Friday, May 8, 2009

Train Kept A Rollin'

“Some men are searching for the Holy Grain, but there ain’t nothing sweeter than ridin’ the rail.” - Tom Waits

I recently took a train ride up the California coast into Oregon to visit a friend on his birthday. Train rides provide a necessary function for me besides the obvious transport from point A to point B. They allow me to put the time element in someone else’s hands. I get to shelf the hustle and bustle and let time grow big, fat and lazy, which is why I love baseball too. It’s out of my hands. I have no choice but to settle in with a flask and book or watch the scenery roll or let my own thoughts draw out like a blade in the night. You are forced by the nature of it to relax. You can fret all you want about the time but in the end it’s not up to you. You must take your hands off the controls and let the train roll on.
My generation’s biggest obstacle is learning to slow the clocks down. We find ourselves here and there trying desperately to get there or here at maximum speed and we forget to actually look with big eyes at what’s around us. Because of this our heart rates soar, our collective patience is consistently marked absent on the daily virtue roster. I’m slowing learning to battle these afflictions and roll steady on.

Modern train travel bests airline travel in all ways except for the time element which I’ve already addressed. They have entire cars dedicated to sleeping so if you feel like crashing, crash. You can actually get off the train if you want to stretch your legs, have a smoke, snap off a photo. Try doing that on an airline. The seats are much bigger and you can recline all the way without feeling like a jerk for cramping up the guy behind you. And then, of course, there is the nostalgia…

I adore these big locomotives because they conjure up images of the American frontier, of lonesome gamblers in the wee small hours of the morning, of heartbroken lovers, of desperadoes, of escape. In short, they are irreplaceable icons in the American narrative, and I am utterly infatuated with Americana. Is this because riding the rails is reminiscent of a simpler time? I doubt it. I suppose that every generation has a conceit that theirs is the generation most beset by troubling times and conflict. I believe it’s about what Marcel Proust once called “the eyes of discovery.” The real joy of discovery is not in seeing new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. My eyes are always clearer, brighter, more perceptive after a journey by train, and not because someone commented on them, but because I can feel it in my mind and that is enough. Yes, that is enough.

Passenger trains also bear the most idyllic and fanciful names in the American lexicon. A run down of my favorites:

The American Royal Zephyr from Chicago to Kansas City
The Choctaw Rocket from Memphis to Amarillo
The Flying Yankee from Bangor to Boston
The Gulf Coast Rebel from St. Louis to Mobile
The Knickerbocker from New York to Boston
The Midnight Special from Chicago to St. Louis
The Motor City Special from Detroit to Chicago
The Orange Blossom Special (Yes, of Johnny Cash fame) from New York to Miami
The Southwest Chief – from L.A. to Chicago
The Twin Star Rocket – from Minneapolis to Houston
The Wabash Cannonball – from Detroit to St. Louis

So now, as I type this, I have an image in my head of rocketing down the rails, huge steam locomotive grinding through the Rockies, blistering up and down the eastern seaboard, plowing through the big Midwest. This is America and I’m going to see every inch.


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