Last Saturday my husband and I rode the train from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. We dropped off a relative’s car in DC. Flying or driving back would have been faster, but a one-way plane ticket or car rental were more than twice the price of a train ticket. Even though only one train travels directly from DC to Pgh each day, and the trip takes at least eight hours compared to a 4 ½ hour car trip, I prefer the train, and not just for the price.
On the train are you are free to walk around. Coach seats include lots of leg room. Trains travel a route that feels almost invisible. On a train you sneak up on a town. You come in through the back door. A town that a highway passes by, a train glides through. On this trip, I carried books in my pack just for reading on the train. Looking out the windows held my attention for hours. I never did open a book.
Each town, farm, and river set me to wondering about life in that spot. From the train I saw alternative lives, possibilities not related to actual, probable choices, but exercises in imagination. Richard Hugo, in his book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, recommended using strange towns as triggering subjects. Hugo wrote, “You found the town, now you must write the poem.” For me, the train provides ideal access to the town.
If an eight hour train trip is good, a cross country, 45 hour trip is better. My favorite route is Chicago to Seattle. The Empire Builder runs up the Mississippi, across the North Dakota and Montana plains, through Glacier National Park, into the orchards of Eastern Washington, and over the Cascade Mountains. It’s true that the train often runs late, but why worry about a few extra hours added to a two day trip? My husband and I joke that a late train makes the trip an even better value – you get to spend more time on board, and they don’t charge extra.