Traveling companions

The last four presidential administrations poured money into highways and air travel, while starving passenger rail travel for funding. Indeed, the Bush administration made no bones about wanting to kill off passenger rail travel in the United States — not surprising when you realize that the Bush administration was run by oil company interests, and rail travel is the most fuel-efficient form of travel we have right now. So I was not surprised when the conductor announced that the dining car had to be shut down, but that they would get us sandwiches in Denver.

We had half an hour in Denver while they serviced the train, so I got out to stretch my legs. I wound up talking with Simon, and when the engineer blew the whistle and we trooped up to get our sandwiches, I followed Simon to the observation car to eat. Almost all the seats were taken, but there was only one person sitting at one of the tables.”Mind if we sit here?” we asked. He did not.

We introduced ourselves. He was Will, a high school student on the way to Salt Lake City with his family. He had a copy of The Two Towers, and we all got to talking about Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. The train was rolling along and we sat there eating lunch and talking about other fantasy series we had read — Narnia, Harry Potter — and comparing them. From fantasy the conversation turned to education, and then to Australia (Simon was from Australia), and a whole host of other subjects.

Suddenly we realized that we were climbing up a steep slope via a series of switchbacks. We could look ahead and see the locomotive, look back and see the last car, and look down and see the last switchback we had just come up. We were going around the famous Big Ten Curve, ascending the Front Range of the Rockies. At some point, Will’s brother Wes joined us, and joined the conversation. When we passed by the most spectacular views, the conversation consisted of pointing out the beauties of the scenery through which we were passing; when we were in one of the many tunnels on the route, the conversation returned to more mundane matters.

After the Big Ten Curve, people started leaving the observation car. But the scenery kept getting better. We passed under the Continental Divide through the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, and into Glenwood Canyon, with thousand-foot canyon walls rising almost vertically on either side. We craned our necks back, and pointed out particularly marvelous rock formations to each other. And all this time, the conversation continued: two middle-aged men, and two young men in their late teens, carrying on an extended conversation that ranged from the trivial to the profound. Simon told us how he lost his leg, as a physician volunteering in Afghanistan in 2004 and Will told us about his artistic ambitions. We talked about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary society. We talked about other trips we had taken, or trips that we dreamed about taking. It turned out that Simon had never smelled sagebrush. Will, Wes, and I tried to describe the smell — an impossible task — and finally at one of the stops where they let us out to stretch our legs, I found some sagebrush, broke off a branch, and gave it to Simon.

At last it grew dark, and we saw the new moon rising over barely-visible buttes and mesas. Finally, at ten thirty, I said I had better get some sleep. We were due in to Salt Lake at three in the morning, and I needed to take a nap so I could be marginally functional when we arrived. Will and Wes said they were going to stay up until they arrived in Salt Lake. Simon, although he was continuing on to Emeryville, California, said he thought he’d go to bed, too. We shook hands all around, and went our separate ways.

4 thoughts on “Traveling companions

  1. Bill Baar

    I’m a train enthusiasts but intercity passegenger rail a bad investment. America just hasn’t grown in a way were they would make much sense.

    Obama is going to invest in hi speed rail when what would make more sense is just getting the commuter like extended to Dekalb, or to Rockford.

    The problems there aren’t funding as much as local politics. Witness the agony of getting the Candian National deal to route frieght along the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern belt around Chicago. No suburbs wanted the rail traffic even though CN would foot the bills for crossing upgrades.

    We could well end up with an investment in hight speed (and that means hiring the Chinese because they are the ones wo know who to build railways) that never comes to pass because it has no patronage, and a lack of local rail service because there is no funding, and all the local leaders are opposed to paying for it locally because of their squabbles.

  2. Jean

    This is such a lovely post — I felt as though I were there with you! What a great trip!

  3. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — Depends on which routes. According to the latest U.S. government data I could find, which dates back to 2001, the Washington-Boston Amtrak route was profitable at that time, as was the Oklahoma City-Fort Worth route. So it is possible to have profitable intercity rail travel.

    The real question is this: Where do we choose to invest government transportation subsidies? You claim intercity rail travel is a bad investment, but I could make a perfectly rational argument that air travel is a bad investment, given the security concerns, environmental concerns, and lack of profitability of major air carriers. What I want to argue is that any national transportation policy should include funding for diverse transportation modalities, in order to decrease our dependence on one or two modalities.

  4. Diggitt

    I too have bonded over scenery with people on long-distance trains! Riding them and seeing what’s around you is a fantastic experience — all the more extraordinary because shared with so few. You would think we’d try to attract foreign travelers, because only by train can you easily see some of our great sights.

    There’s a horseshoe curve on the New York-Pittsburgh route, somewhere in southern Pennsylvania. I don’t know if there’s even a train running on those tracks now, though … I saw it 31 years ago. I-70 goes through Glenwood Canyon, but so does the California Zephyr. The CZ also goes through Byers and Gore canyons and along Donner and Truckee lakes.

    I believe I didn’t really get American history until I had taken long-distance trains and understood what “long distance” really means, and been over the land myself.

    Living in a New York suburb, I have the great good fortunate to be on a commuter train line, station to Grand Central in 30 minutes. Added to that good fortune is that my local line runs along the Hudson River — in fact, the same line runs along the Hudson to Albany, and thence an Adirondacks and Champlain route all the way to Montreal.

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