I’m taking the train today, from St. Louis to Kansas City. On my right is the Missouri River, which is visible through the strands of trees along the banks and the occasional river shanty or small town depot. On my left are farms and hills, a small town here and there, grazing cows and horses, and sometimes river bluffs. The view is idyllic, and there doesn’t seem to be a cell phone tower in sight.
There is no wireless on the train either (“not yet,” the steward tells me, but it’s coming), so other than the newspaper Amtrak provided, the camera with which I’ve taken some amazing shots, and my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop as I type this (thank you, Amtrak, for the 120-volt outlet), I am completely cut off from the global information culture. For a news junkie and a natural-born documentarian, that’s a unique form of Hell.
It feels like the 1950s. I’m on a train with no phone. Images of Cary Grant come to mind. It’s no wonder Hitchcock used so many trains in his films. They certainly do represent a kind of vulnerable isolation. But they also conjure images of restless movement, the need to explore, to see the next town, the next train station, the next mountain, in this amazingly beautiful country: Woody Guthrie “this land is your land” images.
And I don’t mind it one bit. In fact, I’m so fascinated by the passing landscape that sometimes I forget to pick up the camera and capture it. Damn, I wish I’d gotten that one.
There are more and more signs of civilization, the closer we get to the state capitol: New road construction, the Calloway nuclear plant in the distance, river barges with cranes, new water mains waiting to be installed. You know you’re coming up on the next small town when the conductor blows the whistle. We’re comin’ on through, it says; clear the tracks.
I work in a train city. In fact, about 40 trains pass by my office window each day. I’ve been saying for several years now that I really need to take the train somewhere, and when this conference came up in Kansas City, it presented the perfect opportunity. You probably can’t live or work in Kirkwood without seriously entertaining the idea of going somewhere by train, even if it’s just to Hermann or Jefferson City for the day.
I have a vague memory of riding a train with my mother as a very young child. It is one of my earliest memories, so I was probably only two or three years old. It was late at night and I slept through most of it, probably to my mother’s great relief since she was also traveling with an infant by then. I remember being met at the train by my grandfather who asked me if I had liked the train. I remember saying I loved it.
I still do. I am fascinated by flight, but the cabin pressure gives me a headache, the people are generally short-tempered, the security lines stress everybody out, and there’s always the possibility the damned thing will crash. We love to fly, but we yearn to land. Flying is quick. Taking the train is much more time consuming. It’s best described by that word we Americans shudder at: Leisurely.
Who has time for leisure travel anymore? When was the last time you took a road trip? (I love road trips, but my neck always complains.) If I want to meet my time table and see everything there is to see, I gotta travel by plane, right?
I guess so, but as I sit here leisurely writing, taking it all in as I type (I haven’t had the time to write a personal blog post in months), chatting with the other folks in business class (amazing how few people there are up here considering how cheap it was), picking up my phone every now and then to see if there’s service (old habits…), NOT having my ears popping every few minutes, spreading out with two feet in front of me and on either side (talk about luxury travel), and sipping my coffee, I can’t imagine why anyone would take the plane when they could do this.
So…I’m takin’ the train today.