the experience in real time. When you fly from, say, Los Angeles to New York, your experience of the journey is this: you arrive at a building filled with anxious, usually frustrated people; you stand in lines and have your personal space invaded repeatedly in the name of "security"; you wait with other anxious, potentially frustrated people in a room to find out if you're going to have to wait for a longer period of time, or whether you'll just have to wait the regular period of time; you get in a small crowded room with hundreds of other anxious, potentially frustrated people, and spend four to five hours scrunched in an uncomfortable seat, hoping that when you need to use the bathroom you won't find yourself trapped behind a food cart; you exit this small room and walk through endless corridors without windows to another big room filled with anxious, potentially frustrated people, and wait to see if you're going to get the baggage you handed over hours before to strangers who really don't care if you ever see your shirts again. Then you leave this building and take a bus/car/taxi/train to your "final destination." Where, exhausted and emotionally drained, you spend the next couple of days adjusting to the change of time zone, change of weather, and change of pace.

Yeah, that's traveling in style.

To sum up:

You pack and prep on, say, Sunday for an early-morning Monday flight. It has to be early because you'll be fighting traffic to the airport. And you have to get there at least two hours before your plane takes off to be sure you can get through security in time. So you leave your home on Monday morning at, say, six a.m., which means you have to be up by five a.m., which means you've probably not had a good night's sleep. So, before you even start on your trip, you're emotionally drained and exhausted.

Monday, you travel. Forget Monday. Monday is a lost day.

Tuesday, you recover. You try to do stuff on Tuesday but you're dealing with jet lag and general trip exhaustion, so whatever you do, you more or less do it in a half-stupor. Maybe you tell yourself you're having a good time because you're in a great city and being tired doesn't matter, you're fine, what a wonderful time you're having, let's all go to that museum, let's have dinner, let's see a play. Tuesday night, to your surprise, you crash early and you're asleep hours before your usual bedtime, and when you wake up Wednesday, you're a little disoriented, but you're beginning to feel a little better.

By the end of Wednesday, you finally feel about as good as you felt on Saturday.

And you tell yourself you're having a great time. To prove it, you pack in a lot more activities, fill the hours up with tours, more museums, more restaurants, more touristy things. Surprisingly, none of this will make much of an impact on you in memory, which is why you'll take a ton of pictures, to prove you were actually there at the Statue of Liberty. But you've got to rush to catch the boat back to the city because you have a Broadway show to see at eight and the traffic is a killer going uptown.

Now, in contrast, here's your train trip:

You pack Sunday and get a good night's sleep because your train doesn't leave till eleven and that's well after rush hour, and you don't have to get to the station before ten thirty because there's no security line. And that's Sunday.

So on Monday, you leave home more or less relaxed and you get on the train and you unpack, walk around, have a coffee, read a little, take a nap, enjoy the scenery, talk to your fellow pretty-relaxed passengers, watch a video, do some work (in my case, writing), have a meal, watch the scenery. The scenery is pretty damn nice. And you can see where you've been, you know where you are, and you can imagine where you're going. You have a sense of moving through space. You're not in a small room crowded with other passengers. You're in a moving vehicle passing through places, through towns, over hills, under hills, across fields, past garbage dumps and baseball stadiums and school yards and lakes. You're moving through America. You're traveling in the rhythm of time.

Tuesday, more of the same. The climate is changing, the towns are different, the people getting on and off the train are from a different place, and they occupy a world different from the one you've always known. They aren't rushing to get somewhere, they aren't compelled to see something, they're here, they're here right now, and so are you. Surrounded by rivers and mountains and long fields of grass. And are those cows? Yes, yes, those are cows.

Wednesday, it's night when you move through a large Midwestern city, and the city is a sculpture of light and shadow. You see people moving in lighted windows. You see cars passing on bridges. The trees are different here, the homes are different, it's a different place, and you can see it because you're here, right here in the middle of it all, passing through, slowly, like a long drawn breath.

Thursday, you reach your "destination." But you don't feel pressed to see everything Right Now because you've already seen so much, so you can take your time, you can experience the moment, you can be in the now.

Tell me that's not a better way to travel.

And that's why I love trains.

Also, on a train, you can write a blog post like this while watching the countryside sweep and roll past your window. And then you can post it. Like I'm about to do... Right now.

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