The world looks different from a train. When you’re driving you have to concentrate on what’s ahead. Keep your wits about you. It’s fatiguing. You think in terms of starting point and destination. Fuel and fast food.
On a train you don’t look ahead unless you’re the engineer. You look out to the side upon the world as it is. No pavement, no bright lights. Just now it’s dusk, January, and we’re crossing the Mississippi. It’s frozen and covered with snow. There are several bald eagles low over the small bit of open water still looking for something to eat. I don’t envy them.
Now we are pulling through a small village and I’m reminded of Breughel’s winter scenes. In those pictures you watch people interact and think about what their lives might have been like. On a train, and in a museum, you can employ your mind to consider background, context, follow your thoughts wherever they might lead. It looks cold out there. I wonder if the people in that farmhouse are warm. Do they have to go out and feed their livestock again tonight?
Train travel is also a kinesthetic experience. Obviously one can rise and move about with much more ease than from the backseat or ‘the middle seat’. On a train you become part of the swaying and the rhythms. At modest speeds it feels like a saunter on horseback. Perhaps that’s why they’re called chemins de fer – paths of iron – in France.
Certainly, road trips can be really great for extended conversation. I’ve many, many very fond memories of being sealed in a vehicle with our whole family for hours on end. I’m sure my wife and kids would all agree those rides procured their own special sort of joy. Back in the days before cell phones…
But kids are scattered to all four corners of the earth (well three) and I’m sitting across from their mother enjoying her company. She’s sketching me which always sort of feels like, uhm, a homeopathic massage. Makes me feel like daydreaming…
“Everything conspired to make him sleep – the hasty metal gallop of the wheels, the hypnotic swoop of the silver telegraph wires, the occasional melancholy, reassuring moan of the steam whistle clearing their way, the drowsy metallic chatter of the couplings at each end of the corridor, the lullaby creak of the woodwork in the little room…”
“He looked down at the beautiful sleeping profile. How innocent she looked, this girl from the Russian Secret Service – the lashes fringing the soft swell of the cheek, the lips parted and unaware, the long strand of hair that had strayed untidily across her forehead and that he wanted to brush back neatly to join the rest, the steady slow throb of the pulse in the offered neck…”*
Next morning we wake to the soft pink glow of first light upon the mountains. All is quiet but for the clickity clack clickity clack.Range after range of mountains Year after year after year. I am still in love**
As we climb and draw near, lenticular clouds have formed and hover just above the ridge. How do they hang there like that?
* From From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
** Poem by Gary Snyder