Riding the Rails
I’m rolling across the Palouse of eastern Washington State, a mix of sagebrush and wheat fields in thin soil over basalt – land scoured by the great glacial Missoula floods at the end of the last ice age, its former topsoil deposited in my home Willamette Valley and carried out to sea. My conveyance is Amtrak’s Empire Builder – one of the skeletal remnants of a once-vast network of passenger trains. My destination is Minnesota, land of my birth and still the place where I have spent the most years in this lifetime.
You might find it odd that I’m writing about trains on a blog about ecological spirituality. And indeed I ought to be careful to separate my own idiosyncratic love of railroads – almost a cliché among a certain type of nerdy man who might be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum – from any broader claim about the virtues of riding the rails.
There is, of course, the matter of efficiency. Railroads move more tons more miles using less energy compared any other form of transport over land. Steel wheels on steel rails create much less friction than rubber tires, and closely-coupled cars all in a row minimize wind resistance compared to a comparable number of trucks or buses. Furthermore, railroads can be readily electrified, using power generated by wind and water, which will be an advantage in a world rapidly running short of liquid fossil fuels.
But there is much more to it than that. There is a certain groundedness that is only achieved by riding the rails, seeing and experiencing all of the places in between here and there, gaining a sense of perspective and distance and understanding of the planet we call home. By comparison, flying feels like an act of transcendence, of stepping from one city to another by way of a few hours in a cramped metal tube – the features on the land below so small as to seem unreal and often obscured by cloud or darkness. Driving or taking the bus provides a similar groundedness and perspective, yet it is papered over by a veneer of artificiality: the same billboards and fast food restaurants and mini-marts lining the highways and freeways from sea to shining sea, the same vistas of dashed white lines and SUVs and eighteen wheelers superimposed upon deserts and salt flats, mountains and valleys, cornfields and pastures.
Railroads are different. They cut straight through, unvarnished, occupying a narrow strip that is barely visible from on board. Railroads follow the contours of the land and the spokes of commerce, winding through canyons and finding the lowest mountain passes, curving gracefully through rolling hills and slicing arrow-straight across playas, coursing past refineries and sawmills, factories and canneries, decaying industrial ruins and encampments of humans who have fallen through the cracks. The view from the train is the real world, undisguised by the branded monotony of global capitalism.
Then there is a particular human ecology that is only found on trains, where people are free to move about, to meet, to mingle, to play cards and make music. From The City of New Orleans to Big Sky, there is a reason why far more songs have been written about riding trains than about flying or riding the bus. Over many rides across the northern plains over the years, I have met film crews and traveling musicians. I have shared stories with a seventeen-year-old who had lived through far too much already, fleeing a drug-addled abuser for a new life halfway across the country. I have gazed across the Columbia River with a tattooed mixed martial artist with a terminal diagnosis, making the most of his remaining time. I have shared homebrewed mead with strangers, played my father’s songs and a few of my own on strange guitars. I have been seated in the dining car next to teachers and oil workers, retired lawyers and Mennonite families, police officers and ecologists and hog farmers.
There is an idea in the popular culture that railroads are old, that they are a relic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that passenger trains have more nostalgic than practical value. In the timeline of Hollywood movies, railroads were replaced by the Interstate highways of the 1950s, and then by ubiquitous and affordable air travel toward the end of the 20th century, soon to be followed by a Star Trek future that is diverging more and more obviously from our actual trajectory, to the point that even true believers are beginning to have doubts.
I would like to question this idea, as I often question the narratives of Progress that undergird our modern society. When self-styled Progressives and entrepreneurs talk about trains, they envision shiny aerodynamic bullet trains traveling 200 mph on dedicated tracks: the sort of projects that can seldom be completed in an age of decline and that compromise the inherent resource efficiency of rail by fighting a 200 mph headwind and driving straight tracks across crooked landscapes with massive earthworks, bridges, and tunnels. The sort of projects that – even if completed – become just another toy for the upper classes, priced beyond the reach of most.
I would like to think that in a world that embraced an ecological spirituality yet retained technical capacities – the sort of world I hope that we move toward in the decades and centuries ahead – we would travel by rail. And not on bullet trains but on the existing rail lines, restoring passenger service in areas where it has disappeared and adding frequency and capacity to the minimal network that Amtrak has kept alive for fifty years. With resources in shorter supply travel will be expensive, so we will not travel so much and when do, perhaps it will seem right that it is as much about the journey as about the destination, connected to the ground below by ribbons of steel, familiarizing ourselves with the vast and varied beauty of our home planet and the human ecology that we have built upon her, stepping out of our atomized existence and inhabiting a transient human community from all walks of life, taking time to write and reflect and snuggle and relax before stepping into a new place, inhabiting and experiencing rather than transcending space and distance.
As I finish this I’m rolling through golden flowering canola fields in North Dakota, punctuated by small towns and marshes full of mudhens and egrets – a softly undulating landscape of deep fertile soils, Canadian bedrock ground to dust over geologic time by the advance and retreat of ice sheets over hundreds of millennia. In another ten hours I’ll be stepping off the train in St. Paul, reuniting with family for ten days before returning to the rails for the journey homeward. For those readers who have never traveled by rail, I highly recommend it, even with the aging equipment, erratic schedules, and occasional disruptions that can make each trip into an adventure.