These delays were worth the wait

As we traveled across the country by train, one delay had us serendipitously perched on a grassy plain above the Pacific Ocean where dolphins leapt into view.

The specter of delay hovers over any frequent traveler. Who doesn't shudder at the thought of languishing in an airport - or worse, on a runway - for hours at a time, or of creeping along a highway through a construction zone in the boxy embrace of big rigs? On a recent two-week trip to points west and north of my home in south-central Indiana, I experienced several of the inevitable delays of long- distance travel - and I wouldn't have missed any of them.

Welcome aboard! Having taken to heart the uncertain future of intercity rail travel in all but the heavily used Northeast corridor, Charlie and I booked a journey on three of the legendary passenger trains that still (for now) knit together the rest of the country: the Southwest Chief that links Chicago to Los Angeles; the Coast Starlight from L.A. to Portland, Ore., and Seattle; and the Empire Builder, which carried us back East to Chicago through the Cascade Mountains, high plains of Montana, and Dakota prairie.

This was not simply an indulgence in nostalgia. We happen to believe in the continuing economic and ecological relevance of Amtrak in an age when air and passenger-car travel dominate.

It's just as when we use used draft horses to supplement the tractors powering our small dairy operation during its commercially active years. There were some things tractors simply could not do, one of which was work safely on steep slopes. Another was to make us feel in touch with something grand and eternal, the way partnering with the horses did.

Train travel has its own distinct feel, too, a swaying rhythm that lends a rich fluidity to one's sense of time and space - a motion and mental ease that stays with you awhile after you disembark from an overnight stretch. Arlo Guthrie, in his haunting ballad "City of New Orleans" captured it perfectly with the lyric: "And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers ride their fathers' magic carpets made of steel." That stands as my favorite line in all of folk music.

We divided our own magic carpet journey into five segments of overnight train travel, stopping in between to visit friends and family in Trinidad, Colo., and Eugene, Ore., and staying a couple of nights at one of the most unusual train stations in the country - the Izaak Walton Inn, nestled against the mountains of Glacier National Park.

We expected delays, having been forewarned by Amtrak itself that freight traffic sometimes slows the progress of its passenger trains. But, as I said, these were experiences in themselves, far from unpleasant.

The first came while an engine cooled near the top of Raton Pass connecting Colorado and New Mexico. How familiar! Had we not stopped on the hillsides of home to allow Doc and Jim, our draft horses, to catch their breath as we hauled storm-felled timber up from the stream valley?

Another delay had us serendipitously perched on a grassy plain above the Pacific Ocean where dolphins occasionally leapt into view. One of the attendants opened a couple of windows to the fresh salt air and bird song, and by the time we were rolling again, few of us would have cared if we'd never left.

We paused in the Salinas Valley during the height of the fall harvest, and waited at the Columbia River drawbridge, as it was raised for the passage of a tour boat (it was them or us, and they arrived first).

Less spectacular, but with its own quiet beauty, was the hour spent idling alongside an Illinois cornfield, luminous in the low sun.

Granted we weren't on any kind of a rigid schedule, but even if we had been, these were veritable idylls of delays next to the strandings and standstills associated with air and car travel.

The draft horse had almost completely disappeared from American farms before the tide turned, and interest in what they had to offer revived for a host of reasons - nostalgia, yes, but also realization of the environmental, economic, personal, even intangible, rewards of real horse power.

A few years down the track I hope we can say the same about that other national icon, the intercity passenger train. It would be a shame to have to say goodbye to the likes of the Southwest Chief, the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, and the City of New Orleans.

How many planes have names like that, or delays to savor?

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