Rail travel changed our perception of space-place.
When people previously traveled, it was by foot, wagon, horse, boat or ship–the latter two being faster modes of transportation under the right conditions, yet all limited to a more immediate, immersive, close-up experience. If we traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we saw every foot of land with a certain microscopic awareness. As we picked our way across open wilderness, or even as we plodded along pre-carved paths, our grounded relation to the physicality of place was a slow-moving anchor that made sense. We saw each rock, each tree, watched the gradual approach of landscape features and felt them falling away, often impeded directly by their presence.
Scholars have noted that with the advent of the railroad, our intimacy with the landscape has changed. We’re more familiar now with the compartment view. Contained inside a rapidly moving machine, we watch the changing landscape unfold and transform with a certain passivity. We might sit up straighter to notice interesting landmarks, or unique geology, but for the most part, the contemporary traveler views the once-grounded as an omniscient observer, sometimes bored even as marvels of engineering hurtle us across vast distances, reshaping what we see (and what we associate and understand) to be our immediate sense of place.
Our idea of connection to a particular space, a particular place, is fascinating, whether it’s a foot-view or compartment seat. It’s the micro and the macro in one.
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