17 August, 2008

An HO-Gauge Meditation

There was a model train expo in Kansas City recently. I wouldn't have known except that a glimpse of an H-gauge coal locomotive as I was channel surfing sent me back-tracking to the footage KMBC, the local news channel, was airing of the event. The video showed several clips of miniature trains emerging from tunnels and traveling through tiny scenery. Interspersed were shots of little boys watching with their eyes wide, their mouths agape. One was absently gnawing on his own finger. As a boy, I was fascinated with trains of all sizes myself, and there are some childhood loves whose vestiges stay with us our entire lives. Suffice it to say I know precisely how they felt.

My own model train set was relatively basic: a four-by-eight tableau with grass and a mountainous tunnel, and an oval track that featured a couple of switches for offloading cars. It was a much more elaborate setup than most kids that age probably have, but nothing compared to the detailed vistas of the serious hobbyist I dreamt of becoming. So earnest were my intentions that, at seven or eight years of age, I drew out a three-phase plan for urban development, beginning with the addition of paved streets and some commercial buildings, and culminating in an art-deco skyscraper and the replacement of my red-and-yellow Santa Fe diesel with a streamlined 1920s steam engine, preferably in dark blue. That, I figured, or maybe a contemporary foreign express, like the TGV.

At the time of my second trip to France, the TGV — an acronym for Train à Grande Vitesse — held the record for being the fastest train in the world. I was ecstatic for the opportunity to say I'd ridden it before the Japanese reclaimed the title with their own bullet train, which was more or less the sole reason my mother and I were in Paris at all. The day trip we planned was to take us from Paris to Dijon, where we would stop for lunch, then continue on, via regular train, into Switzerland. On our way to the boarding platform, something caught my eye.

A shop within the station had in its window display an HO-gauge TGV — one locomotive, two passenger cars, and a rearward-facing faux locomotive (sans motor, and made to resemble the powered locomotive at the front). It was cheaply made — I could tell by the look of the box through the store window — and priced especially for tourists, but it was still the TGV, and hence my opportunity to jump straight to that pièce de résistance I'd been fantasizing about. I could even say I bought it in Paris. "Tres apropos, n'est-ce pas?" So I did some rapid calculation. By sacrificing two thirds of my spending allowance for the trip (my mother and I would be in Europe for another two weeks), I could afford it. Visions played through my head of the little orange blur whipping around my track like its full-size counterpart tore across the French countryside. To my nine-year-old sensibilities it was alluring, but I ultimately decided it wasn't worth the extortionist asking price. Whatever misgivings I might have had as I trudged away from the shop were obliterated upon reaching the platform, where the fastest train in the world awaited.

Each time I have been to Europe, the rail system has provided the lion's share of my transportation. It's been awhile, but my understanding is that a Eurail Pass remains the most inexpensive option for backpackers and others looking to cover a great deal of ground in under a month and a half. And although such a pass will provide trips via other means of public transport within participating systems (imagine a bus pass that also works for taxis, trams, light rail — right on down the list), it's the train that I've always used and enjoyed most. Watching from the comfort of a spacious six-person cabin as scenery passes, all the while relaxing with a good book, a game of Mau Mau, a leisurely snack, or just using the time to contemplate where you've been, where you're going — it's an unparalleled travel experience.

That the United States has never really embraced passenger rail is a shame. I will be the first to extol that singular bliss known so well by Americans, the road trip. My acquaintance with the national privilege of strapping in behind a steering wheel and going is an intimate one. I know first hand that picking a destination or a meandering route, then driving for days without need of a passport or paperwork, is as near to absolute freedom — travel-wise, anyway — as the modern world can know. But there is a certain romantic quality to even the dirtiest, smokiest railway platform to which the chicest gas station cannot hope to compare, and a pleasure in subdued clacking and subtle rocking on tracks for which monotonous highway hum is no substitute.

True, America has recently tried to stoke the fire of interest in rail travel it once had, with fast inner-city lines and upgrades to its "transcontinental" service, but the flame will not catch. There are myriad reasons, as anyone who has ridden Amtrak can attest, but I believe it comes down to an unwillingness to let go of the wheel. Ours — America's — is a culture of fiercely individualized assertiveness to which leaning back and watching things happen is anathema. Everything is about control. So many crave the full agenda, the pressing deadline, the gridlocked traffic. They have either forgotten or never learned how to exist within the moment. Being still, cogitating, existing for a time, in silence —these things somehow terrify.

Control, however, is fleeting and illusory. Confinement to linearity, either metaphorically or on physical tracks, is a situation we may find ourselves in more often than we are aware. Life itself is frequently on rails in spite of our fidgety efforts at affecting change. At those times we are swept along under the power of circumstance, bound for the unknown and all points in-between. On the faces of those little boys in awe of the spectacle of a little electric toy going around and around can be witnessed the unadulterated bliss attainable through passive observation. Absorbed in the thing itself, not contemplating it nor employing it as an object of focus while their mind lingers elsewhere, they lose themselves in wonder.

The TGV, ultimately, was a letdown. Sure it was fast, but the ride was bumpy and the upholstery mismatched, and the experience lacked any of the armrest-clutching excitement I'd anticipated. There hadn't even been scenery (I managed to fall asleep en route). When my mother and I stepped down onto the platform in Dijon it was with memorable disillusionment — it was the emperor's nakedness, the nonexistence of Santa Claus, the first school dance gone horrifyingly awry. What then had been the point? But a lesson had been learned: speed has its place in the world, often quite apart from pleasure.

I venture now to stretch my lesson further by offering a corollary that to savor a thing is to take the time, and a warning, trite, obvious, and perhaps too often repeated, but heartfelt all the same: take the express, but take care. Too much speed will numb you. Unlike with those scale models, no real-world track is oval — none runs forever. Take in what scenery you can, because there's an end to every line.