Trains have something nostalgic about them. So do train rides – not so much those for the sake of commuting to work in suburban areas as those undertaken for leisure. Maybe it is because their pace is so steady and calm. Maybe it is the landscape you pass through and wouldn’t see from any car window. Maybe it is because you need a vehicle to get to the station and another one to get away from your destination. Maybe it is even a certain charm of the inconvenient.
Trains to me have been a mode of vacation transportation in Germany for a long time. My first one as a three-year-old went to a tiny seaside resort on the Baltic Sea. It was a night train, and I’ll never forget the bustling main station in Stuttgart where we started our trip after a cab had dropped us off. I was way too excited to sleep in my bunk-bed in our family compartment. I watched the moon float above fields and forests softly illuminated. And at some stations it hung over the roofs of houses that had closed their shutters as if they were tired eye lids.
Later, in my early twenties, I traveled across the Hindenburg Dam to the North Sea island of Sylt. What a strange feeling to see the waves lapping against the foundation over which your train crosses, while you are somewhat tense and just want to reach terra firma again. And there is that tiny old train from the late 1800s on the island of Borkum. Germany’s last emperor used to travel in one of its cars from the harbor to his residence. It was all wooden with lead glass windows, a bit like the Rainier train, and it steamed through the languid landscape of dunes and salt meadows.
The last time I traveled a train in Germany for leisure was in 2013 with my husband. I had deliberately chosen a slower train instead of a high-speed ICE especially for the stretch that lies between the cities of Cologne and Mainz, the Rhein Gorge. I remember traveling it ever so often, passing the steepest vineyards you can imagine, traversing cozy small-towns with fancy villas and gorgeous wineries, inviting restaurants on the waterfront, castles and ruins on almost every hilltop. Barges were traveling the river, and pleasure boats almost made you wish to interrupt the journey and hop on. I wanted my husband to experience this wonderful piece of anciently grown cultural landscape.
Reality looked very different, alas. Our train entered the gorge alright, and it stopped at one station I remembered well from past travels. But then it continued and … wait, wait, wait! It went all into the wrong direction! For it climbed the heights of the Rhein Gorge and from there, no view of the river anymore, went through a non-descript mix of fields, fallow land, and industrial parks. The stops were long. The vistas were those of DIY markets and advertising boards instead of glimpses into the busy everyday-life of a river town. I could have cried. We might just as well have taken the faster train and have been done with the trip more quickly. Here was a piece of my traveling history passed forever into the abyss of fond, un-relivable memories.
Only recently, The Suburban Times published an article that one of the most beautiful stretches of passenger trains in Western Washington would soon be traveled no more. So, my husband and I decided we must take the chance and board a passenger train from Tacoma to Olympia at least once before that was going to happen. It was an interesting find that seating is assigned by the conductors and not electronically, and that their handwritten stabs were crammed into a crevice above the seats instead of the use of a digital board as on German trains. Foot space was incredibly generous, even in coach class. And then the train started moving and went past Ruston Way, popped out of a tunnel near Salmon Beach, and passed the Narrows Bridge and Titlow Beach. You could see Day Island from its normally invisible backside, went across one of America’s last lifting bridges across Chambers Bay, past Steilacoom, through Cormorant passage with a gorgeous fall vista of Ketron Island, and traveled all the way down to the ship wreck in the Nisqually Reach where the train tracks turn land inward. Our trip ended in the middle of nowhere, at Centennial Station in Olympia-Lacey, a pretty little place with a bus stop and a working old-fashioned telephone.
A few hours later, we were on our way back. The snowy Olympic Mountains were out on the other side of the Sound. It may have been one of the best traveling days for this unique stretch of train tracks. People were standing in the aisles, aiming their cameras and smart phones at the windows. I must have taken more pictures that day than I would have any other day without the knowledge I was here for my first and last time.
I won’t discuss the policies of railroad companies here, as the decision to run only freight trains along the shores of Puget Sound in the future is a fait accompli anyhow. I won’t discuss that freight doesn’t care about vistas, but passengers do. I will console myself with the thought that at least these lonesome people at the front of trains with sometimes more than a hundred freight cars will be able to see this incredible piece of landscape on their endless journey. And I will wave to them as they pass us maybe under a bridge or while we are boating.