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Ridin’ The Rails Amtrak Style

March 7, 2009

A teaser inside today’s paper regarding what was coming in Sunday’s edition, made me cheat and go online to read it early.  Though I have not been on board an Amtrak train, much less taken one across the nation, this article creates the desire to ride the rails. Great writing about a great topic makes for a great read.  The old-time feel of train travel makes more sense all the time as the economy changes, and transportation costs increase. 


SOMEWHERE on the west side of Illinois, the Amish men broke out a deck of Skip-Bo cards and I joined them as the cafe car attendant, using an iPod and a set of portable speakers, broadcast Eckhart Tolle, author of “A New Earth,” discoursing on the virtues of stillness.

“Life gets discombobulating,” the attendant said, calmly. “This helps.”

On both sides of the train window, American scenery unfolded. A dirty layer of ice and snow subdued the still cropland to the distant horizon. At the next table a woman stuck her nose in a novel; a college kid pecked at a laptop. Overlaying all this, a soundtrack: choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k — the metronomic rhythm of an Amtrak train rolling down the line to California, a sound that called to mind an old camera reel moving frames of images along a linear track, telling a story.

The six Amish men were in their mid-20s, and they were returning home to Kolona, Iowa, after a three-week cross-country tour. They had especially liked the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Ky., and Niagara Falls. As we rolled across white plains, they pointed out which plots grew beans and which grew corn. To my eye, the dormant land revealed few clues.

Around the train car lounged Americans traveling for work and others for family, people for whom train travel is a necessity and those for whom it’s merely quaint, first-time riders and probably even a few “foamers” — the nickname that train workers privately give the buffs who salivate over the sight of a locomotive.

I had ridden long-distance trains in India and China but never across my own country. I suppose that after two years of receiving images saturated in red, white and blue from all corners of the nation, I wanted to make my own. The fading glow of the Inauguration, I thought — a moment for national unity and new beginning, both imagined and real — would be a good light in which to meet the country again. And it was winter, after all; I didn’t feel like driving.

With every uptick in gas prices, Americans in general are thinking less about driving. With each degree of global warming, trains become even more sensible. And with each new surcharge and each new item of clothing one is required to remove to board an airplane — and with every small-town commercial airport and cabin amenity that vanishes forever — the rails beckon. Last year, Amtrak set all-time ridership records.

Traveling cross-country by train takes time, but less than I expected: within four days, one crosses the Hudson River and reaches San Francisco Bay at Emeryville, Calif. I gave myself a week, stopping in Chicago, Denver and, for variety, a remote town in Nevada that had a nice ring to its name.

THE Amtrak Cardinal rolled out of New York’s Pennsylvania Station slightly before dawn on a frigid January morning. I had booked a roomette — a cozy compartment just larger than a Japanese capsule that converts from two facing seats into bunk beds. The attendant asked if I wanted a wake-up call the next morning, pointed out the showers down the hall and said that breakfast would be served after Trenton.

The roomette’s décor — blue curtains, a (sealed) metal ashtray on the armrest — evoked the era of Pan Am. On the upholstered seats rested two hangers, two pillows and a crisp copy of The New York Times, which on that morning featured a photo of the ex-Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, projecting an image of false calm. Chicago, all aboard.

On a two-dimensional map, the crosshatched lines that represent railroad tracks resemble stitches binding patches of textured fabric. Essentially, these remnants of America’s rail network predate 1910, and unless you’re on it, you scarcely notice it — crossing under our freeways, passing through once-thriving rural towns that today’s highways avoid. We consider train tracks indifferently, the way we do electricity wires: as behind-the-scenes infrastructure, a ubiquitous but background feature of our landscape.

At least this is how it seemed en route to Washington, as the train rolled past unkempt backyards and graffitied factory walls, icy ball fields and the back doors of crumbling buildings. America presents itself to the streets; the tracks take in a less manicured backside. How refreshing a sight.

Our consumer society may still rely on trains to transport things, but those things are pitched to drivers in cars, not to passengers on trains. And so, as early as New Jersey, I realized something that would only feel remarkable a few days later, in the Nevada desert: it’s still possible to travel 3,585 miles across the United States without being the target of billboards, golden arches or absurdly large twine balls. The rails offer a view onto Unbranded America — the land as it was.

The Cardinal makes 31 stops in 27 hours on a southerly, U-shaped path from New York to Chicago. It’s not the most direct of Amtrak’s routes, but it charts a course through textbook American history: Baltimore; Washington; Manassas, Va.; Cincinnati.

At Philadelphia, a woman named Mary Ellen Phillips Belcher and her grown daughter Ladonna settled into the roomette across from mine. They were returning home to Kentucky after visiting a relative in suburban Pennsylvania. They usually drive; the train ride was satisfying a long-held curiosity.

Life stories and first names have a way of surfacing between strangers. Mary Ellen lived her girlhood days in Junction City, Ky., with four brothers and a single mom, along the old Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks.

“We didn’t have money to buy cigarettes, so we’d get us a coffee can and collect the butts thrown off the train,” she said. “Mother would always leave a skillet of cornbread and brown beans outside the house for the hobos coming through. Evidently, they had passed word on to their friends that Mother was a kind lady. She’d never have enough food for us, but she’d always have something for somebody.”

“I said, ‘One of these days I’m going to ride a train to remember Mother and those hobos’ ” she told me, in way that moved me. “I guess I had to be 65 before I took that ’venture.”

Behind her, Washington’s monuments drifted slowly across the glass, and as we passed the Capitol, I imagined a bureaucrat inside considering what to do about Amtrak. As a quasi-public rail service, Amtrak stays afloat with a little more than $1 billion a year from the federal government. Last September, for the first time since 1997, Congress approved an Amtrak authorization bill that could nearly double it. The stimulus package President Obama signed in February includes $8 billion for high-speed and intercity rail projects, and one would think that so long as “Amtrak Joe” Biden holds high office, trains will continue to get some love.

After Charlottesville, Va., I planted myself in the lounge car, which divides the coach and sleeper cars and serves the social function of the train’s town square or neighborhood pub — an egalitarian place for conversation and chips.

“D’ya see that doe?” a man from Virginia asked me, pointing outside. “Still as can be.”

I was curious about whether he hunted. He laughed and said, “Don’t need to now; my boy does it for me.”

A man nearby overheard and chuckled. “I used to,” he said, “before I started huntin’ the two-legged kind.”

“I wish they had a gambling car.”

“At least they got beer.”


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