On the Rails


Why the country isn’t going off track.


For spring break this year I visited the only college in America that could figuratively say it’s older than Harvard: the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Fifty-seven years after Harvard’s founding, William & Mary was officially chartered in 1693. In 1618, however, the original plan for the college that would eventually become William & Mary was made by the Virginia Company of London, before the Pilgrims made land at Plymouth. In this way, William & Mary could be said to be older than Harvard. However, a devastating Indian uprising and the revocation of the Company’s charter delayed the plan’s fruition by almost a century. Four centuries, two existential wars, and forty-five United States presidents after its original conception, I found myself enjoying what became of the Company’s plan to make a college in Virginia.

This op-ed isn’t about my visit to William & Mary, however. It’s about the four-hour train ride after.

I had a lot of time to think and to look out the window on that train ride home from Williamsburg. Initially the history of William & Mary was on my mind. But this history intermingled with what I saw in the storied landscape of Virginia made me think—whatever confusion or disarray might be going on in the country right now, there is a steady beat keeping it going forward.

I don’t think this thought would have come to me if I took a car or plane.

Trains cut paths through the world differently than planes or automobiles. Planes don’t cut through the world at all. They fly miles above it, and you seem to get the objective perspective on the order or chaos of the landscape below. Then again, the objective perspective gives little knowledge of what it’s actually like on the ground.

Cars are grounded, but their way of traveling through landscape is centered on the ways one wants to go. So if I want to go from A to B, I can decide to take roads One, Two, and Three—or road Four instead of Three if the traffic is bad.

Trains, on the other hand, take away much of the liberty you have with a car. They get you from A to B but your choice in the path is taken away. In exchange, you see things you wouldn’t normally allow yourself to see if you had the choice.

For one, you wouldn’t typically see a man drinking his morning coffee while standing in the doorway of a lumber mill and staring at your train passing by. This sight is especially atypical
when one sees repurposed industrial buildings with shiny metal vats for a biotech industries just seconds before. And seconds before that, one can peer into the industrial tobacco buildings converted into luxury loft apartments.

In a larger context, all the sights of Richmond, Virginia along the rails can be contrasted to the idyllic views of small-town Ashland. On the train fifteen miles north of Richmond, one can see Ashland’s many southern homes, often flying the Virginia state flag on their porches. As the train enters downtown, the relative bustle of main street stores can be seen along with the adjacent liberal arts college, Randolph-Macon, and its students, walking among sober academic buildings.

This concatenation of Virginia landscape is tiny compared to the immense United States, but I doubt it’s uncommon. Cities, small towns, and trains at work are not exclusive to Virginia. And they all seem to work at a steady, eternal rhythm, progressing toward a climax that is near but never quite arrives.

This work’s rhythm isn’t unique to it, though. The sights of places at work stimulate the eyes at the same pace that good music stimulates the ears. Looking out a train window at Richmond while listening to “Really Love” by Richmond native D’Angelo confirms this. So does listening to Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs and his rap song “Deeper,” or Portland band STRFKR and their alt song “Florida”.

Poetry also seems to share the same rhythm as a world at work and good music. To me, it’s not a coincidence that as I read U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine and his poem “What Work Is” on the train, landscape and poetry follow the same beat.

Where does the beat that landscape, music, and poetry follow exactly lead them? I don’t know. But if my train ride showed me anything, the beat is a good one. It might start and stop, speed up and slow down, but it always leads to an enjoyable somewhere.

Professor John Stilgoe — who on his own essentially constitutes the Environmental Studies portion of the VES department at Harvard—says trains are making a comeback. He also says that drones are the future, not autonomous cars. I think and hope he’s right on both counts, but with a qualification: once drones are allowed by the government to hug the contours of the landscape with enough power to fly people and their baggage en masse, trains will no longer maintain a monopoly on the unique perspective they provide.

I hope that more people will be able to see and hear the good thrum of American life once the future becomes more drone than train. With the unique paths they take you can see so much going on that is outside half of the stories in any given issue of The New York Times, the half that is entirely devoted to reporting on all aspects of the syncopated Trump presidency. But since the future isn’t here yet, we will have to make do with trains.

There is a caveat to riding on trains nowadays, however: trains are increasingly running behind schedule. So if you want to see things outside of what you read, you might have to wait a bit. The wait will be worth it, though — surely enough a train will arrive at the station and take you where you need to go.
Dan Valenzuela (dvalenzuela@college.harvard.edu) is a biweekly columnist for the Indy!