The soft glow of the morning sun slowly intensified, as though Homer’s rosy-fingered Dawn was too coy to reveal herself upon the horizon stretching out from the collapsing cityscape we were leaving behind us. In less than an hour, New Orleans was in the distance and the beast that had swallowed us in a breath of diesel fumes on Loyola Avenue slithered across one of the most majestic sights along America’s Southern coast. The Mississippi River Delta (not to be confused with the literary heartland in northwest corner of the state) churns with frustration where it is forced into the Gulf of Mexico, and the bridge we were crossing was so narrow it seemed as though we were hovering over the uneasy waters, ready to disappear beneath the off-white foam at any moment. The difference between fear and exhilaration that swell in a man standing before the raw, brutal power of Creation is distinguishable only in those rare instances in which he is possessed by a simultaneous feeling of inexplicable security, as I felt looking out the passenger window of the Crescent, rumbling with irregular efficiency from the ruins of New Orleans toward the benighted city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I was not just watching this great river become the sea, I was participating in it.
A child’s earliest memory is often an act of disobedience followed by immediate physical consequences. In my case, I hear the voice of my father telling me to keep the window of our Pullman closed as my eyes fill with soot from the stack of the locomotive lurching out of the station. Alas, the occasion has been rare indeed that I have been called upon to use the lesson I learned about coal-burning locomotives, but the memory is imprinted on my consciousness nonetheless. We who love the romance of the rails rarely try to understand why we are so enthralled. It is a quaint platitude to say that the rails built America ̶ collieries and those “dark Satanic mills” did quite as much and are far less fondly remembered. The National Park Service has not preserved any of the Blue Diamond Coal Company’s breakers or slopes, or dedicated any of its funds to Bethlehem Steel’s fossilized stalagmites of industry – but the principal maintenance yard of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western is preserved in perpetuity by the US taxpayer. One might venture that the romance is our nation looking back in regret, wondering if Eisenhower was truly correct to bring the Autobahn back after the War, but Europe is no different – rail museums and “rail excursions” abound in Britain, France, and Germany. For some reason, where high-speed rail is common and rail travel is quotidian, people still seek out rail travel for its own sake.
The rails have a unique quality in the way they interrupt and intrude by integrating themselves into the space they occupy. The colliery swallows everything around it, turning the earth black with discarded slate until not even the most stubborn birch tree can take root. Even in the days of live tracks cast like a great steel net across the continent, rails were marked by their perfectly canny silence in the midst of the landscape, interrupted only momentarily as the distant whine of steam and grinding friction of steel tyres meeting the rail, slowly building to the crescendo roar and then fading into the distance. It is something unnatural and yet natural, rolling across the countryside like a thunderstorm or a stampede, as much at home as it rolls into station after station in human settlements as it is on the remote viaduct looming over valleys populated only by mute shrubbery and pasture. The railroad is itself a sort of ecosystem, each element inextricable from the others, and yet only right in the exact place it occupies. The viaducts, causeways, and bridges, like the trains they carry, augment as much as they interrupt the landscape, not unlike the miles of aqueducts that once carried water from the distant hills to fill the fountains of Rome and Ostia.
Mountains are laid low for the highways and turnpikes; from the sky one can see the straight-away as it cuts across the landscape, autos buzzing by like bullets down the asphalt barrels, obliterating any creature unfortunate enough to step into their path. Trains, though, stand out on the plains, too grand and imposing to be hidden by tall grass or cornfields; rails pass beneath mountains and hug the valleys, demanding so specific a grade as to be restricted by nature in a way the road is not. The Starrucca and Glenfinnian viaducts in Pennsylvania and Inverness, Scotland each rise out of the Earth as though they were a part of the landscape itself; where nature is interrupted, it is with a monument, as in Nicholson, Pennsylvania, where the Tunkhannock viaduct was for decades the largest concrete structure in the world. Starrucca was immortalized by Jasper Francis Cropsey in 1865, and illustrates perfectly the aesthetic of the ecosystem of the railroad. It is not the pure naturalist aesthetic, which sees the beauty of nature only in man’s absence, nor is this the classical or Apollonian aesthetic, which cannot perceive beauty except that wrought by the hand of man, but rather an aesthetic of participation in Creation. It lends itself to poetry. Try as they might, automotive journalists will never be able to speak of the car or truck in the same way – the aesthetic of speed so beloved of the futurists is not an aesthetic of being and can therefore never be anything by [but] momentary; indeed, even the most beautiful automobiles are designed to look as though they are in motion standing still.
The steam locomotive has a presence that no automobile can possibly match. There is life in it, an achievement of man at his most monstrous and ingenious. The spirit that animates the romance of the rails, and animated the men who created and tended those great creatures ̶ for they were tended, nursed like horses or cattle, repaired and monitored constantly as they lived and worked and were worn down ̶ was a spirit of both man’s arrogance and his Divine potential. When one sees them at the height of their majesty, cutting through the natural landscape, breathing fire, smoke, and mist, it is hard to imagine that they do not belong there. It is not merely a physical aesthetic though, not the angles and edges, contrast of hard and soft transitions: it is like something organic, and yet not. It is uncanny, but it captures the imagination rather than repelling the senses. Acrid coal fires in sulphurous clouds lick at the nostrils as this great Cyclopean mass thunders past, and gives the sensation that one might be in the midst of an earthquake or volcanic eruption as man-made winds pull the man standing just beyond the ballast towards the roaring monster and, if he loses his footing, his own violent death. The romance of steam is man playing God for the first time ̶ toying with genetics is vulgar by comparison. Here is a creature who can mimic his Creator and make from dead steel something so alive and so human that it animates us when we witness it in action.
The brutalism of most diesel locomotives is no less powerful, though perhaps they lose some of the magic bestowed by the scale on which the men of Union Pacific dreamed when they first envisioned the 4-8-8-4 Big Boy or the Pennsy executives who sought to match their Western counterparts with the 4-4-4-4 T1. A grown man can feel like a small boy standing besides even the most diminutive switcher, especially a steam loci whose wheels are often taller than his car or truck. It is not just the size, though; after all, most cars on the road today are dwarfed even by the tractor-trailers that have challenged the rails for dominance of freight transport. Truck drivers were briefly romantic, in the 1970s, but trucks blend in too much; a truck driver, after all, is still a driver, the same as the soccer mom in the Toyota Sierra you passed on the highway this morning or the delivery boy from Ping Li Hao Authentic Chinese Restaurant and Buffet. He is not the master of a great beast breathing fire, filling the air with smoke and mist that can be seen for miles or the pilot of the block of black metal rounding that curve into town so fast you worry it might leave the track as you sit trapped in front of the blinking red lights. There is something more than scale at work.
It was pitch black for most of the journey as we wormed our way from Chicago through the bones of America’s decaying Industrial heartland. A derailment outside of Cincinatti had forced us to stop and make our way through a snow-covered right-of-way on a higher grade than we had glided along so comfortably out of Gary. It was the first time I had ever seen it, and even then only barely, through the darkness as we passed through Detroit. The night hid the wreckage; it was only really apparent how bad things were by the frequency and species of light in the distance. Like the view from the rail car window itself, the sight of fires lit for warmth and light in the distance is something from another time – a past or a future with which we are not truly acquainted and for which we are not fully prepared. Would that I could say that the train rolled in quiet triumph past the city of shuttered automobile factories – in truth the detour into Detroit made it clear the half-day journey would likely be a full 24 hours, and I hadn’t been able to afford a sleeping berth. Fortunately, neither had most of the other coach passengers, and though we had been told the dining car would have a complimentary breakfast for us, we had all chosen to abandon our seats and congregate in the café car. Interstate rail travel is a different environment altogether from commuter rail – the goal of subways, light rail systems, and commuter lines is to avoid the other people as much as possible in the gap between work and home, usually occupied by papers, books, games, or music – alienation now conveniently available all from the same device. When you breathe the same oxygen as another human being for six or seven hours, though, interaction is really unavoidable. Moreover, regulars seek it out; of the substantial conversations I have struck up with strangers in the course of my life, nearly all have occurred on interstate rail.
In the café car, I met an older couple whose dress indicated their affluence; a red v-neck sweater and a coat from Cabela’s beneath a salt-and-pepper goatee sat grinning next to a chubby smile mounted on a green faux-velvet blouse. The other booths were occupied, but for some reason they had chosen to sit next to each other and saw me with my Pepsi and microwaved hot dog and motioned that I could join them. He was an engineer for some nameless company that probably had government contracts and she was a schoolteacher. They were very proud of their son, who was about my age (younger by a few years actually, they had just dropped him off at college and I was finishing a Masters degree preparing to begin my doctoral programme). We talked a bit about the railroad ̶ a surprisingly uncommon subject on a train ̶ and why they had elected not to fly. The rails, for all their history of derailments and the lax security in a time when even places of worship are installing metal detectors, restore a sense of safety that seems ever more elusive to the denizens of Middle America. I rarely checked a bag, but if I did I should hardly doubt it would arrive to my destination completely unmolested with all of its contents untouched. I doubt I really had much in common with this couple other than what we had shared that evening, but the irresistible humanism of the café car had made us into neighbours.
If you arrive early for your train, or if you board at a terminal station, you will sometimes find yourself seated alone for at least a few station stops along your route. On the way to New Orleans, a grey-haired church lady in an impeccable purple suit travelling home from Winston-Salem to Tupelo was so impressed with my offer to help place her bags in the overhead that she gave me a free sample of the home-made Praline she sold for five dollars a pound. It remains the best Praline I’ve had, over against what I’ve eaten in Georgia, Memphis, and at two separate locations in Louisiana. She had gone to see her son, his girlfriend, and her grandbabies. Elderly travellers are among the most loquacious, and she was born in the South before air conditioning ruined things. She insisted we exchange contact information when she disembarked in Birmingham to be driven back to Mississippi by her daughter, but we’ve not spoken since. For the five hours we rode together, though, we were neighbours and friends.
Chuck Palahniuk talks about the single-use friend in Fight Club as a phenomenon of the business traveller. This is a conceit. In Palahniuk’s work, the narrator builds small relationships – from meeting, to friendship, to break-up. Across the table in the café car outside Detroit, though, weren’t friends, but neighbours: we live next to each other and make an effort to be amicable, and our relationship never develops, it remains static. The same was true of the thin man in a navy blue Nation of Islam windbreaker ahead of me in line to board the train to Syracuse. He was travelling on business, like Palahnuik’s narrator. He and I spoke a little about Farrakhan, but mostly we talked about the neighbourhood where he had grown up in Southside Chicago and if the White Sox would make the World Series. We stayed on our own side of the fence separating our respective properties – he was riding Business and I was in Coach.
The romance of the rails is a romanticism unique to post-industrial society: it is a human romance, a nostalgia for a world that never quite existed but was always thought possible when smoke still billowed above the American heartland. The rails humanise [British spelling intentional?] because they are in their own way still a means whereby man can remain modern but participate in nature ̶ whether it is the world that moves past the rider or the train that thunders past the onlooker, at great distance or immediately in front of you, beside a remote line in the woods or dodging switchers in a yard. The railroad is a monument to a species of man who lived aesthetically, and in that resides the root of its attractiveness as well as the melancholy that so often accompanies it, for it is a lost species.