Detour: Rails Over All

There is no finer form of transportation than the train. Forgetting bacterial reports on BART and the stench of commuters on the subway, traveling across a country by train is a luxury that can’t be imitated. There is an elegance, an easy straightforwardness, as well as an incredible perspective afforded by train travel. You feel like a piece of cattle in a bus, or sardines in an airplane, but on a train I always feel oddly blessed, deposited by divine fortune.

In January of this year I took Amtrak from New Orleans to Los Angeles, a trip that takes almost exactly 48 hours without stopping for more than twenty minutes at a time. The massive whale-cavity tube was its own little organized hive of sleeper cabin pockets, socializing rooms, observation decks and dining cars, sustaining a micro-society of particular travelers. There were Amish kids playing card games, an obese man visiting in-laws in Houston and many old couples that refused to give up the romanticism of train travel for more efficient cross-country transportation.

The sleeper cars resemble the sets of space shuttle interiors in old science fiction movies: minimal, coordinated colors and transforming. The seats would slide down and towards one another to form the bottom bunk, and then the top would come out of the wall, above the enormous window of the cabin. There were a few radio stations to choose from as well as a call button for the train stewardess who would come promptly at quarter to six to ask when we wanted to make our dinner reservations.

What came as a complete surprise was the formalism of long-distance train travel. There are constant notifications and announcements made over the intercoms, so that each passenger is well-prepared for every sector’s closure and every Amtrak attendant’s off-hours.

The dining car experience is structured after the chain restaurants of corporate American cuisine, albeit microwaved out of sight after being wrapped snugly in foil ever since departure. There is always a vegetarian option, red and white wine are available and maybe something along the lines of surf and turf. The waitress has pieces of flair decorating her Amtrak apron and calls you over to your pleather booth at exactly your reservation time. You perhaps feel indulgent and order the Oreo pie for dessert. A constantly refreshing filmstrip speeds by your window, distracting you from your chicken enchiladas (you are now traveling through New Mexico) which grow cold as you stare at the merciless desert landscape from the plush climate controlled comfort of the dining car. The steward refills your wine glass.

These are all your worries for two whole days: when to make your reservation for each meal in the dining car, and when to abscond to the viewing deck. It could become hellish, easily, to be trapped in a train for days at a time, with no amount of physical exertion necessary to satisfy every basic human need. Not quite sinful but a kind of complacent satisfaction of pleasures, such as food and drink and that torrented Woody Allen movie for the more boring stretches. There is a certain limbo status achieved, where you always could do something, but never really need to. It can become reflective bliss, or grating claustrophobia.

The latter was my experience traveling from Berlin to Budapest by train for a study trip. Lasting about 11 hours total, the majority of it was spent in the suffocating heat of drunk American students. Coping with the boredom of the long journey meant getting absolutely shitfaced, and then performing a bumbling stroll down the aisles of the cabin, interjecting anecdotes of other shitfaced ventures or controversial attitudes about German history to a non-consenting audience of German student chaperons. People were nipping at each other’s throats by the final station, but the tension quickly dissipated when they were released and allowed to scamper around in the station.

But that was a digression in an otherwise pristine flirtation with train travel. The German trains were otherwise punctual and comfy, and while it may be an overall flaw that drinking is only allowed in the dining car on Amtrak, the experience was classy and gosh darn pleasant. You may be forced into an observant role as traveler, but being alone with the scenery is well worth it.