Train travel is a paradox. It takes great hunks of time, especially here in the West where the distances between things are measured in hours and days, not minutes. It cuts me off from the everyday world of phone calls, emails, the Internet. It is a rhythm and flow. I find myself lingering by the window, transfixed by the expanses. Sure, the train travels at “speed” as often as the railroad allows it—seventy-nine miles-per-hour, nothing to write home about, but not a crawl either. Distant things maintain sharpness and rigidity, while the details of the nearby become a blur. Driving I am usually too alert to notice that blur, but on the train, it washes over me.
Yet the train is not a solitary form of travel. I tend to bristle if I get seated with someone who wants to talk too much, but I always enjoy the morning breakfast. Since I don’t sleep well in a coach seat, I tend to get up as soon as the dining car opens—typically 6:00 a.m. Get up, walk back through the gently rocking cars. Around the feet of sleeping passengers sprawled sideways across two seats. Past the old lady who cannot get a wink and is quietly reading. Past the children piled atop each other, huddled under a blanket. A series of doors open and close in 80-foot intervals, like the beginning of Get Smart!, and then its the diner. As is always the case on Amtrak, seating is communal, and I typically get seated with a couple—usually sleeping car passengers who are taking advantage of their complimentary meal—and another single passenger like myself. The small talk is small, and pauses, sometimes awkward, are frequent, but there is a simple humanity to the silverware striking the plates, the sipping of coffee and orange juice and tea, the taste of the serviceable but unremarkable breakfast. Sure we mean little to nothing to each other, sitting across that table, but for the length of our joint journey, we are a community, and no matter how pro-forma the conversation, I take pleasure in it; its civility refreshes.
I don’t know how many times I have travelled between Oregon and California by train. I admit that I am too often in a hurry, I too often leap for the airline ticket and the promise of semi-instant arrival, and don’t ride Amtrak’s Coast Starlight as much as I used to. Still, it is how I arrived in the state, how I made the beginning of my odd pilgrimage to the University of California (with all of my irrational, sentimental reasons for doing so), and on that journey, I recall looking out to the west, where the Cascade Range was now backlit by the dying sunlight, out beyond the pinnacle of Mount Thielsen, while the present/foreground melted away at speed.
79 Miles Per Hour. Watercolor and ink on paper, 8.5 x 13.75 inches, 2016.