Pros: no seat belts, you can get up and pee whenever the need arises, electrical outlets at each seat, wi-fi, giant windows, no one has to drive (i.e. the parents can read or work and even do things with the kids), boarding is quick and easy, you can take lots of luggage without a fee. Cons: it takes a while.
We took the train from Kansas City to St. Louis for spring break this year. It was my kids’ first time on an Amtrak and they loved it. The pros beat the cons by far. But there was one additional positive outcome, which surprised me with it’s goodness. A plane gives you the bird’s eye view; the car gets you on the ground, feeling the distance and experiencing each place you travel through; but the train shows you the underbelly.
Clouds hung low and full over the fields as we sped through the countryside. The comforting rock of the train car, the clickety clack over the rails, the view from the giant windows all brought back memories from when I was a child traveling from Kansas to the east coast. Watching the landscape change as one state melted into another. Playing checkers in the observatory car, ordering apple juice at the snack counter, sleeping in the tiny bunks – these are the recollections that hang on in my mind. But on this trip, as an adult, I noticed something altogether different.
“The other side of the tracks” is a phrase for a reason. Trains live on the outskirts of towns. They run past scrap yards, through tunnels plastered with graffiti, over rivers lined with tangled wilderness rather than tidy vacation rentals. They frequent parts of the country most don’t often visit – the small towns of little value to many sight-seers. Amtraks’ once sleek, silver bodies have dulled to gray, and like an aging old man they carry the weight and wisdom of years spent traveling the byways. Even the lonesome whistle harkens back to the past, fits this forgotten mode of transport. I, for one, enjoyed soaking up the nostalgia.
The scenery was beautiful and ugly in increments: the greening fields of spring, crumbling walls of cement, Cottonwood trees dotted with eagles by the wide Missouri River, a hodgepodge of trailer homes and ramshackle houses around a lake, fields of purple flowering henbit and deadnettle. But it was all the underside of the creature – the hidden or forgotten or uncelebrated bit. The part of the country you don’t see unless you go out of your way to do so, for which there are no billboards to make it an attraction. And though I’m not against attractions, per se, sometimes it’s good to see the rest. To travel though a space as an observer, seeing just what it would look like without the train you’re on. Highways have en entire economic system built around them: Cracker Barrels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, Lion’s Dens (Missouri’s interstate is lined with adult video stores). But the train simply has tracks and a few scattered, mostly forgotten stations. It gets you where you want to go without the fanfare. But with an internet connection.
The people who take the train are the real deal, too. Not a single person was dressed in heels for travel (as I’ve seen plenty of times at LAX). There were families, singles in their twenties, older folks who needed help with their bags. One man had a lively yet vulgar conversation on his phone during one part of our return trip: “I know, they’re all bitches, but this one is the biggest bitch of all…if I divorce her she’ll take my boat!” The young man behind me and I looked at each other and laughed as we listened, then he put on his Beats and I opened my novel. Some of my fellow travelers smelled. I’ll just say it. And by the looks of their clothes they hadn’t washed anything for a while. But like the public pool, or Checkers grocery store where your cashier may or may not have all his teeth, being in the midst of that reality is good for a soul. To see the spectrum of local humanity and remember that not everyone is exactly like me. The world is much more interesting than that. I’m not ready to have the guy on the phone over for coffee, but I can sit on a train with him. I can learn about life from being thrown together with all sorts of folks.
Next month we will drive to Florida for a family beach vacation, and I will partake in the gas stations and McDonald’s rest rooms (but probably not the Cracker Barrels, and definitely not the Lion’s Dens). I love a good road trip. And such a long distance would take a week on a train, which is just silly. But my little jaunt on the Amtrak to St. Louis was a treat. Not a super-sweet sugar rush but a slow melting bit of dark chocolate – actually good for me even days later. I’ll do it again sometime. And I’ll watch for the secret places, both beautiful and not. Because together they equal what’s real. The top, the sides, the front, the back, and the underbelly.