Friday, September 7, 2012

St. Louis - Ridin' the Rails

I love traveling by train. There is a connection with the landscape that is missed when flying or driving down highways which seem to be specifically designed to be faceless. One upside to hard economic times and high gas prices is the apparent surge in the popularity of train travel. This particular route from Chicago to St. Louis takes just 40 minutes longer, and is significantly less expensive, than a similar trip by car. Planned high speed rail between the two cities will make the trip even more efficient that taking to the road. Another advantage to rail is that stations are generally located in the city center, as opposed to airports which usually sit some ways out. Rail travel in Europe is second nature. It is the mode of travel my partner and I have used on our 2 trips abroad. It has provided us with rich glimpses of the life and countryside that lies between the European cities we have been fortunate enough to visit.

Enroute to Joliet, the first major stop, lush foliage envelops the train on both sides. This gives way to a more industrial scene of highway overpasses, junk car lots, an enormous concrete grain silo and large aluminum clad buildings surrounded by the containers deposited there by semi trucks. This in turn surrenders to prairie meadows thick with knee high late summer growth. A small group of overlarge, banal, yet expensive looking homes appear on a hillside before we are treated to a quick trip through the historic section of Lemont.  And so it continues, forest, field, petroleum plants, acres of corn and the 100 year old church steeples and business districts of small towns as we travel through southern Illinois.

In the distance the sky appears increasingly gray as the remnants of the weekend tropical storm move up the Mississippi valley. It has been a summer of record breaking heat and drought. Although the rain will come too late for he burned crops outside the train's windows, perhaps it will replenish the depleted water table for next year. A large wind farm stands among a farmers field. The rotating blades generate energy which is renewable and does not pollute. Seeing these always gives me a sense of hope for our future.

The scene outside had grows increasingly agricultural. The hamlets, beneath their watertowers emblazoned with the town's name, are less picturesque. They are built for utility. Unfortunate examples of the ugly side of form following function.

Farms feed us. The quiet and solitude of the farming life serves some well. It would bore me silly. These same people, well served by farming, find cities loud and chaotic. In discussions with them they find it difficult to imagine how I manage to thrive there. As much as rural life would bore me, I would be even more bored and frustrated if all people were the same. It's the differences in the threads that make the whole cloth interesting.

We pass through Lincoln, Illinois. A once proud county seat grown old and tired. The great dome of the courthouse presides over decaying early 20th century storefront lined streets. The town resembles a man whose cuffs and collar are threadbare, worn completely through in spots. Bent over from the weight of hard times.

A banner, strung across one of the now ubiquitous grain silos, announces the Williamsville Fall Festival. My mid reels as I imagine the scene. Square dances and handicrafts created by the local church women. The teenagers smoking homegrown pot behind the barn while the high school quarterback attempts to seduce the head cheerleader in the back seat of his parent's car.

We stop in Springfield, our state's capitol. It looks quiet and provincial, as state capitals often do. It's placid streets contain some spots of historical value, many of them pertaining to the early years of President Lincoln. We claim him as a native son. Our state license plates proclaim "Land of Lincoln", even though he was born in Kentucky.I catch a glimpse of the capitol building. Inspired by the design of the nation's capital it has a distinct presence. Classical and imposing, it is a structure which states it's importance without reservation or apology. I also see the Frank Lloyd Wright designed home there, it's architectural lines unmistakable, as the train passes by.

The fields grow smaller and the forested patches larger and fuller. Later, during mid autumn, in a mild wet year, this stretch would be beautiful. Ablaze with fall color. This year, this fall, everything will be yellow and brown due to the summer's excessive heat. Some leaves, burned and dry, are already falling from the trees and fluttering by the windows as we continue towards St. Louis. A brief rain shower has popped up. You can almost hear the ground sigh as the moisture hits it. The corn in the fields we pass is a total loss, scorched on the stalk. Occasionally hawks can be seen, floating in the sky hunting for the mice who themselves search for food in the dry fields. Oddly, petaled yellow flowers and purple thistles grow in profusion, seeming immune to this past summers' brutal conditions.

The city's skyline comes into view. As we approach the Mississippi river the vegetation grows lushly among the ruins of abandoned factories. Soon I will be in the city and begin the next chapter of my weekend adventure.