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7:36 am
Fri August 8, 2014

The Train Truth

If you groove on the idea that “it’s the journey, not the destination,” long-distance train travel is calling your name.  There are more efficient ways to cross the Rockies and Sierras, sure, but it’s hard to beat the enchantment of Amtrak’s California Zephyr if you want to get from Denver to San Francisco.  Our family boarded the Zephyr last week, and we still feel bewitched.

It’s statistically likely that many of you, too, are nuts about trains. It’s a paradox, isn’t it, that while the U.S. lags far behind many countries in efficient railways, our imaginations are tracked through with trains, right from childhood, whether you were reared on the Little Golden book’s Little Engine Who Could, played with model trains, or read Thomas the Train Engine or the Polar Express to your own kids.  Maybe our lesser familiarity with humble commuter trains makes us more vulnerable to the magic of trains like the Hogwarts Express, which launches impossibly from Platform 9 ¾ to send Harry Potter fans to an enchanted world just as dirty as ours but where the fiction-writer’s thumb always tips the scales toward justice.

Popular films are just as train-tracked – I’ll bet you can name 20 in the next hour that place trains at the center of the plot. During our two-day ride to the West Coast, passengers laughed and lurched in the narrow hallways, saying, “I feel like I’m in a movie!” – those shared cinematic stories hanging in the air while we knocked elbows and hips on the way to the dining car.

And the dining car is almost as cool as you’ve seen in films.  The menu is straight up Midwestern diner, but we ate on linens, and our sardonic server, Gwendolyn, pointed to the spooling landscape beyond our window, saying, “Look! This is the best-kept secret in America.”  Since our family of four traveled overnight, we splurged on a couple of “roomettes,” curtained alcoves of facing seats cunningly crafted to unfold into bunks, in a design that is part origami, part Transformers, and requires a touch of yoga and tolerance of claustrophobia if you want to snooze through a jiggling night.

If airplane travel is meant to elide distances, trains highlight the significance of space, but with speed and drama more enchanting than driving a car. We left Denver’s historic Union Station in a rainstorm, and soon were racing around mountainsides confettied with wildflowers -- as if Albert Bierstadt and Claude Monet had teamed up to offer us the sublime and the lushly poetic all in one canvas.  Roiling streams foamed just under our window and then we’d plunge into an inky tunnel. “Try to count the tunnels once you leave Denver!” my well-traveled friend Sally suggested before we left, but I lost confidence in my hashmarks after 15 in the first hour, and gave up during the Jules Vernean 6-mile stretch of the Moffat Tunnel.  

The observation car, with comfy chairs and windows arching onto the roof, is truly where “strangers on a train” are bonded by the sweep of the landscape, gasping together at streaking lightening over the mesas of Nevada that dissolved into a neon double rainbow and then an otherworldly sunset – powerful and bleak, inspiring musings about the hardiness –or foolhardiness – of 19th century wagon trains.  Kids squealed as we snaked by the rafting waters of Western Colorado, counting how many teenaged boys lowered their trousers to moon us (we saw 14 cheeks, in all, including a few belonging to middle-aged golfers in Utah), and pointed binoculars at a half dozen Great Blue Herons, flapping like storybook pterodactyls.

Day two raced us through the soaring canyon of Donner Pass, much-commented upon by a group of German tourists whose wincing references to cannibalism needed no translation. Mountains melted into steep-sloped vineyards, scruffy palm trees, graffitied warehouses, and finally to our destination, the Emeryville station just outside of San Francisco, with fog curling in the distance, like a magic spell we had to leave behind.  After all, in this Muggle world, only we can tip the scales toward justice. I’m going to start by giving our local South Shore train plenty of business, and learning more about the Midwest High Speed Rail movement.  You can look it up! Saving this world may actually happen one train at a time.