Truising (Or Craining)

Being aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is a lot like being on a cruise ship.  There’s an overarching emphasis on pampering the travelers.  Each train car has legions of people waiting on you hand and foot and pointing out that osprey nest that is coming up around the corner, or the big horn sheep trotting by.

Oh, yeah — there’s also a lot of focus on food and drink.  

Every car has its own white tablecloth dining room and kitchen.  You get seated with other travelers in your car — so far, we’ve broken bread with a couple from Florida and a couple from Germany — and you order your main course off the menu while they bring you other treats, like the fruit concoction pictured above that we got at breakfast.  It was a kind of delicious combination of orange juice and fruit sections, topped with a plump, juicy, tart gooseberry.  Not a bad way to start your breakfast!

In addition to the two sit-down meals, you’re also plied with snacks and as many drinks as you can inhale, the better to appreciate the scenery rolling by.  It’s a pretty civilized way to travel.  Call it truising — or maybe craining.

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All Aboard The Rocky Mountaineer!

We’re in Vancouver, getting ready to board the Rocky Mountaineer train on the Canadian rail system.  It runs over the Canadian Rockies to Banff and points west.


The Rocky Mountaineer does things with a nice touch of class.  We were greeting by a guy playing Beatles music on a baby grand when we entered the terminal, got complimentary coffee and juice, and were piped aboard the train by a bagpiper in full Scottish regalia.  Now we’ve been given a “sunrise toast” with orange juice and bubbly to start our journey.

We’re in the top floor of a two-story train with more window glass than you can possibly imagine — the better to gawk as the landscape rolls by.  The scenery is supposed to be spectacular, and we’re eager for our trip to begin.

Off Tracks

IMG_0612The train tracks come into Columbus from the south.  At night we regularly hear the whistles moan as the trains approach the downtown area.  As the cars rattle past German Village, they roll underneath the Whittier Street overpass.

The overpass has a tightly meshed fence that keeps the passersby away from the tracks and makes it impossible to get an unobstructed picture of the trains as they rumble by.  It’s an apt physical sign of Columbus’ circumstances when it comes to trains.  We are serviced by freight trains galore, but we’re blocked from boarding any passenger trains.  If you live in Columbus and want to take a train trip, you need to drive about a hundred miles south or a hundred miles north — because neither Amtrak nor any other passenger rail line stops in Ohio’s capital city.

midwest-rail-map-2015-revsIf you look at a passenger rail service map, you can see Columbus’ isolation.  It’s there smack dab in the middle of Ohio, far away from any of the operating rail stations.  Even with efforts underway to increase passenger rail service in other cities, when it comes to trains Columbus is nowhere.

It didn’t use to be that way.  If you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you about Union Station, which used to anchor the northern edge of downtown Columbus, and how you could catch an interurban train to other cities in Ohio, take a long cross-country trip, or even book a ride on a special car that took Ohio State football fans up to Ann Arbor for the games against That Team Up North.  But now Union Station is demolished, its classical entrance arch has been reconstructed in a park in the Arena District, and the train trips from Columbus are a distant memory.  At some point, when the superhighways and the airports had taken away many of those former passengers, train travel became uneconomical, and somebody decided that Columbus really didn’t need passenger trains anymore.

Now we just hear the trains, and it’s a lonesome, sad sound.

The Lost Romance Of Train Travel

IMG_3548I was born as the Golden Age of Train Travel in America was ending, and railroads were being eclipsed by airplanes and the interstate highway system.  As I grew up, the passenger rail system was shriveling, many grand downtown stations were being torn down, and cities like Columbus were being left with no rail service at all.

Still, there has always been something evocative about trains.  When I traveled through Europe after college, I enjoyed the train experience — the jostling and rocking, the whistles and bells, the clickety-clack of steel wheels on steel track, and the aging smell of the cars.  I enjoyed the chance encounters with complete strangers that a communal travel system offered.  It was stimulating and added to the feeling that I was really getting exposure to the cultures and people of the countries I was visiting.

I enjoy driving, but there is a lost romance to train travel that the interstate highway system just can’t match.

Here in Nashville, the backdrop to the registration desk in the spectacular lobby of the Union Station Hotel is an old train schedule.  Just look at the names!  The Dixie Flyer!  The South Wind!  The Hummingbird!  The Azalean!  The Florida Arrow!  The Pan American!  Who wouldn’t want to board one of those trains, as porters hustled by and stacks of luggage were loaded, as steam huffed from the engine and warning whistles screamed, in search of adventure?

A Perspective On Train Tracks

I’m drawn to train tracks.  I love the feel and look of the tracks, with their brightly gleaming steel rails and their heavy wood railroad ties on the rough gravel beds.  I love the railroad crossing gates, with their x-shaped railroad crossing sign, their clanging bells and flashing lights, and their striped crossing bars.  But most of all, I love standing at a crossing — after carefully making sure no trains are approaching from either direction, of course — and looking down the tracks.

Have you ever thought about how evocative train tracks are?  You can stand at a crossing in rural Ohio and look to the right or to the left and see the tracks disappear into the far distance, touching the horizon, a perfect study in artistic perspective.  It’s almost as if you can look into infinity — and infinity can be found either direction.

Sleeping To The Sounds Of The Lonesome Train Whistle

Kish grew up in Vermilion, Ohio, in a house located between two train tracks.  Because there are two tracks nearby, and because a lot of commerce in America moves by freight train, the lonely sound of train whistles and the rumble of passing freight cars are a part of every visit we make.

There is something comforting about the sounds of trains.  The train is far away when you first hear that whistle echoing across the countryside; the train politely gives you plenty of notice that it is on its way.  As the train approaches, the sound of the whistle changes and expands.  Soon you hear the throaty growl of the train passing by — and then the whistle gently recedes into the distance.

We don’t hear many train whistles in New Albany; I’m not even sure where the nearest railroad crossing is.  Curiously, however, the sounds of the trains don’t bother me when we are here or interfere with my sleep.  If anything, I sleep more soundly — and I think the trains, as well as the fresh air and the deep darkness, away from the light pollution of urban areas, may have a lot to do with it.

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey to Palermo

Traveling is never as easy as you think it will be. While planning my trip on my laptop at home, I imagined that my journey from Athens to Palermo, Sicily, would consist of a night on a ferry and two moderately long train rides. I expected it to take about a day. Instead, it took more than two days – the longest duration of travel I’ve endured in my life.

The day before leaving Athens, I learned that no train goes directly from there to Patras, due to cuts made by the bankrupt Greek government. To travel between the two cities by train requires a few transfers. Despite this, I decided to take a train rather than a bus, thanks to bad memories from a Greyhound trip I took a few years ago. I activated my Eurail pass and got a ticket. At the time of my train’s departure, however, two trains arrived on opposite sides of the platform, and not knowing which one I was supposed to take (my ticket didn’t specify), I went back into the station and reserved a bus ticket for a few hours later (thanks to my Eurail pass, all the tickets were free). I was worried that I would miss the ferry, but the actually-very-comfortable bus ride took only three hours, getting me to Patras with time to spare.

The ferry arrived in Bari at 11 AM, two and a half hours later than it was supposed to. After finding the train station there, I learned that Bari is not a well-connected city in the Italian train network. The earliest I could get to Palermo was 10:40 AM the next morning, after taking an intercity train to Bonaventi, a regional train all the way up to Naples, and, finally, another intercity train to Palermo. I had a reservation at a hostel in Palermo for that night, so this news frustrated me. Instead of sleeping on a mattress, I had to spend my night sitting down in a tiny compartment with four other guys. We all agreed to lay our feet on the seats across from us, and the guy across from me, who looked like Kurt Vonnegut, put his pillow on my foot.

The journey wasn’t all disappointment and frustration, though. While traveling from Bonaventi to Naples, a group of Italian girls practiced their English with me. Before getting off the train, they gave me a memento to remember them by: a bracelet with images of Mary and Jesus. They asked for a memento from me, so I gave them the book I had just finished. Later, they friended me on facebook.

On the train to Palermo I was in the same car as a fellow American backpacker and recent college graduate named Bryanna. Her trip thus far was remarkably similar to mine: she started in Istanbul, went to Athens, spent time on a Greek island (Corfu), and was heading to Palermo. She decided to upgrade to a sleeper car, but we pledged to be friends in Palermo.

My trip also included the “pleasure” of a two and a half hour layover in Naples. As soon as I walked out of the train station there, I could tell that the city had major problems. There were mountains of garbage everywhere (according to Bryanna, there’s some sort of dispute over who should clean it up), and the buildings – which are actually beautiful, architecturally – were smeared with graffiti. The traffic around the Piazza Garibaldi was ferocious, even by Italian standards. Someone needs to clean up that city.

Bryanna decided to stay at the same hostel as me because she didn’t have a reservation anywhere. After arriving in Palermo, we spent four hours finding the place, which was on the outskirts of the city. We misunderstood the woman at the information desk outside the station; when she said the hostel was an hour-long bus ride away, we thought she said it was an hour-long walk away, so we tried to walk there, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city. A few sweaty hours later, we realized our mistake. After making many inquiries and committing many more errors, we found the right bus. We arrived at the hostel in the early afternoon.

Yet, we got there during siesta time, so we couldn’t get through the gate. While we were waiting, a big group of Italian high schoolers arrived. When the gates opened, they ditched us in line at the check-in desk, in true Italian fashion (I will outline the good qualities of the Italians in a later post).

I learned some lessons from this travel experience. First: leave plenty of flexibility in your travel schedule to allow yourself to make mistakes. I thought I had left myself flexibility, but it was not nearly enough. Second: stay a long time in each place you visit – I suggest a week – rather than moving around a lot, to avoid the stress of traveling altogether. You get a deeper experience in each city that way, anyways.

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul