Monday, January 11, 2010

Trains: Turning Travel from Mundane to Meaningful

I recently had the pleasure to substitute Amtrak for my routine six-hour drive to Washington, DC. Despite adding two hours to the trip and repeated questioning of my sanity by my train-phobic wife, my initial enthusiasm for the journey built to genuine excitement as the date drew near.

As a child, trains never interested me. I grew up too far away from functioning tracks to ever hear a distant whistle. Traffic, blaring radios with booming bass, random sirens, ice cream truck music, rattling bicycle chains, jet airplanes coming or going from the two major airports just 20 miles away -- these were the sounds of my childhood. Literary and pop-culture references to the allure of the "train in the distance" were lost on me. I understood them but I couldn't fully appreciate them. The episode of the Andy Griffith Show in which Opie planned to run off with the hobo confused me. What was the attraction? It didn't help that the town in which I lived from birth to college offered everything an active mind could want. There was no need or desire to flee.

Transplanted to semi-rural North Carolina 20 years ago, I often have watched the passenger and freight trains grind noisily through the continually rejuvenating Broad Street shopping district in the small town near my home. Walking the dog at night I hear the whistle wafting through the pine trees as it calls to passing neighbors. Traveling down local rural highways, delivering the kids to school or heading off on a business trip, I catch glimpses of train cars bumping and dodging their way in and out of sight behind roadside groves of pines, scrub oaks and dogwoods. Lumbering beasts, starting from nothing and gradually building momentum until thundering along with unstoppable force, the trains called to my inner child and demanded his attention.

My lovely wife tried five or six years ago to satisfy my new-found fascination. Some local folk had started a dinner train that would run from one end of the county to the other, serve a nice meal, and return to the starting point after two hours. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience but riding on a train did not satisfy my desire to travel by train. The novelty of the two-hour dinner ride -- much the same as the novelty of the two-hour Polar Express round-trip train ride in the mountains of North Carolina a few years back -- served only as a tease. I decided, at the first feasible opportunity, I would commute for business or pleasure by train.

Several obstacles stood in the way.

First: train routes are not flexible. New lines of track will not be laid out simply because I need to get to Elkridge instead of Union Station. Second: train schedules require flexibility. An eight-hour train ride to DC, with set departure and arrival times and the distinct possibility of running late, means an entire day dedicated only to travel. Third: you can't pack your car in your luggage. Once you get where you're going, you will need to rent a car to get around.

After several years of toying with the idea, the opportunity finally presented itself last fall. A business trip made it necessary for me to make sales calls in and around downtown Washington, DC. The day of travel arrived and the train was almost two solid hours late. Eventually settled into an exceptionally wide and comfortable coach seat, I plugged in and got to work. While the day was productive, it also was filled with little pleasures that I kept wishing I could share with my family. The freedom to move around the train was liberating. The passing scenery at times captivating.

In the dining car -- on the trip north assigned to sit with a young couple traveling home from their Florida honeymoon and a woman with her two grandsons on the trip south -- I discovered the highlight of my trip. I wasn't sure about it at first. After all, like most people in our spoiled society, I am accustomed to staying safely in my little bubble, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact until getting to my destination. While the food may have been merely passable the company was pure entertainment. What a wonderful level of connection we Americans would have with each other if we were forced on a regular basis to sit across a table from complete strangers for an hour and make small talk over an otherwise unremarkable meal!

In the end, the entire experience left me longing for more. Rest assured, the next chance I get to ride Amtrak again I will. Look for me in the dining car. I'll ask the hostess to sit you at my table.

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