Diversions – The Lonesome Road*

“In the desert, you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”
—  A Horse With No Name by America

 

The road before us stretches for miles, this oft-traveled section of Route 66 in California, near the Arizona border. Top down, the air cool in the February sun, we smile and sing along to the Eagles “Hotel California.”

The road is ours and ours alone. Most have foregone what was once America’s highway for the Interstates. Today, hurried minivan moms and dads choose to keep their kids entertained with DVDs and tablets, instead of joining in the Alphabet Game and looking outside the window to see the desert for what it is … vast expanses of nothingness … an  American West tamed by cowboys, miners and early settlers, yet teeming with life that can be seen by those who slow down and take a look.IMG_0222

A freight train looms in the distance on the tracks paralleling the road, its single headlight growing larger on the horizon. As the big diesel nears, we wave at the engineer. He signals back with a long blast of his harmonious horn. He rumbles by, tank cars filled with oil or some other chemicals; containers filled with consumable products destined for long, low warehouses built on cheap desert land, only to be transferred to trucks bound for your house and mine, ready to be used and thrown away, feeding our lifestyles.

I think about the engineer, and what he sees and thinks as he crosses this great land, day after day. Do others in passing cars wave hello? Or do they whiz by, oblivious to the train’s massive presence. Does he see the beauty of the desert? Or is it just another route on his way home?

For him and us, it is a lonesome road, but in its starkness, there is beauty and serenity that can only be found when you avoid the beaten path.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it.

 

(*Inspired, as they say, by true events.)

Diversions – There’s Something About a Train

There’s something about a train …

I started a new routine this morning that involves commuting from a town 50 miles from my office in the Washington, DC metro area. On the well-appointed Virginia Railway Express train, I felt a bit like Don Draper or any other of the executives who made their way from their homes in Scarsdale or Ossining to Manhattan, minus the blue pall of cigarette smoke. This seemed appropriate given that the house where we moved was built in 1958 and has a decidedly mid-century feel.

As I sat back and viewed the rising sun over the Potomac and beyond the overgrown trees and vines of Northern Virginia, I was reminded about the joys of train travel both on this continent and in Europe. From a comfortable seat, you speed by traffic while viewing the sights.

Potomac Sunrise

Sunrise over the Potomac River near Quantico

You hear the wail of the horn as the train approaches a station or grade crossing over the muted conversations of families and friends (or the silence of early morning commuters).

Trains have been a staple of our travels. We booked a sleeper on the overnight Amtrak Auto Train from DC to Florida so that we could have a car with us when we were married in Key West and for the honeymoon return trip. Fall colors dazzled along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain on our journey to Montreal.

In Europe, we’ve taken commuter trains from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden, high speed ICE trains from Munich to Nuremberg, and walked from the train station to the ski slopes in Switzerland. In Venice, we boarded the Frecciarossa for a day trip to Florence. In an earlier life, an English girlfriend and I took the Eurostar from London to Paris … a must-do trip for any train aficionado.

Train travel is not without its pitfalls. In the states, much of the track is owned by the freight lines which can cause some delays as you wait on a side track for a long-running freight to pass. In Europe, drunk passengers can get a bit unruly, but we usually book first class (which isn’t all that much more expensive), which helps keep you away from the riff-raff.

But the benefits certainly outweigh the cons, especially in Germany and Switzerland where timetables are strictly adhered to, and particularly over shorter distances. When you consider suggested check-in times and commutes to and from airports, it is almost faster to take a train from DC to New York than to fly.

Union Station 2

Washington Union Station’s Soaring Great Hall

My morning train entered sprawling Union Station, with its soaring Great Hall and the hustle and bustle of commuters scurrying to grab a cab, Uber, or a Metro ride to their offices. Some waited in line for the many Amtrak Northeast Regional and Acela trains headed north. Once again, my mind drifted to scenes from the heyday of the passenger diesels, such as when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint met and made small talk over Diner-car coffee in “North by Northwest” only to later marry and embrace as the the train suggestively entered a tunnel.

Yep, there’s something about a train.

There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. Go see it … by train.

Union Station 1

Passengers disembark one of VRE’s morning trains