I always thought travel by train / rail would be romantic. So this year I booked a trip from DC to California on two scenic train routes – one on the Capital Limited from DC to Chicago, and the other on the California Zephyr going from Chicago to Truckee California with two stops in Colorado.
The Train Travel Experience for a Writer
I’m writing this post at 11:00 pm from the lounge car of the Capitol Limited Amtrak train… somewhere near Pittsburgh. I’m sitting in a booth-style seat with my laptop on a table and my legs stretched out across the bench. Dan is sleeping. I can see the city lights from these wide windows. The car is quiet now save for the sound of the train on the rails and the occasional whistle when we approach a crossing.
We boarded our first train of the day at 2:00 pm this afternoon. We’ve met some interesting people, had a steak dinner in the dining car, read some, wrote some and took in the sweeping landscapes of Western Maryland and West Virginia. The sun set just as we were coming into Cumberland.
Train travel so far is everything I hoped for. No cramped quarters, lots to look at and friendly people. But most of all there’s time. Time to think. Time to write. Time to notice the details. There’s something about the rocking motion, the towns slipping by, and the whistle in the distance that gets the mind going. The romance of rail travel depicted in old photos, stories and movies starts to come alive.
Everything seems to slow down. You notice things like the accent of conductor, the smell of steaming beef wafting out of the dining car. The embroidered turkey on the camouflage ball cap worn by a bearded, man in overalls. His sixty-something wife is wearing gray sweatpants with rhinestone zippers. They’re conversation gives away that they are with a tour group going to Branson MO, they are ultra-conservative, hate “O’Bama-care,” and seem to attend church every day.
There’s man wearing an eye patch. His shirt is loud, printed with all kinds of brands of beer. His cap says “Life is Good.” He sits alone in a lounge chair watching the world go by. His face is somber – almost melancholy – out of sync with his festive clothes.
The sycamore trees in the woods running along the track catch the western sunlight in a way that makes them glow. Wild goldenrod brushes up against their trunks.
I never noticed stuff like this when I fly or drive or walk.
Two lines – one from a song and the other from a book come to mind …
“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” ~ Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar
“If all our flights are grounded, Libby we’ll go to Paris, and wish we were back home again or sailing on the ocean, just a window and a drink to set our dreams in motion.” ~ Carly Simon Libby
I’ve got my window and my drink, and my dreams are surely in motion. As the little towns pass by, my husband muses about what it would be like to live there, raise a family, make friends, call it home.
The Capitol Limited comes out of DC and follows the Potomac River passing through Point of Rocks, Brunswick, Harpers Ferry and Cumberland … all towns that grew up around the railroad and still thrive today. I’ve been to all of these places, but they look different from a train. When we came into Harpers Ferry the tourists milling around the train station were amused by our train – like it was an attraction. Children (and some adults) waved from the platform like they knew us. We waved back.
At dusk Cumberland was impressive with its skyline spreading out on both sides of the tracks. Its courthouse, churches, bridges and houses stacked up the mountainside gives it a sense of place. This is complemented by much motion and activity. People seems to be moving with some great purpose.
I’m finally tired. Going to stretch out in my coach seat and try get some sleep. We should be in Chicago a little after 8 am.
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