Taking trains to get places is very instructive. The traveler gets to see firsthand decisions that were made, are being made, or are yet to be made at a pace and from a perspective that one doesn’t get while driving or walking. At the wheel of a car, one must pay attention. From the train, concentration and focus are possible.
Just yesterday, I saw piles of skids tossed against chain-link fences and huge sparkling blocks consisting of automobile bumpers. Out of the view of freeway passengers, rock and broken asphalt comprised berms along the tracks.
There were acres of pavement and parklands. There were home sites and wetlands. Shipping containers stacked four high filled one side of the tracks, packed so close together it was impossible to discern how they’d be taken out.
In one brownfield, an apparently inhabited tent was colorfully nestled beneath a twisted tree. The spot seemed at once isolated and proximate, a block – maybe two – from a major corporation. Private pathways crisscrossed this and other nearby fields. These were so worn it seems unlikely no one has spied the permanent resident in his or her REI house.
I saw corporate offices that ring cities and towns. There were loading docks and cemeteries. A cheese factory hosted bee hives just off their parking lot, and near what seemed to be fields of cabbage, tilled under from fall’s harvest. Horses gathered around a trough not a mile from downtown Milwaukee.
There were new tracks and old ones, the latter moved to the side of the right of way looking light weight and insignificant because of their angles.
At the end of the line, few of us were on the train when we got to the Intermodal Station. The new platforms, elevators, ramps, and escalators seem so incongruent with the single train that stops there.
Many years ago, Paul and I visited a friend in Los Angeles where I was attending a conference. We didn’t travel all that much in our decades together, but went to New York and New Mexico fairly often. We enjoyed northern California, but not LA. During that visit, Paul and I reflected on what was challenging our enjoyment of the place, so well loved by so many. Paul decided: “There’s no there, there.” Too many decisions had been made to engineer, pave, alter, ignore, and festoon for us to get a sense of the actual landscape.
On my trip through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin by train yesterday, I felt concerned and sad about the decisions we are making about our still beautiful, but increasingly fragile, land.