The Romance of Train Travel Never Fades

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Commentator Ruth Levy Guyer muses on the romance of train travel. The rails exert the same pull on her now as they did in childhood.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In most of America, darkness descends an hour earlier tonight. And tomorrow children in costumes will prowl about. Thanksgiving can't be far behind. You've probably already made your travel arrangements. The mere mention of a train trip sends commentator Ruth Levy Guyer into a reverie.

RUTH LEVY GUYER:

I'm always daydreaming about train travel: frozen lakes and midnight sun on the Oslo-to-Arctic route; gold mines and the vast outback along Australia's Indian Pacific line. But while it's intriguing to contemplate the exotic, I also get jazzed riding rolling stock along the Northeast corridor. Every week from January to May, I ride the rails. Monday mornings I head north to the college where I teach; late on Thursdays I ride south to my home. And even though I know I'll board again in three days, I always feel a twinge of envy watching people get on as I step down.

When I was a kid, we took the overnight train every summer to Nashville to visit Grandma Susie(ph). We'd sleep in what seemed to be a huge Pullman and eat in the dining car with its starched white tablecloths, club sandwiches and forbidden sodas. I would sashay through the cars, swaying along with the train, feeling graceful as an ice dancer as I glided over the intercar metal plates.

So when my daughters were little, I arranged for us to take the transcontinental train to visit their West Coast grandparents. My husband was skeptical, especially about the deluxe sleeper I reserved. `This could add new meaning to the word "deluxe,"' he grumbled. OK, so what if the room was a tad snug? My girls were slim and slept comfortably and angelically in the single upper bunk, along with all of their dolls. And so what if the shower and toilet were fused? Our daughters were gleeful every time, by mistake or probably on purpose, they pushed the wrong button and emerged from the bathroom drenched.

The two coasts were connected by rail in 1869 when trainmen ceremoniously hammered a golden spike into the track at Promontory Point, Utah. In those days, buffalo were a perpetual menace. They would scratch their backs on telegraph poles and knock the poles onto the tracks. Most of the buffalo are gone now, but the week before we rode the Empire Builder, it actually hit a buffalo. Our trainman's story of untangling guts, cartilage and bone from the wheels was juicy.

We lugged a huge bag of books onboard and read nothing. For days we sat transfixed, staring at the vast, gorgeous, remarkable countryside. `Thank you,' said my husband, `for dragging me kicking and screaming onto this train.'

Trains go where cars can and cannot: into canyons, along rivers, through mountains, sidling up to back yards and into town centers. So much about trains is visionary. Imagine the early 20th century trainman who saw no obstacle to laying 153 miles of track out onto the ocean. He simply assembled wonderful-sounding stuff--crushed limestone marral(ph) and gravel riprap--into raised roadbeds to connect the outermost Keys to the Florida mainland. So much past is present in railroads. Their graceful, gorge-spanning wooden bridges and trestles come straight out of Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbooks.

The other evening I stepped onto the track near my home and stared off till my eyes met the vanishing point, where the glistening iron rails seemed to merge. I knew the tracks would never do that, but I thought if the trains themselves were ever to vanish, the romance of travel would surely be lost.

ELLIOTT: Commentator Ruth Guyer rides the rails regularly to Haverford College, where she teaches courses in bioethics, infectious disease and social justice.

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