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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Riding the Rails

What is it about trains that is so appealing to so many people? Is it the sense of romance, or the fact that trains harken back to a time when life was simpler and moved at a slower pace?

Recently I took my third excursion on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs 45 miles from Durango, Colorado to the old mountain mining town of Silverton.
The trip takes 3-1/2 hours each way, including two stops to pick up 3,500 gallons of water for the steam locomotive.

The trip to Silverton is a pleasant one, going through deep canyons, across the churning, ice-cold Animas River, and through acres and acres of pine trees and soaring mountains. Taking a steam locomotive is quite a feast for the senses.

I love the sound of the locomotive's whistle.  I love the hypnotic clickety-clack of the steel wheels on the iron rails, and I like the rhythmic swaying of the cars. Watching the steam billow from the whistle, seeing the black smoke belching as the train struggles uphill, and seeing clouds of steam shooting from the side of the engine add to the experience. Perhaps the only sense  that doesn't really enjoy the train ride is the sense of smell. The sooty smell of coal smoke can be overwhelming. I often get a headache from inhaling the smoke, ash and cinders that pour into the air as the locomotive chugs along. I enjoy riding in the open air gondola car, which is much better for photography. The downside is inhaling coal smoke and returning covered in a layer of black soot.

When I lived in California, I sometimes rode the commuter train to a station not far from my work and then took the shuttle bus. The trip was only a few miles long, but it took longer to go by train and shuttle than to drive, although the journey was much more relaxing. I've also taken the train from my parents' house in suburban Chicago to downtown on a couple of occasions. While living in Russia, I took the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, which was a fascinating experience. The air conditioning on that train worked only when the train was moving, and it seemed to make several stops throughout the night, but it was an unforgettable experience.

One of my dream trips is to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. National Geographic offers a 17-day journey starting in Vladivostok in far eastern Russia and heading west to Moscow. Unfortunately, the trip costs $26,000, and I don't know anybody with that kind of money who would like to travel with me. So for now at least it will remain a dream, but what an amazing trip that would be.

Riding a train is relaxing, allowing passengers to read, doze, chat with fellow passengers or simply gaze out the window. Train passengers see scenery not readily visible from an airplane flying at 35,000 feet. Trains also give us an opportunity to escape the madness of the overly commercialized world. There are no billboards along the railroad tracks, and once out of the cities, there are no more flashing neon signs, McDonald's golden arches or other commercial pressures.

I would love to see passenger trains in America make a comeback. Anything that can force us to slow down and take life at a more relaxed pace is a good thing.