Take a Ride on the Rails

People are fascinating. People-watching is one of the reasons anthropologists get caught up in the numerous tiny facets that make a richly detailed life. I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in recent years and I never tire of  looking at folks as they interact with each other. The train station has proven one of my favorite roosts for spying on busy travelers. Depots are never-ending parades of humanity that come from every imaginable corner of the world.

The Pacific Parlor Car

Since I live and study and travel in the American west, I’ve spent many hours riding the rails. One thing I love about the railroad is that sense of a direct connection to the past. You pass through countryside that is inaccessible to other modes of transportation, pass through tunnels blasted from bedrock granite, and sweep across trestles first constructed by hard labor.

I write this, sitting in my comfortable seat, rocking back and forth to the motion of steel wheels on steel tracks. We’ve just departed the site of the historic Dunsmuir Station. The original structure was demolished in 1900 (a real shame), but the city has rebuilt a smaller simpler structure on the original locale. I’m fond of this tiny town since the station sits literally ten feet from the Southern Pacific line and the adjoining railyard. When the engines line up in the morning, the earth rumbles and shakes, a proper homage to the power of the machinery.

Historic Dunsmuir Depot

For folks who live in places where trains offer regular transportation to-and-from the necessary activities of life in our very modern world, we sometimes forget to marvel at these behemoth engines and the massive energy they represent. The wonder of the railways is mostly lost on modern Americans. The world has come to measure transport in hours rather than days but speed comes at an expense.

If it were possible, I would ride the train to work, but it isn’t practical in my case – and perhaps not yours. But in my opinion, everyone should take a pleasure run on some historic railway – any of them. It doesn’t have to be an old-fashioned steam engine, although I highly recommend that sort of adventure too. Take a moment out of your frightfully busy and complicated life to climb aboard a fragment of living history. Let the car rock your shoulders into a relaxed state while the landscape you’ve never seen from the highway, slips past the window. Visit the parlor car for a cocktail and an expansive view of mountains, sea or sky. Tap into a tiny bit of the collective background that built and operated our country for more than a century.

Get accustomed to delays – they’re part of the deal. You might just find that riding the train is something you’ll consider again. And again. What have you got to lose except some stress and a few deadlines?

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  1. #1 by Matthew Wright on October 23, 2012 - 3:58 am

    It’s coming up 200 years since we first had rail. It opened up the nineteenth century frontier, and not just in the US. Very much a human story in all respects. One of the more interesting things I’ve done is ride one of the high-speed European trains. Amsterdam to Paris city centres in four hours – which is comparable to an aircraft, once you factor in the commute to the airport, boarding clearances, etc. I thought it was quick going through Belgium. Then they reached France – no speed limit – and opened up the throttles. 300 km/h, at ground level. And yet people carried on inside the carriages as if it was routine, even boring. I guess it was for them.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on October 23, 2012 - 8:25 am

      I remember watching part of a documentary of rail being laid in Africa in the 19th century. It’s a fascinating process and the labor involved was mind-boggling. I think about the tens of thousands of miles of steel that criss-crosses entire nations and it’s overwhelming. I’ve never been on a high-speed train and don’t think I’d be carrying on with my normal routine…I’d be plastered against a window or hiding under my seat. Not sure which. Public transportation in the U.S. is fragmented compared to other parts of the world and our train system hauls mostly freight these days, but the number of passengers has significantly increased over the last three years. There’s an old steam train near where we live that offers rides and I was astounded at the noise the first time we went. Trains make me very nostalgic, probably because they’re a novelty in our lives now.

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