December 05, 2010

The Not-So-Open-Road

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states-- And make America again!

Langston Hughes

I went to Arizona for Thanksgiving. I left very early Wednesday morning and arrived home very late Saturday night. Of the various ways of traveling between Northern California and the Phoenix area, I decided against taking the high-speed rail line. There was something axiomatic about this choice in the sense that there is no high-speed rail line between Northern California and the Phoenix area, nor will there be during my life time. It is possible, with enough ingenuity, to travel by train between San Francisco and Phoenix, or mostly by train. All you have to do, for example, is to take a bus (buses are prominently featured, oddly enough, on Amtrak's schedules) from Oakland's Jack London Square (picturesque! a way) and Santa Barbara, leaving around 10:30 pm (I guess I'm talking about Tuesday night, to make this work) and arriving around 6:30 am Wednesday. When dealing with Amtrak, it's always best to say "around." 15 minutes later (that is, about an hour before your bus actually arrives in Santa Barbara), the Surfliner leaves Santa Barbara for Los Angeles and Union Station. For some reason, this trip (about a hundred miles) takes the better part of three hours. So you pull into Union Station around 9:30, and you wait for 5 hours for the Sunset Limited to leave at 2:30 pm or so. Not for Phoenix, for Tucson, which is on the direct route. This is a distance of about 485 miles by road, yet it takes Amtrak almost 10 hours to cover the distance. Isn't this about the same speed as the old Pony Express?

Obviously, Tucson is not Phoenix, so you haven't arrived, actually. You're 116 miles away. It's now around midnight, Wednesday, or early Thanksgiving morning, and you've been traveling by bus and train for more than 24 hours. You're exhausted; a logical response to your predicament would be to commit suicide there and then, perhaps by leaping in front of an oncoming train. This works for the French TGV, where such suicides are fairly common; however, with Amtrak you might have the problem of trains (a) being so rare you would change your mind before one came along and (b) going so slow they would simply inflict annoying, non-fatal injuries. Somehow or another, another bus I guess, you would get to Phoenix in the small hours of Thursday morning, unbathed, unshaven, sleep-deprived, depressed.

So you can fly or drive. Not thinking it through completely, I drove. I wasn't the only one with this idea on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Things reached their hypotheosis sometime around 7 pm on Wednesday night on State Highway 57 between Pasadena and Pomona. I became trapped on an inner lane, #2 or 3, perhaps, of 5 or 6 lanes. The traffic crept along, inching forward in spastic lurches. Looking out over the sad asphalt, it occurred to me that not a single living thing, an insect, a rabbit, a human being, could survive out there for more than a few seconds. It was an alien landscape, a hideous apparition, the sort of subject that a German Expressionist such as George Grosz or Max Beckmann might want to wallow in, if there was some way to capture this claustrophobic perspective. There was no way out, no way forward, no way to change lanes. Cars were everywhere, hemming you in, pushing against your rear bumper, stretched out in front to infinity. I knew that someday, if I did not run out of gas, if I did not abandon my car, I would get to Indio. Indio became a kind of El Dorado - getting to Indio became my own form of Zionism. Aliya - to get to Quartzsite!

Or you can fly, submitting to a probably dangerous dose of radiation (or sexual assault), the madness of airport check-in, the contortionist tricks of sitting in an airline seat, the anxiety of the overhead bins, the expense, the parking, the remote location of airports from where you live and where you ultimately want to go...

The conservative blowhards who don't like trains (I'm not sure why they don't, but they're threatened in some way) insist that trains always require government subsidies to remain viable. I'm sure they do. Of course, even the bone-jarring, axle-cracking, potholed poor excuses for a highway we have now, such as Highway 57, demand huge government subsidies in order to be maintained even in the lousy condition they're in. Roads, railways, take your pick, they have to be maintained, you have to keep investing. So what? Trains, however, offer huge economies of scale in transporting people. They can be run, as in France, with centralized power generated by nuclear plants. You don't need oil as fuel, at a sufficient level of infrastructure build-out. Only one guy has to drive, the engineer. Everyone else can talk, read, sleep, party and carry on.

I've ridden some great trains in Europe. The TGV from Lyon to Paris, a distance of 250 miles, covered in two hours and 15 minutes (scheduled time: we had a suicide that day - see above). The Spanish AVE, from Madrid to Sevilla, under 3 hours to cover 350 miles. The Eurocity from Ulm, Germany to Paris. Cologne to the Frankfurt Airport. These trains all offer a high JDV Factor (joie de vivre factor, or jdv(f*). On the standard 10 scale, they come in at about 9.3. You're glad you're alive when you're riding one of those trains. Life enhancing. It's almost as if the countries who build and operate those trains care something about quality of life. They're nicer than they even have to be.

Highway 57 actually carries a negative jdv(f*). The experience of driving on that road subtracts from your overall will to go on. Highway 57 is ameliorative of the fear of death - you will be dead, but you will never again drive on Highway 57. So buck up.

In modern America, you accept such benisons where they are offered. But you will not travel from San Francisco to Phoenix on the Train A Grande Vitesse. Train A Grande Distress, peut etre.

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