There Isn’t a Train I Wouldn’t Take

Every mode of travel holds its own appeal for me, but there is none quite like the train. There’s a certain dreaminess inside a half-empty train car as it hurtles across a slowly unfurling landscape. In that twilight world-within-a-world, one’s thoughts can drift and reconfigure themselves into spaces and ideas that seem inaccessible anywhere else. On a train, we can glimpse moments of other people’s lives–a woman peeling an orange, children helping to weed a garden, an elderly man walking a small white dog. While these glimpses might tell us little about the lives of the people leading them, the tapestry of the landscape forms a complete narrative of its own.

Train travel is always my first choice when it’s an option, and it constitutes some of my most vivid travel memories. One of the earliest is boarding a train in a small town in the French Alps after several days of backpacking through the mountains. During time spent in the wilderness our personal rhythm enters into accord with nature. We become accustomed to lengthy silences, we become highly attuned to our interior condition, and eventually our minds enter a meditative state. Transitioning back to everyday life can be jarring, but that particular train trip was a parallel journey of the mind and body that softly delivered both back to civilization. The train rocked my tired body gently and I watched the mountains slowly move further away. I wasn’t expected to talk to anyone, which allowed my brain a gradual passage, but I could hear the comforting murmur of human voices behind me. By the time the train pulled into the station at Nice, body and spirit were refreshed and ready to rejoin humanity.

My most memorable train journeys have largely been in Europe, with none exceeding the quiet splendor of a trip from Budapest to Prague, through Slovakia, in early March. A thick blanket of show reflected the dull sunlight through relentlessly mesmerizing birch forests as the train trundled along. I spoke not a word of the languages native to the three countries through which we traveled, and each of the little towns the train briefly stopped in was a long string of unreadable signs. This is one of the singular joys of traveling by train in a foreign country: you can credibly remain completely outside the comprehensible world. Often the conductors do not speak English, and transactions are conducted via gesture. The voices around you are an inarticulate hum, and the signs are useless. You are essentially relieved of all responsibility to engage with the world–you are free to stare out the window for hours, and no one expects anything more from you because you can’t communicate anyway. None of this is possible on a plane, where there are flight attendants who speak English, dubbed movies, bilingual signs, and nothing to stare at but clouds and, eventually, mist.

My most recent train journey was in Peru from Aguas Calientes to Cuzco, after hiking the Inca Trail. This trip, on the “Hiram Bingham,” was less humble than my little post-backpacking journey in France–there were tables, and meals, and huge windows curving up into the ceiling of the train car. We had spent a night in Aguas Calientes after getting off the trail, so we had already begun re-acclimating to civilization. However, I couldn’t help but wonder what Hiram Bingham himself, the explorer and archaeologist who made public the existence of Machu Picchu, would think of this train that made traveling such forbidding terrain look so easy?

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As the train wended its way through small farming villages and past towering mountains, I gazed long into the distance, trying to remember the feel of the trail. Periodically my consciousness came back to the people whose lives we were passing. Everywhere in Peru it is hard to lose awareness of the high rate of poverty in the country, and on the Hiram Bingham it was especially difficult to think of anything but the nearly unfathomable degree of privilege I was enjoying by riding this train. The amount of mental discomfort involved made it a challenging way to return to the world, and that was exactly as it should have been.

I dream of many more train trips–in India, across the Canadian Rockies, aboard the California Zephyr. The chance to do any one of these would be absolutely thrilling. However, with near-equal anticipation I look forward to hopping my regional Amtrak line for jaunts to DC, Philly, and New York. The romance of train travel adjusts to any scale, and I don’t believe I will ever outgrow it.

[Title of this post from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay]

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