The first mountain I ever saw was through the window of a train. I was young, though I don’t remember exactly how young. My family took Amtrak heading west out of Illinois to visit relatives. I peered out as my mother patiently explained that the craggy, pointed thing in the distance was called a mountain. It was quite the sight for a child used to mildly rolling hills and flat corn fields.
I grew up in a railroad town, Galesburg, Ill., my brother and me waving at the man in the caboose as the freights rocked down the tracks. I still love trains. I’m writing this from New York City. I got here from Albuquerque the long way, by Amtrak, by way of Chicago. It’s three days and two nights on a train, sleeping tucked into coach class like a human accordion.
I, too, want faster. I just traded in my Moto G for a more powerful Moto X. I lust after the latest laptop processors and curse my DSL connection when it crawls. I like to watch speedy cars zip around tracks and human beings sprint quicker than ever before in the Olympics. When it comes to travel, however, my desire for speed dwindles. I don’t want to get there yesterday; I want to devour the landscape and revel in the chaos, decay and beauty of this country. I want to go by train.
This latest journey brought me pronghorn antelope, frozen against the golden scrapes of grass in the high plains of New Mexico. Magpies fell from trees, eyes set on some shiny bauble on the ground. Deer dashed away through forest thickets. Century-old factories built from bricks and pride collapsed slowly into themselves, victims of neglect, loneliness and a loss of purpose.
Happy hour on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak’s train from Los Angeles to Chicago, consisted of a strange beverage called a BuzzBallz, a potent margarita-like concoction served in a round, green plastic container. I sipped this in the conversational company of an electrician, an ER doctor and a hoop-dancing performance artist as the blank canvas of southeastern Colorado faded into an orange-flecked dusk. This is not the sort of experience you get while flashing along in an airplane, mere hours from your destination.
The US national rail service began operations in 1971 and currently covers around 21,300 miles on its routes. As much as I would love to idealize train travel as a romantic, throwback way to rove, it does come with its compromises. Sleeper cars are highly expensive, leaving the budget-minded to curl up in coach seats in cars that are often set to either “freeze” or “broil.” The friendly attendants no longer offer you a little white pillow with which to while away the night. You can, however, buy one along with a thin blanket for $8 in the lounge car.
I got into a discussion with my husband about the old factories and warehouses of America’s past. They are so beautiful — aesthetic and practical jewels of industry gilded with copper and statues. Red-brick palaces of work and creation. Today, warehouses are thrown together with metal siding and no sense of artistry or elegance. Why were the buildings of a century ago so handsome while so many modern ones have all the charm of a shoebox?
My husband’s theory hinges on how the companies and workmen of yore wanted to be proud of the structures they built, and to display their skill at construction. Corporations of today just want what behooves the bottom line. It’s the actions of entities versus the labors of people. Corporations demand profit. People demand beauty.
So it was that three days after I boarded the Southwest Chief (later transferring to the Lake Shore Limited), I arrived in New York’s Penn Station with a crick in my neck and my mind rolling with fog-soaked forest landscapes, old cars rusting into the dirt in ravines, bison laying in shaggy piles and rusted railroad bridges weeping red iron from their rivets. Demand beauty. Take the train.