Sometimes in an airport, you can feel like you’re anyplace, or no where in particular. The same can be said of the exits off of any major interstate, with their full compliment of fast-whatever offerings.
So, to spend 15 hours on a train crossing a large swath of the country in few ways resembles the same trip by car or plane. But of course, rail travel diverges from the other two in non-trivial ways right out of the gate, or station, such as they are.
First trains are all about a schedule; you leave at a certain time and arrive elsewhere at a certain time. This certainty is where the airline version can and does go off the rails with great frequency, and its anti-thesis is exactly the point of a car trip. Auto excursions are self-defining; in theory, we travel by car in order to chart our own course, in space and time, to eschew the very idea of a schedule. It’s supposed to be liberating, this idea of freedom and, except for the extraordinary telecommunications tools that become necessary (cell phones, GPS navigation, etc., not to mention the portable DVD players to distract passengers from the monotony) as a result, I guess it is. There is a case to be made that we have created a need for highly complex communications systems exactly because we have fouled up our transportation systems so badly, but I won’t make it here.
But back to those 15 hours… were they lost? This question belies the mythical crux of our ability and desire to move about, and the associated problems our choices have created. With no internet connection or TV, I was out of of touch in modern parlance, except, curiously, with the other people in my sleeper compartment. Laughter, conversation, meals, sleeping – these have their place, though we have dethroned them to a great extent, and we all know it. Sharing a constantly changing view out of the window with your family presents an opportunity we could all get to know better. So if the crux is about defining productivity up or down, you be the judge.
And we got there, on a schedule everyone could follow without a lot of last minute calls. We were picked up, by other family. It was a nice reunion, limited to those present; we were rested and in a different place, a very specific place, along with our luggage and all manner of souvenirs from the city. The energy that often gets sucked up by the stress of these other individual elements of travel, we could instead employ elsewhere.