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.