James River Amtrak
The James River, above Lynchburg, Va.: the view from the train.
I’m listening to some of my favorite sounds: the clatter of wheels on the tracks and a horn announcing “train’s coming” to the roads up ahead. I boarded this morning around 7:30 in Lynchburg, Va.’s station, a restored old structure that evokes some of an era past. No more steam locomotives, except scenic excursion trains, but Amtrak is still a wonderful way to travel and I go by train any chance I get.
…For lots of reasons:
The scenery. You see so much landscape you miss if you’re on the interstate (or in the air). Farms, little towns, little town depots, bridges, kudzu (lots of kudzu), river crossings, church steeples, Victorian houses, abandoned warehouses, bright (and not-so-bright) splashes of graffiti, back yards, railyards.
The time. What a luxury of time to be in one place for a day – in one place that’s moving through hundreds of places. I love making the train a temporary home for a little while, the longer the trip the better – time to read, write, take pictures, call my mom, drink tea.
The staff. A few years ago, I was heading up to – New York, maybe? I can’t remember – and I asked if there was a dining car (as opposed to a snack car). The conductor drew himself up and said, with humor in his eye, “Of course! We’re Crescent Line!” The Crescent Line prides itself on service and spaciousness, but my experience today with the commuter line between Lynchburg and Baltimore has been just as nice. No dining car, but the staff is personable and friendly and often hilarious. I think they love working here.
The dining cars. And the snack cars are not bad at all – I have a fondness for the Blue Diamond smoked almonds, and they have healthy options (yogurt and fruit) as well as less (chocolate and hamburgers), plus wine and beer, and the servers who work behind the counters have perfected the balancing act of opening cabinets, pouring coffee and making change while the car sways from side to side.
In the dining cars, lunch and dinner can be a little bit of a splurge, breakfast not as much – and sitting down to a white tablecloth and a hot meal while watching the world go by and listening to the sounds of the train is a very nice way to spend a meal. One note for non-social types: it’s unlikely you’ll get a table to yourself unless there are no other diners – for efficiency’s sake (I assume) they seat you with folks you don’t know.
The folks you don’t know. I meet really interesting people on the train. That’s the unexpected benefit of sitting with folks I don’t know, whether in the dining car or the passenger car. Where are you headed? is the inevitable first question, often followed by, Business or pleasure? or Is that home? You learn a lot about a person, and about people, by learning about why they’re traveling. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for our fascination with journey stories.
Where am I headed? Today, to Goucher College in Towson, where I’ll be spending time with fellow writers and students for a few days, reading and listening and talking, and then, on Sunday, graduating from the creative nonfiction MFA program. It’s been a wonderful two years and we’re all finding it hard to believe we’re at the end of it. But there are alumni weekends in years to come… and the train to take me there.