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Track Back

A love letter to riding the rails

by Janisse Ray

Published in the January/February 2011 issue of Orion magazine




I SET MY BAGS DOWN and look south, beyond the main crossing of Jesup, Georgia. The tracks are empty, weeds growing up all around them. 

Dusk has fallen, and in the golden remains of day the dilapidated station looks almost beautiful. It suffered a fire and now rots grudgingly away, boulder-sized holes in its roof, circled by orange police tape. Beyond it, the parking lot is rough, unpaved, without marked spaces, and no one will appear to say, “Not here,” or to charge. Across the street, a tattoo artist works late.

I think back to the first time I caught the train, some three years ago. My folks had driven me to this rail station, which, let’s face it, is not a station.

“Stand out here by the track,” my dad had said. “Wave hard. They have to see you or they’ll roll on.” Forty years had passed since he’d been on a train. “And get ready. The train won’t actually stop. You have to jump.”

“The computer knows I’m waiting,” I said. But I was out by the track anyway in the early evening light, pinks and oranges gilding the sky, the smell of a pulp mill in the air.

Obscured by a curve at the southern edge of town, the train enters Jesup unexpectedly. First came a loud and long whistle, and then, right on time, the train reared into view. Crossing bars came down and a bell began to jang. The train swept up with a terrific racket, clicking and clacking, rails creaking, brakes screeching. For a minute I thought, My dad is right, it isn’t going to stop, but it drew up short. A conductor let down a staircase between two cars. He wasn’t hurrying.

I struggled aboard with my big bag. Inside, the car was bright, clean, and spacious, a carpeted aisle dividing pairs of commodious blue seats. I lifted my luggage to an overhead rack, sat down next to a large window, and waved goodbye to my parents standing lonesome by the track. The Silver Meteor was pulling out, heading toward New York City, where I would be by eleven the following morning.

Up until that moment, I had been jetting around the country as an environmental writer, talking about climate change, which seemed schizophrenic. My solution to the problem caused more of the problem. So I opened my big mouth and I quit flying (I made the declaration, in fact, in the pages of Orion).

As it turned out, the train was terrific. What a glamorous way to travel, I thought. How historic. How romantic. In my excitement was contained the American frontier, herds of buffalo, Jesse James, soldiers returning home from war, the City of New Orleans, physics riddles involving walking backward while moving forward—all the ways that trains have entered and transformed our national consciousness. How passionate. How sane.

After the last plane, after I finally got home, I never looked back.

Now I am once again waiting in Jesup, at the ruined station, ticket in hand. This time I am going to give a series of lectures in Pennsylvania. Almost on time I hear the whistle, and soon I am settled in my seat, watching the landscape fly by, a green and darkening blur of woods and swamps. Longleaf pine forests and myrtle thickets flash past the picture window—no porthole here. We leave behind brown cliffs of winter kudzu and enter the Altamaha River floodplain, then cross the river itself, next stop Savannah.

Through the long night the train rocks down the rails, stopping in Charleston, Rocky Mount, Richmond, and other marvelous southern places. People get on and off. Across the aisle a woman is traveling with two children I learn are her son, aged twelve, and her granddaughter, ten months. In South Carolina we pick up a woman come from burying her father. He had wanted to go home, she says. She drinks periodically from a small bottle of wine buried in the pocket of her black overcoat.

The train is not crowded, and I have two seats to myself. I sleep, but not deeply enough for dreaming. By seven a.m. we arrive in Washington, where the train switches from diesel to electric. I watch commuters rushing about. Then Philadelphia. I go off to look for the snack car.

I find it and keep going, all the way to the back. There is no caboose. The train is a long tail, and I am at the end of it, whipping around the curves. Far ahead, the whistle cuts through the morning. Tracks unspool beneath me and merge into the landscapes, marshes and fields, dirty backsides of factories and rail yards, flattening into the small towns of childhood.

I GO AND COME. I take more trips. I learn to bring ear plugs and a light blanket. I learn to pack healthy snacks.

One fall I board Train 49, the Lake Shore Limited, at the Albany-Rensselaer station (which has been remodeled and is fancier than most airports), riding toward Chicago, overnight, coach class. There is something deeply exciting about boarding a train. Somehow it reminds me of riding horseback—the hugeness, the eagerness of the mount, the surge forward.

On the train are people with accents, a man shaving in his seat with an electric razor, a man with two pairs of glasses on top of his head (one for the computer and the other for books). A pregnant woman whose husband is in the Navy interrupts my last chapter of Lolita to ask what I am reading and what it is about, and I lie. We speed through the heartland. Out the window, two deer standing in bronze stubble begin to run.

A balding businessman and a university student dressed in black occupy the seats in front of me. The student offers the businessman his flask and the businessman accepts. Occasionally I catch a phrase of their talk.

“I earned more money than I could spend,” the businessman says. “I didn’t have time to spend it.”

The student asks the businessman if he would like to hear a poem. “I wrote it in Italy,” he says.

“I would,” said the businessman. The student reads and they pass the flask. The businessman likes the poem.

“Are you drunk yet?” he asks.

“I’ve been drunk since before I was born.”

America, dark, passes by the window.

I wake the next morning to the conductor announcing, “Next stop, South Bend.” I see outside the flat farms of Indiana, silos, isolated homesteads, morass, crows, a tractor-trailer waiting behind a crossbar, the sides of golden trees. Old wires, glass insulators, barns. A goose in a small pen. A water-treatment facility.

A train passes in the opposite direction, carrying mostly tractors. On another set of tracks, flatcars lined with military vehicles, both sand and jungle. There’s a truck with a house on its back. The first bus at an elementary school, its playground still empty.

THE TRAIN FIGURES large in the American imagination. In its pitch is the history of our country, and also every train that has ever chugged across the American landscape. It is the symbol of expansion, unlimited resources, unfettered capitalism; it is the mechanism by which we conquered the American wilderness. Trains, in some ways, have come to represent America itself, land of movement and opportunity. More than horses ever could, trains endowed to America the idea of freedom.

But a post-industrial America didn’t have time to travel by rail. It had to get places fast, no matter the consequences. Important people flew, and the more one flew, the more important one was. Whoever had the most frequent flyer miles won. At dinner parties people bragged about how many takeoffs in the last year, total air miles.

I was on a plane once that had landed and was taxiing to its gate when the copilot announced that we would be briefly delayed. My seatmate, a slim, well-dressed woman, was getting more and more angry. I tried to reassure her.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “Five minutes, in my life, is everything.”

Not only is five minutes in my life not everything, it’s just five minutes.

Time-consuming, train travel is. A trip to Chicago from my home in south Georgia means two full days. Routes are often indirect, huge sections of the country inaccessible. Getting to New Orleans means taking the Silver Meteor to Washington and then the Crescent back south to the Big Easy, because in 2006 Hurricane Katrina wiped out sections of the rail line across the Gulf Coast (although freight service is on track, passenger service is not).

“That run was a money pit,” a conductor told me, explaining why the route remains defunct.

Except in the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak owns the main lines, passenger trains have to pull over onto side tracks to let freighters pass, which effectively means that the movement of commodities is more important than the movement of people. In some parts of the country, rail lines are in disrepair, further slowing train travel.

And yet the Boston–New York Amtrak line enjoys a 73 percent punctuality rate, compared with 67 percent for LaGuardia and even worse for JFK. For that same transect, the train holds 41 percent of the market share of business.

I’m lucky. Though I live in a rural area, passenger trains serve my area twice a day, one southbound to Miami, the other northbound to Penn Station. I can leave Georgia one evening and be in Washington at dawn. I can leave in the morning and be in Miami before sunset. What if I lived in Deadwood, South Dakota? That state is one of four without any Amtrak service.

The options for traveling long-distance by rail in America have been shrinking for sixty years, and now the very prospect is endangered. My friend Neill Herring, a train scholar, explained the demise of passenger trains to me. By the late 1800s, the railroads owned government as surely as the banks do today. So big companies, mostly the road lobby—Caterpillar, the auto industry, Firestone, oil moguls—combined to push out the railroad.

The year 1920 had the highest number of train travelers: 1.2 billion. By the end of the decade, intercity rail travel had fallen by 18 percent. That same decade saw a threefold increase in new automobiles registered in the United States. One by one, the railroads pulled up and left town. At some point, trains had become more symbolic than real. Gladys Knight’s number-one hit single “Midnight Train to Georgia” was originally written as “Midnight Plane to Houston.”

Once passenger rail was nationalized with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, it became a scapegoat, another example of “government welfare.” The airline and automobile lobbies are powerful, and most political leaders look upon trains as the shuffling, bedraggled, embarrassing old uncle whom we must acknowledge but in whose company we must not be seen. Anti-rail campaigners never mention bailouts of the automobile industry, nor that the government subsidized the auto industry by building the highway system in the first place (90 percent of the interstate system was federally funded); they don’t mention that we’re always propping up airlines (the feds run the air-traffic control system, for example, and many airports are owned by the federal government). Nor do the mostly conservative rail opponents mention the millions poured into boondoggles that don’t work, such as abstinence education.

In many countries, trains never went out of fashion, and investments in high-speed, low-emission rail are paying off. In the first months of operation of France’s TGV, airline demand dropped by half, and many of the European bullet trains have earned two-thirds (and some as much as 95 percent) of the market share.

Here in America, train travel is slower and less convenient by comparison. But the pleasure of glancing up from conversation with the friar across the aisle, who has taken off his shoes and is wiggling his holy toes, to watch the scenery more than makes up for the hassles.

“Lunch is being served,” says the conductor, stepping down the aisle in his blue uniform. “Diner two cars ahead.”

I get up and go eat, mahi-mahi with micro green beans and rice pilaf, with a glass of shiraz. The table has a white cloth on it, with napkins that match. The plate is ceramic, the silverware metal. My tablemates are characters from modern American novels: a man who races sailboats, a woman nurse who served in Vietnam, and a male minister from Memphis.

Try to do that on an airplane.

ONCE, IN A HOSPICE CLASS, I was assigned a death awareness exercise. On little squares of paper, we named ten things we really love and, one by one, we threw them away. The prospect of giving up flowers, or books, or my son—although I know I will say goodbye one day to everything precious—left me stricken with sorrow.

With global climate disruption, of course, that’s what we humans are doing. We are throwing away the things most beautiful and meaningful to us, things we’ve thought immutable: predictable seasons, weather we can trust, polar bears, coastlines, entire islands, permafrost, glaciers.

Imagine throwing away glaciers.

Does train travel actually cut emissions? According to the Bureau of Transportation’s statistics, Amtrak uses 18 percent less energy than domestic airlines, although exact figures depend on load. Riding the high-speed Eurostar is even more efficient, emitting ten times less carbon dioxide than flying. Cars, for long distance trips, are the worst way to go.

IT’S NOW BEEN THREE YEARS since I stepped onto an airplane. At dinner parties, when the conversation turns to plane travel, I no longer have any gripes about long lines, delays, cancellations, missed connections, turbulence, the overall sense of fear.

Even with the time factor, I’ve never missed flying. I especially don’t miss looking down. I ride on the click-clacking trains, reading and knitting, making lists and writing in my journal, or gazing out the window, watching birds and identifying trees, north to Amherst, west to Houston, south to Fort Lauderdale. Sometimes I reserve a roomette, a six-by-four space of my own that in a feat of engineering includes two passenger seats (facing), two beds, a toilet, a sink, a mirror, a coat hanger, and a luggage rack.

I dine in the dining car. I have a drink in the club car. I cross the Mississippi on a double-decker. I lose a ticket in Chicago, and someone turns it in.

A wind turbine spins behind the station in Cleveland. A hefty twenty-eight-year-old from Detroit has been sleeping, snoring, until a woman about twenty gets on and sits beside the guy, who suddenly comes to life. And he’s funny. He went to college in Alabama, couldn’t study for the girls. Said he prayed to God but he couldn’t concentrate. He’d need an all-boys school. “I told my professor,” he says, “talk to me like I’m two.” He was in jail once for a month, but he’ll never do that again. If he got in trouble he’d go to Africa, he wants to go to Africa, over e-mail he chats with the king of the Zulus.

There is a retired couple with a third suitcase full of food, sightseeing across the continent on some kind of pass. Amish families with healthy children in crisp white hoods unwrap homemade sandwiches.

The generic America most of us see is the America of strip malls, department store sales, interstate freeways, and television screens. On trains, traveling the back side, the underbelly, of the country, one comes to understand the real America, and to me, it is a more hopeful version of our country than the illusionary and pretentious one we have fabricated with quick-bucks development and artificial wealth. The view from the train is not the facade of consumerism behind which America likes to hide. It is authentic: small towns, people grilling in their backyards, gardens of all kinds, children swinging.

FOR MY BIRTHDAY, friends and I ride the train from Jesup to DeLand, Florida, to hear Wendell Berry speak at Stetson. In Jacksonville a new conductor comes aboard and passes through the train, checking ticket stubs. The guy in front of me can’t find his, and partly in jest the conductor begins reciting a code book rule that requires passengers to keep their receipts.

“You have that memorized,” I note, to make conversation.

“It’s not like I haven’t said it a few times,” he says.

My friend, who is a poet, says, “Yes, but can you do Chaucer?”

The conductor pulls himself up straight, shifts his shoulders, and launches into the prologue from The Canterbury Tales. He amply fills the aisle in his blue uniform, an old-fashioned conductor’s hat atop his head, radio on his belt, reciting English verse.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that everything about trains is first rate. Tickets are expensive, sleeping cars prohibitively so. Sometimes a child cries. Sometimes rude people let cell phones ring shrilly and repeatedly, or travelers talk too loudly, especially in the middle of the night. Sometimes a porter is short-tempered, impatient, snarly. Sometimes people leave trash around their seats when they depart. Sometimes the Border Patrol boards the train in Erie, Pennsylvania, and checks all the brown-skinned people for citizenship papers; I watch them take away a man in the wee hours of a cold morning.

Sometimes the train isn’t on time. Sometimes the train you need is full. Sometimes you get a seatmate who wears heavy perfume. Sometimes you get one who should be wearing perfume. In the three years that I have been traveling by rail, however, amazing things have happened. I have met astonishing people. I’ve experienced serendipity. What I am saying is that poetry still happens on trains.

RIDING THROUGH the midwestern prairie in the middle of the night, I hear a low humming, rising and falling, almost mournful. I raise my head. The passengers are quiet, sleeping, dreaming of Minnesota. The sound is coming from outside, from below the train, as if from the earth itself.

It is the rails.
I have never heard that.
The rails are singing. 

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Janisse Ray is the author of three books of nonfiction, as well as a collection of poetry, A House of Branches. She is accumulating frequent trainster miles.

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