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.
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.
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?