Train travel is entirely another world of transportation that all Coloradans (and Springers) should experience. All of us are too plugged in, locked on, wound up, hurried and harried, and so afraid of missing out that we miss too much of our very own lives. And the train is an effective old salve for our modern mania.
Our family recently rolled the friendly rail from Denver to Salt Lake City and back, and we learned a lot in the process. The train shatters the tiny-glass-screen umbilical cord that’s become so common, and forces the traveler to appreciate each moment and the gift of more time. There are no appointments. No calls, texts, or emails (not that you go 100 percent “digital dark,” but since the coverage is so patchy, eventually, even the most hardened tech warrior releases their smartphone grip and relents to the train’s rhythms).
But every good thing comes at a cost, and train travel sacrifices speed for space and scenery. You simply cannot compare rail to air or car. It’s just plain slower. We covered 570 miles in 15 hours, a rate which averages less than a meager 40 mph.
However, when you fly, you tend to look down on America as a series of dots (if you look at all). When you rail, you sit eye-level with a true slice of the country. So much more becomes visible. Animal tracks, hidden gorges, red rocks, giant mesas, much of it well beyond the sight lines of airline or car-lane. And train food easily beats rest stop restaurants or miniature airplane trays. At dinner, there’s proper white cloth on the tables.
It’s more than that though. It’s the little things. The time: my wife mentioned she hadn’t read so much in years. We all slept, and slept well on board, like oversize babies in a gargantuan wheeled iron crib. The train’s heft was luxurious, almost like the sense of quality you get when you open an expensive car’s door. There are 41 tunnels between Denver and Glenwood Springs, and my 7-year old daughter counted every single one. And it’s hard to explain how simply gratifying it is to look out the window while our massive-engine-that-could chugged around the next bend, because, well, it’s just cool.
It wasn’t until the ride back that we found the observation car. Up near the train’s front, it has no ticketed seats (all first-come, first-seated) and the observation car’s allure stems from having a near-entirely glass ceiling. It may well be that in some parts of the country, on other passenger rail lines, this isn’t much of a draw. (I’m guessing it’s not a big deal on the commuter train passing through Newark, N.J., where looking up only gets you a better view of the smog and the blight.) In Colorado and Utah, however, the breathtaking scenery meant the observation car was packed going both ways. The vistas and views made a seat in the observation car prime real estate.
There’s also a marvelous mystique about the train. When you fly somewhere, nobody asks how it went, except maybe to pause to allow you to vent or grumble or complain. Each person we told that we took the train asked how it was and for picked our brains for tips on planning their rail journey.
For all that gushing, it was definitely not perfect. We departed over 90 minutes late going both ways. Because the railroad is limited to travel-by-track, you’re locked into a schedule that’s incompatible with most sleep cycles (we arrived around midnight heading to Salt Lake City and we were scheduled to depart from Salt Lake City in the dark well before the dawn).
Our in-car public address system didn’t work on the way back to Colorado, and our attendant didn’t feel the need to fill this critical gap by announcing coming stops, which matters because it means you might miss out on one of the infrequent fresh air breaks that come along the way. But, of course, no travel promises perfection or an absence of inconvenience.
What the train does guarantee, for a time, is to slow your roll. You’ll look out your window, not down at your screen. You’ll enjoy the journey, while it lasts, which, come to think of it, is a pretty good philosophy for life.
And so: All aboard!
Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. Connect at MLCavanaugh.com or through his ArsenalOfIdeas.com blog. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.