1.10.2011

SLOW ARRIVALS

So here's the thing about a long, very long, train ride. You regress, quickly. You become a baby in a carriage again, being rocked by a soothing, unpredictable motion. You give yourself over to it. You move through space but not of your own volition; you are aware of time passing but only in a meaningless way. Hunger: breakfast, lunch, dinner, all must be tended to, but otherwise, there is nothing at all to do but read, talk, play games, rest, and exclaim in amazement or dismay.








My two sons and I left New York City as the sun was setting, and we were passing West Point by nightfall, following the shadowy reflections of hills in the Hudson, which has a remarkable power--I had not ever followed it, at river level, for so many miles.


We reached Chicago as the sun was rising, and changed trains. From Chicago we began our cross country journey to San Francisco, through Denver, then Salt Lake City. We could not take our eyes off the view speeding past.


I realized, after many miles, it was always the same contrast: landscapes of an unspeakable beauty, and industrial scapes of a frightening majesty.


The thing about arriving at a city by train, rather than by plane, is that you must pass slowly through the back lots, filled with factories and dumps and refineries and power stations. All the things no one wants to see or know about--though they were once considered evidence of man's indomitable power.



Those refineries and factories are necessary and awful; they are stunning, mind-boggling feats of engineering. And they are filthy; many of them spew toxins into the air we breathe and the water we drink. You get a close-up look at them by train, probably the closest you'll come to many of these places. And then you speed out of the cities, and into the mountains, or across valleys. The human hand is everywhere still, but still, too, there are places that defy our brilliant ingenuity. Or at least they have until now.


And you rock gently through in a wash of awe and grief and wonder. Crossing the country by train is overwhelming, visually. It forces you to be aware of what we have been given, and it forces you to consider how we have done by those gifts.


Something, the grandeur, perhaps, or the mysterious beauty that has been there all along, not caring who knew, urges you to come out of your stupor. But something else lulls you into a strange paralysis, a sort of inability to feel responsible for any of it, it is too large, beyond anyone's capacity to embrace. Everything just passes by, you are just passing through. You wake, in the night, and peer out into the blackness, the stars thick, it is all still there, and then you are rocked back to sleep.

A long trip by train cannot be comfortable if you are tall, or tend toward claustrophobia, or persnickety--not on Amtrak, anyway. All the things I worried about ahead of time were silly: there was plenty of water, the food was decent enough, the beds were comfortable and the compartments cozy. The conductors and attendants were unfailingly polite and helpful. But what a shame that Amtrak can't keep things properly clean. Windows were begrimed, even after a swipe from attendants. Surfaces (all plastic) were sticky and ringed. On it goes.

I am now completely nuts about long distance train travel. Quite apart from the pleasure I took in the company of my sons, it is extraordinary to arrive at a pace that affords places the chance to be eloquent about themselves. Most of us haven't seen the half of it. This is such a magnificent world. We are unfathomably fortunate. Time to rouse ourselves to protect it.

23 comments:

simpledaisy said...

I have never gone anywhere by train but your photos make me want to:) The sunrise photo is just beatiful!!!


ps...i'm having a give-away on my blog!! Stop on over if you have a minute:)

wishful nals said...

what a fun adventure!! lovely photos. xo

Bruce Barone said...

Yes,let's work to protect it!

I love seeing your photos in the entry---and reading the words; the beauty found everywhere and in everything.

Thank You for the inspiration.

dpf said...

The trick to successful train trips is to ALWAYS return by plane....!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

There is a romance to train travel; paying attention to our landscape rather than whisking over it, coast to coast, in a plane. Gorgeous photographs, thanks for sharing them with us and reminding us of the majesty of this country.

quintessence said...

I agree with Stefan - I love the romance of it and that you are passing through as opposed to over. And you're right, it's really a shame we can't have clean trains like they do in Europe. Although, when I took the Twentieth Century, I still remember it as being clean and lovely with beautiful table settings for every meal. Sounds like you're having a wonderful time with the boys.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

You must now take the sleeper from London to Fort William!

Jane K. Schott said...

check out for summer the ride from Toronto/Montreal to Vancouver...Banff, the plains, mountains...really an amazing ride with the plexi glass roof.

Barbara said...

I love trains. Going cross country by train is on my to-do list, but as dpf said, return by plane. As always your photographs are as beautiful as your words.
Thanks for the post.

Katrina said...

Clearly, this pace allowed space for you to be as eloquent as the landscape. Thank you for offering us this vicarious journey.

Jess - A Book Hoarder said...

I have driven from CA to NC 4 times and LOVED it because of the beauty I never expected to find along the highway, but the problem with driving is...someone is always driving. You have convinced me I have to take a train ride.

mary said...

Thank you for sharing the deepness of your thoughts and inspiring me even more to be a good and faithful steward of what has so graciously given,

Lotusphx said...

beautiful descriptions! lovely photos! I could feel the rocking and hear the tires on the tracks behind your words... Thanks for sharing, as always!

jayneonweedstreet said...

Your impressions of our great country were similar to mine a year ago when we drove cross country to see our son living in Santa Fe NM. A great and grand spectacle for the most part, and how can you Not want to save it if you have witnessed it!

c said...

see? you make me learn ...

that word, persnickety, sent me to my nearest dictionary (real book, and on-line version), so now I want to know: did you mean fussy or fastidious about small details, OR, did you mean snobbish and pretentious?

;-)

I mean, my husband is well over 6 feet tall, and I know he would be most uncomfortable because of his height, but he is also a bit snobbish ....

I thank you for the great big smile on my face. And so very happy for your great cross country train experience.

Saving and protecting what Nature gave us? absolutely! but do not limit that task to just the USA. The task is so much bigger than that (unfortunately). Wait until you get to India. I have a feeling your heart will be sorely tested when you see a sample of wht the rest of the world is like ("3rd world nations" make up most of our planet).

Hausfrau said...

I found this post quite enthralling and thought-provoking. Know something that saddens me? The high cost of train travel relative to other modes of transportation, at least in Europe (assuming no option for a Eurail pass or something similar). Of course, it's cheaper for my family of four to drive than to take a train anywhere, but it's also very often cheaper to fly!

Stephanie said...

Did it turn out there really was no Internet access? We had it in the highlands of Mexico - on the BUS!

Our longest trip was 5 hours, in comfort, with snacks and beverage, restroom, movie (in Spanish), wonderful scenery of lakes, mountains (volcanos), agriculture, small villages, backstreets and gardens and industry. They lost their trains when they privatized them, but the bus lines are very good.

Warren said...

Almost as epic as your trip is Stephen Ambrose's book about the building of the transcontinental railroads. Ahhhh corruption, bribery, daunting work, and an awesome tale. "Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869" by Stephen Ambrose.
Try that backward pan from the next moving train for an incredible effect -- if you can send an email I will forward a few.
Also I seem to recall that still maybe on the LA-Seattle run they use china and offer better food. And the trans-Canada offers more good food too.

karensandburg said...

well. did you talk to strangers as demanded by son #1?

Twin Momma said...

Dear Ms. Browning,
I have been such a fan of your beautiful writing for years. I wept at the piece you did when your youngest left for college and all you could do for comfort was to i gain him in the greenhouse rocking in your arms. I was fortunate enough to win an edition of the New Garden Paradise years ago, and I mourned the end of your beloved magazine. Blindly, I read, rapt with attention, the piece entitled "Sew Much Better" and was shocked and not at all surprised to discover you were the author. You are the most beautiful writer I have encountered. Thank you.

Valerie said...

Wonderful to hear about your trip, and beautifully expressed, as always. I wasn't surprised by what you encountered in some ways, as, being a Brit, I've taken the train through Europe many a time. Yet, I can't imagine what it must be like, knowing that the whole trip was just passing from one end of a single country to the other. I can understand the paralysis in that way. The US is just so vast, and I've seen relatively little of it. I like that the train takes you through the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes, we have to experience things in order to understand them.

DION MARIE said...

This has inspired me more than anything in a while! fantastic!

Dominique said...

Ah, I am just catching up with comments....wish I had known about the pan shot idea..and my older son was reading the Ambrose book on the train (and throughout California!--it is a long one.)