Trains, Planes, and Bar Cars

“The journey is the destination.” You will hear this a lot if you take a long trip by train, because it is how passengers explain rail travel to themselves. The trouble is, I had a destination, a specific one: Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I write this, I am still on the train, because that is what happens when you travel 7,870 kilometers round-trip by rail. In the world beyond the windows of the lounge car, people fall in and out of love, empires rise and fall, the great cycles of nature are ever renewed, and you are still on the train.

I had decided to travel by locomotive in order to see the future, which I can now report is gleaming steel and chugs up the Santa Lucia Mountains in Southern California with all the verve of a reluctant camel. At times it seemed like I was actually going backward in time, like when the train was hissing and farting at some midnight platform while a conductor shouted “All aboard!” But it only seemed like the past–in fact, it was the future. That is the difference.

A typical flight to Albuquerque from my starting point in Vancouver would have taken a dozen hours, home to hotel. In that same span of time, my futuristic journey via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Southern Chief railways got me as far as central Oregon. Flying to Albuquerque and back, though, would make me responsible for the equivalent of 1,380 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions–as much polluting punch as a typical North American will deliver from behind the wheel of his or her car between New Year’s Day and September 9. My train ride kicked in just 30 percent of the impact of going by plane. That’s a saving of 966 kilograms of carbon. Picture 55 bags of charcoal briquettes.

Seeing the world: For some of us–for me–it feels like something close to a necessity. Every culture and era has its wanderers, people for whom being far from home is as important as the deep roots of family or religion are for others. Without it, we do not feel whole. Yet if we wish to continue to see the further reaches of the globe, then trains and ships are the future, and planes are not, because air travel is indefensible.

As my lady friend and I climbed aboard (she would join me for the first leg of the journey, to Los Angeles), we were lost in daydreams of the Trans-Siberian howling through the Russian taiga; the Orient Express threading the capitals of Europe; the narrow-gauge Old Patagonian Express inching up the Andean foothills–each calling to mind the meditative shukka-shuk of steel wheels and the zoetrope flash of exotic scenery.

Trains are oddly intimate with the world around them; running down the California coast you feel you could jump out the window and into the sea, or, in Oakland, stretch out and take a sip from a gangbanger’s Big Gulp. The outside world loves you back–everyone waves at trains: children, of course, but also fieldworkers, Portland WASPs on family bike rides, llama ranchers, prison soccer teams, badass girls driving vintage black Mustangs. A sound track plays on an endless loop in your head. The Magnetic Fields, “Born on a Train.” A line from Tom Waits: “Burlington Northern pulling out of the world . . .”

What a world it is: the backside of America. Really, it demands the vernacular: the ass-end. Warehouse districts and trailer parks. Dirt farms and scrap yards. A mountainous compost pile made up entirely of imperfect cut flowers, stinking like a perfumed corpse. Rolling into Los Angeles, the day’s last light appearing beige through the smog. And along the aqueducts and behind the walls that cloister the suburbs are the hardy citizens of Ass-end America, the nowhere campers and nothing-doers, the migrants, the desperadoes, the old men who pass their days sitting in patches of shade. They are the only people who do not wave.

In the middle of the night, a hobo campfire. A real hobo campfire!

The shine started to fade as I tacked east from Los Angeles, alone now, with lonely train songs in my head. Billy Bragg: “Train took my baby away from me . . .” I began to pay attention to certain details of train travel. Like the toilet breakdown in car 31. The refrigeration failure in the bar car. The fact that half the menu items in the dining car always seemed to be sold out. Does every water tap have to be either the measliest trickle or a pneumatic blast that sprays out of the sink at crotch level? As for the view, it’s great–until dark. Then, perhaps, a movie? I understand the concept has been quite a success in other areas of the transportation sector.

It is probably a blessing that there is often no cell phone signal, but no wireless Internet? Seriously? On the train I was writing by hand. With a pencil. Somewhere between the humble villages of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

If rail is the future of long-distance travel, no one seems to have alerted Amtrak, not to mention VIA Rail Canada, both of which appear to operate under the unspoken motto “Why Not Take the Plane?” Long-term planners–the kind of people who have finished their Christmas shopping by Labor Day–can get a great deal on train tickets. More footloose types are punished with fees that increase to ludicrous extremes as the departure date approaches. If I had bought a same-day airfare to Albuquerque, I still would have saved $150 on the price of my advance-purchase train tickets, despite the fact that I spent close to half my 114 hours aboard without one of the sleeper berths with fold-out beds. It’s a steep price to pay for dealing with one attendant so uptight that she wouldn’t let me choose which side of the train I would sit on, and another who talked me down like a naughty 12-year-old for sneaking a nap on an unclaimed seat.

Bellyaching helps build a sense of community among people trapped together in a small space, and conversation soon turned to what rail travel could be. A shift in government priorities here, a drift in consumer demand there, and suddenly the mind reels: a bar car that looks like an actual bar rather than a palliative care ward cafeteria; a gym car; a children’s area; maybe a live band . . . but at a minimum, more and cheaper beds. Nothing fancy, but sojourns that are counted in nights and days have no future without the ability to get horizontal.

And so I slowly swung back toward self-justification. Sitting in the lounge car, watching jet contrails vex the sky over Mount Shasta, I reminded myself that I was doing my part to kill the world’s polar bears a little more slowly. I was still a part of the problem, but with imagination the endless hours began to look like the start of a solution. Isn’t rail travel somehow a deeper experience than going by plane? Did time not wear me down until I began, simply, to live in the moment? What would the transcendental naturalist Henry David Thoreau have to say about the train? Would he not observe that the journey is the destination?

Actually, I looked up what Thoreau had to say about railways:

“That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore. . . . Where is the country’s champion, the Moore of Moore Hall, to meet him at the Deep Cut and thrust an avenging lance between the ribs of the bloated pest?”

You can see a train as a nostalgic return to a bucolic past or as a monstrous two-story building raging across the wilderness, about as “in touch” with the surrounding landscape as an air-conditioned office tower in Dubai.

It may come as a surprise that I plan to travel by rail more often. I will do so because I believe, and the evidence strongly suggests, that many more people need to make this choice. My lady friend and I might soon visit the island of Andros, in Greece, which can fairly be described as a trip halfway around the world. A round-trip flight costs $990 apiece, with a total travel time, coming and going, of 30 hours. Overland and oversea on Earth’s surface, the fastest voyage to Andros alone would take 14 days. The return trip rings in at $9,238.57, and the only decent sleep we could hope for would be on our transatlantic cruise.

It would be an adventure. There would be time to sit and think. Plenty of time to wonder at the fact that we burned the planet’s oil and gas to run leaf blowers, to make throwaway plastics, to bring us strawberries in December, when we could have saved it for rare and precious uses, like the miracle of flight.

J.B. MacKinnon is the author of Dead Man in Paradise and the coauthor of Plenty, about eating locally. Excerpted from Explore(July-Aug. 2008), Canada’s outdoor adventure magazine;

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