Stepping off the Empire Builder train onto the platform at Portland’s Union Station, already 7 hours delayed (thanks long oil freight trains in North Dakota!), I thought for a moment I was entering hell. Intellectually I knew the Pacific Northwest was enduring a heat wave, but after three days on a climate controlled train, my body was not prepared.
My throat parched instantly, my head buzzed into a confused pounding, and the exhaustion of long travel days intensified exponentially in the sauna of my city.
Thank goodness this is Portland and no heat wave lasts long. By morning, cool breezes swept the house and banished the dull, stifling heat into memory.
Traveling by train in the United States is a mixed bag of woes and thrills. I won’t glamorize the experience into the dusty sepia of yesteryear, which by all historical accounts wasn’t that glamorous anyway. Coal-fired engines that left passengers blanketed in fine soot and choked the cars with fumes. Heat and crowding and unreliable timetables. The possibility of an attack by train robbing gangs out in the remote prairies or a sudden brush fire as sparks from the engine lit up the tinder-dry grasses. These are the realities of the black-and-white train era we now see through rose-colored glasses as we complain about long security lines, cramped airplane cabins and expensive, endless fees.
We’re the human race – we love to complain!
If I have the luxury of time, I will always choose the train over an airplane, despite any of my complaints. I admit, never expect Amtrak to be on time. The poor souls of Amtrak must have endless patience, as the freight companies own the rails they use and get first dibs on who goes when. With the oil boom upending North Dakota, this means the passenger trains from Chicago to Portland/Seattle sit or crawl for hours as oil trains pass by, deemed the priority cargo. The Amtrak personnel do their best to make up time, keep us comfortable, even fed us a free chicken meal by calling a few stops ahead to a KFC – sadly they bear the brunt of passenger complaints about being late.
I don’t overly mind the lateness. For me, the whole point of taking the train is to allow time to slow and lengthen out into a soothing lullaby as I watch the countryside go by. I relax, disengage from our increasingly staccato lives, disconnect from communication and media, and actually talk to people, read books, gaze at the beauty of a velvety field consuming a weathered old church or a young deer splashing into a river and panicking a flock of geese.
I would have missed all this from the fuselage of an airplane, which takes time and smashes it together until you emerge disoriented in an entirely new landscape, climate, time zone, your world turned upside down and the gradual shifts of people and cultures never witnessed or understood. Modern airplane travel is brilliant, but disrupts my understanding of my journey.
A train also allows movement and mingling with passengers, designed for sharing the journey with others, while an airplane restricts your choice, movement, space into a tiny seat and tiny piece of an overhead compartment. Any more and expect to pay an arm and a leg. I could recline my comfy seat pretty far back, carry on two big pieces of luggage and store it in my train car, get up and walk about the train, lounge in a breezy observation car full of light as mountains and fields flashed by, sit at a table and order a steak with real silverware, step off at a station stop and breathe the fresh mountain air…
Yes, you might say I “lose time” by choosing the train over an airplane. But really I am enriching my experience, allowing time to expand into a true sense of a journey.
Was I tired and stiff after two and a half days of train travel? Yes.
Would I elect to jump a train across the country from Wisconsin to Oregon again? Absolutely.