Steady progress with gentle rocking around gradual bends along scenic river valleys. Room to stretch legs, move about and socialise with fellow passengers. There is much to recommend about long-distance train travel.
On the first leg of my American rail journey, along the superlative Washington coast, I had the good fortune to sit next to Trish, the multi-instrumentalist from the Be Good Tanyas, a Vancouver alt-folk-country trio who I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Opposite us was a progressive older couple whose male half flew planes in World War II and went on to lobby for environmental protection in DC. We soon found the four of us agreed on all the juicy political topics of health care, abortion, climate change etc. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given every second person you meet in the Pacific North West seems to be a tattooed, vegan, kombucha-drinking, bicycle mechanic.
It was after the rocky red mesas of Utah, waking up to snaking up the Colorado River aboard the California Zephyr, the sun rising over the desert, that I met Mark the cowboy in the Observation lounge. He was 60ish, six foot plus and fit, wearing jeans and cowboy hat, and sporting a greying moustache. He had run horses in Colorado most of his life. The skies of Colorado are continuously criss-crossed with the white contrails of aeroplanes, due to the state’s central location in the US. The only time Mark had not seem them was the few days after September 11, 2001 when almost all air traffic in the country was grounded.
An interesting thing atmospheric scientists noticed about that grounding was a small spike in some local daytime surface temperatures, due to the absence of the contrails which reflect some incoming solar energy back to space. However, before you think planes could be a climate change panacea, the contrails also trap in heat at night time, and when you add in the impact of plane carbon dioxide emissions at high altitude, it turns out that air travel has by far the largest climate impact per distance travelled for long-distance travel modes.
There is depressing chapter in George Monbiot’s 2006 book “Heat” titled “Love Miles” where he discusses the growth in air travel as international personal relationships grow, with people flying long distances to weddings etc. These emissions don’t get counted in international agreements (no country wants to own them) and few people want to talk about them. It’s one reason I put off going overseas for eight years and was clickety-clacketing my way across America. To be fair, buses may actually be the lowest carbon transport of all, but Greyhound rides seem to be seldom fun, if not verging on scary.
Mark was friendly company and we ended up talking most of the day. He was a Jehovah Witness and was on a mission to convert Mennonites over east to the “Kingdom”. There were a few Mennonites on the train and to their surprise he spoke to them in their version of Dutch. As the sun arced lower in the sky, and I had my first glimpse of snow in years, a tiny patch in the eastern Rockies before we disappeared into a long tunnel, Mark steered the conversation to the dire state of the world. He was attentive to my stories of climate change, but I could tell he was looking for an opportunity to pull out his Watchtower pamphlet. Actually it was a whole book. I wish I hadn’t taken it as I knew it was going straight in recycling, but my name had been called for the dining car and I did not wish to offend as I stood to leave.
The food and service on Amtrack can be a bit lack lustre, but the blind date style of the dining, and everything else about the experience make it a worthwhile adventure.