Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Train Trip

Chicago's Union Station
Because the space in which the Symphony performs is closed while OWU renovates the chapel organ, Warren did not start 2013 in the midst of rehearsals and executive preparations for a March concert. While it is never easy for him to slip the surly bonds of the Symphony, February represented as good a time to get away as he was ever likely to get. So we were extravagant with our time and took the train to Portland to meet Ramona.

If passenger rails still threaded this country, I would never fly again. It was that wonderful an experience.

We traveled by train from Toledo, Ohio (our nearest Amtrak station) to Chicago, where we boarded the Empire Builder to Oregon. As a nod to my health and energy levels, we bought a roomette. (More about it later.)

We have traveled by train before, but never so far for so long. We left Toledo in the early morning, after a very short night and a two hour drive from our home.  I thought briefly of napping on the five hour trip to Chicago. But as the train rolled through the dark, I caught a glimpse of someone standing in their kitchen, the yellow light of the room spilling out into the still, dark morning and I could not go back to sleep.

It is that intimacy—that quick glimpse into peoples' lives—that makes train travel so gripping. Train travel is travel at a personal level and rhythm. The train flashed through Indiana downtowns that mirrored our own, the Italianate structures so familiar that I felt I could walk down those strange streets and not feel disoriented. As we moved further west, we passed little towns pinned in place by the train tracks that split through them. The vaster the spaces became between communities, the more the train served as connecting thread and viable short-distance mass transit.

There is a soliloquy about baseball in the movie "Field of Dreams," about the importance of baseball to this nation's history. I feel the same about railroads and train travel. As E.B. White noted more than 50 years ago, we did ourselves a great disservice when we turned our backs on passenger trains and took to the air. Now, as airlines disappear and airports contract back in upon themselves (St. Louis and Cincinnati, to name two), I wonder whether we will turn our eyes back to the rails as a viable way to travel.

As I mentioned, we bought a roomette for our travels. An adventure in micro-living if ever there was one, a roomette requires two adults to live in a space in which one youth might comfortably take up residence. It taught me a lot about packing light and being compact in how much space one takes up. Fortunately, Warren and I are highly compatible travelers (no surprise), so we made the roomette work with a great deal of laughter and love. While a roomette adds to the cost of travel, it includes hot showers (a wonderful luxury), linens, and all meals, which on Amtrak are substantial and excellent. (There is a full galley on a dining car, and the food is cooked right there on the train.) I don't think Warren and I stopped smiling from the time we got on the train in Chicago, we were so pleased.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, like E.B. White, also spent a lot of time on trains, even after she took to the air. In a letter to her younger sister, written while en route from the east to Mexico City (where her father was the US Ambassador), she wrote, "Tonight all through supper, having ordered baked apple with cream (I hesitated between that and cornflakes), I regretted the cornflakes. And it occurred to me later that life might so easily be that eternal "If only I'd ordered cornflakes—"

At breakfast, I contemplated the hot crab cakes versus the Amtrak french toast. I chose the french toast. It was magnificent.

I did not once regret the crab cakes.

Sunrise over the Columbia River Gorge 


see you there! said...

I love train travel and go to Oregon and back by train at least once a year. Not as long a trip as yours but I do get a roomette because it is overnight both ways and funny enough always have the french toast for breakfast.

Loved going on this trip with your words. You captured the joy of the train.


Jenny Woolf said...

there is something about train travel that can make you feel you're not quite in this world! it's so much nicer than air or car because you can walk around when you feel like it. As a child I sometimes had to do long train journeys, and after a while I was less entranced by them, though.