The solitary duck-on the rails redux

As I promised, half of this little therapy experiment will be about my travels, so we will step away from the deep emotional stuff for a few lines and get back on the train.

I think I’ve always been a delayed reflector. I live, and sometimes act, in the moment, then reflect on the events a much later time. This usually gets me into trouble, but it but can be a benefit when you’re looking back at an experience like a trip, so I’m going to spend some more time talking about riding the rails.

Probably my favorite part of the train trip was “ever changing vista just outside your seat.” Train tracks seldom run through the clean, rich parts of any town; they run through the dirty, low class industrial areas where factories need links to markets and the people don’t have the political power or money to fight the “not in my backyard” battle. As a result, when riding the train, you see the hidden backyards of America. I’d call it the “real” side of us, not the what we choose to show the people passing by our front yard. You see the brush piles, the weeds, the failed attempts at gardening, the car restoration projects long abandoned to rust away. Personally, I find those sights far more interesting than manicured lawns and edged driveways.

This particular train route runs right through the buckle of the rust belt, passing through cities where steel mills and other factories lined everyone’s pockets. Today, those mills and factories have been long abandoned, their skeletons rusting away, stripped of anything of value. Their parking lots with tall weeds growing in cracks, the Earth herself reclaiming what is hers. It makes you wonder what those towns were like when America was the king of manufacturing. You see glimpses of it in a few preserved buildings, but rust, once it starts, is difficult to stop.

After some time, the train passed from the rust belt and climbed deep into the Alleganies. Now I’m not really sure where the line of demarcation between, “Appalachian” and “Allegany” is, but I have to say the rural areas of Southern Pennsylvania don’t look all that different than my visits to the rural areas of Southeast Ohio and West Virginia, so I doubt the state you live in really affects the state in which you live so much. (see what I did there?) We passed the rickety homes and rusty trailers of people doing their damnedest to squeeze a place to live, let alone a living out of some of the roughest, rockiest, though beautiful places you’ll ever find.

Eventually, even those scattered houses faded away and we were left passing though miles and miles of forest. Tall hardwoods and flowering bushes were punctuated occasionally with an open meadow of color or a fast flowing creek flowing over rock outcroppings. You almost wish the train would slow so you could drink more in, but then you realize you still have 14 hours ahead of you.

Finally, as we passed into Maryland and Western Virginia, the train started stopping again. The first place was where the Appalachian Trail met our rails. At that stop, some travelers far more adventurous and seasoned than I boarded our car. Unfortunately none sat near me, or I’d have more to tell. The train then pulled into Harper’s Ferry, and now in my delayed reflection, that made me think. 150 years ago, the fuse for the civil war was lit right there, and for a good majority of the fellow travelers in my car, had they arrived on a similar train on this same track back then, they would have been cargo and not passengers. Then, the immediate next thought is a question: have we grown enough as a nation when the majority of people who have the wealth to fly or own a car are of one race, while those who travel the buses and rails out of necessity are another? That’s something to marinate on and I really don’t want this to become a political blog.

After a few more brief stops, the train arrived at Union Station in Washington. Constructed obviously when rail was important, the station is an immaculate white marble and gold palace. The interesting thing is though, the white marble halls and anterooms are no longer for the train travelers. The beautiful part of the station has been converted to a very high end mall, while the Amtrak station is in a back hallway featuring fluorescent lighting and rows and rows of plastic bench seating.

Maybe that station is a metaphor for all of us. In the end, I think we are like lone ducks swimming in the water, or like the houses the trains pass, or Union Station. We put one image out to the world above the water, or in the front yard, or in the marble halls, but in our backyards, and under the water, and in the back hall, sometimes it’s utter chaos of kicking feet, weeds, rusty cars, or the dirty black exhaust of diesel locomotives.


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