A view of passing Amtrak engine, somewhere around Delaware.
Out the windows: trees, farmland, small-town downtowns, dirt roads, overcast sky. A hollow, long-reaching whistle signals our coming and our passing. The movement of the car is rattling smooth, huge heavy wheels hold to the rails and every now and then another train, freight or passenger, whooshes past going south.
The previous night late I had driven to Harrisonburg, Va., watched double lines of red taillights call caution on my route ahead; no keening whistles, just flashes of lightning behind the clouds on the horizon, cars sweeping past going 80 or 90 on rained-on pavement. I had hit the Pandora app on my Droid, picked the '80s music playlist, heard:
She packed her bags and left me behind
She bought her ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I'm a rider on a downbound train
The next morning, to Richmond to catch the train. Interstates just don't inspire the same Springsteen melancholy. I was traveling through the eastern portion of Virginia, headed up to New York; the last time I had taken a train was to the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Cambridge one December some years ago, and I'd been wanting to be back on one ever since. The staff is kind, the pace is slow, the history and tradition long.
Outside the window: deep green woods, the Rappahannock River, old brick depots with steel and concrete platforms, the curve of tracks.
It seems I have had less trouble booking a train ticket this time around than a few years ago -- more available routes and runs, and a little less expensive. I'm hoping it's a continuing pattern. Why exactly is train travel still not where it should be in this country? Is it because we must move at jet-speed? Or some complicated politicking with the trucking industry? I'd trade 90 miles an hour in the rain, increasing air pollution and the tensions of air travel for a ride on the rails any day.