April 8, 2015
A brief word on train travel and the difference between Europe and America.
In the past few weeks I’ve had the distinct privilege of riding the rails through England, Belgium, Germany, France, Holland and these United States of America. If I knew an anthropologist, I might propose a study of cultural difference seen through the windows of the various moving trains. Instead, this hastily written blog will have to do. The trains in Europe (Eurostar and Thalys) were how I traveled while on tour recently there. The Amtrak here in America was how I got from Lamy, NM, to Los Angeles, CA, with my boys as we went overnight in a sleeping car to the west coast so I could take them to Legoland. And though I have a deep love of America, after these experiences, I’m ready to move back to Europe.
The European trains were peaceful, quiet, comfortable, clean, punctual and fast. I heard hushed conversations in at least five different languages. I got from Paris to Amsterdam in three hours. We arrived on time (to the minute). I played one night in London and was able to play the next night in Germany after a four hour train trip that crossed three countries and went under one large body of water. The food was tasty. The wine was reasonably priced. I was able to sleep a little. The conductors were trilingual. In one station in Holland, due to a power outage, the trains were running a bit behind. Because of this, they were giving out free coffee and tea and were extremely apologetic.
(Options from Gare du Nord)
The American train was a slightly different story. The train was over an hour late pulling into Lamy, an outpost in the middle of nowhere with no amenities save an outdated vending machine. (In an unrelated coincidence, the Outside Magazine shoot I recently did was shot at and around the Lamy station.) There was no explanation for why, and judging by the tone of the ticket-booth attendant, an hour delay was pretty good for them. The delay was not an issue, the conductor told me, though, because they had a scheduled hour and a half layover in Albuquerque, which they’d just shorten and get us back on schedule. Why Amtrak scheduled said 90-minute layover is beyond me. We made it to Albuquerque in about two hours (a trip which would have taken under an hour by car).
My boys loved our sleeping car. They would have stayed there the whole time goofing off in the fold-down bunks. But I wanted to check out the observation car, so we parked ourselves in the mostly glass car and watched the desert roll by. I suppose I had imagined a quiet and smooth slicing through the country with my boys, talking about the frontier and pioneer days. Maybe reading excerpts to them from Lonesome Dove. But the ride was rickety. The tracks seemed in need of repair. And shortly after we sat down, a dreadlocked girl in need of a shower pulled out a harmonica and started honking loudly and, to my amazement, some hobo-looking fellow who probably carried a gun unpacked an out-of-tune guitar.
What would turn into a three-hour jam session began. I assumed the other passengers were as put off as I was, but in fact the opposite was true. Folks gathered round to sing along and snap pictures. A couple drunks socking back canned beer were shouting and clapping like it was Springsteen onboard.
The train was as bumpy and slow as the country was beautiful. And man, it is beautiful out there. There’s nothing like New Mexico and Arizona in Europe for sure. There may be nothing like it anywhere on this Earth. As amusingly irritated as I was by my fellow travelers, I was proud and excited by my land. My boys, growing up as they are out here in the West, don’t realize how special it is. But I think the openness still has an effect on their souls. A spirit of possibility and hope. And maybe that spirit was consistent with the boisterous freedom being displayed in the car beside us. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t annoying.
There also seems to be a sense among American rail travelers that we are in it to yap it up and meet others. Our train had started in Chicago, and a lot of older travelers seemed to have met and become friends somewhere across the plains. I wouldn’t be surprised if a baby or two were conceived on board (and not in the sleeping cars, mind you, right out there in the coach seats). I dealt Jackson and Noah a hand of war, and no sooner had we sorted our piles than a girl came over and asked to join the game.
I let her play my hand and watched for a few minutes until her parents got me involved in their game. Soon I was gambling with a couple from Indiana, while my kids were playing their own game. And all of this, of course, was being accompanied by a rousing and communal rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Eventually we made our way to the dining car, where the waiter’s thing was to be mean to the adults and nice to the kids. That was cool, I guess. But the food was mediocre at best and definitely overpriced (as was the sleeping car itself, which made the whole cultural experience somewhat confusing. It would have been cheaper by a long shot to fly.) My boys and I returned to the observation car to enjoy the sunset. But the sun set while we were still parked in the station in Winslow, AZ, of all places. It felt like we were there for a good two hours, which it turns out we were. I figured it was another long scheduled stop, and we went back to our bunk to get ready for bed. Actually, the delay was caused by our harmonica girl who was being arrested for smoking a joint right there in the observation car. I was a little surprised that it wasn’t legal on this American train, but I wasn’t exactly sad to see her go. At least the jam session would end for the night.
We rolled into Los Angeles a couple hours late and a bit bleary from sleeping in an often-but-not-always-moving vehicle. And then we rented a car and drove to Legoland for an even more intensely American experience (though Lego is actually a Danish company). The kids adored Legoland, of course. And I didn’t mind it either, somewhat surprisingly.
But the train remained a bizarre highlight of our mini vacation. As elitist as it may sound, I definitely prefer the staid and sophisticated trains of Europe (and still can’t get over how easy and efficient it is to glide between the greatest cities in the world). But my kids certainly love the rough and tumble American rail line. And of course they do. It makes sense that we are, in a sense, the bastard rebellious child of Europe. On the track, at least, we’re still acting the part.