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Surreal rails

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I waited too late for an affordable flight, so I recently bought train tickets to Philadelphia. I am far too fidgety to sit for 16 hours round trip, but I could see an advantage to traveling by train: 16 hours of unaccountability. That's essentially two full days of guilt-free reading. Two days without wondering if I should do laundry, grocery shop, work.

Such days are rare. Most of us fight constantly and unsuccessfully against an accumulation of appointments, meetings and projects. To and from Philadelphia on that train, I would be free. Free to read. Free to strike up acquaintances. Free to stare out the window.

I also entertained the questionable notion that traveling by train is a more authentic experience. I find something surreal about boarding a plane at RDU and stepping off it two or three hours later in Chicago or Boston. On a train, you can see the landscape change, glimpse the passing towns. It's a form of travel that does justice to the distances we cross. There's also what a friend calls the romance of trains--the way the very rhythm of the wheels evokes idealized notions of the past.

But as Emerson pointed out, one of the drawbacks of travel is you take yourself with you, and I took along a mild obsessive-compulsive in a vaguely asocial mood. The stack of books I brought became another list of projects to be finished by the end of the trip. I politely but firmly brushed off nearly everyone who tried to talk to me. I stared out the window and learned how little the landscape changes. I kept checking the pastrami sandwiches in my book bag to make sure I hadn't crushed them. At least once an hour, I checked to see if I still had my ticket.

As for the romance of the past, the closer you come to the past, the more you realize how uncomfortable it was. Victorian trains were freezers in winter, ovens in summer. (Ironically, my discomfort was due to a modern convenience. Air conditioning made the train I rode in uncomfortably chilly.) And whatever Hitchcock would have you believe, strangers on a train are much less likely to exchange murder plots with you than they are to just sit there and smell.

Still, my experience didn't put me off trains. I will take one again--for a shorter trip. And I learned a couple of things. First, I must learn to relax. When you can't savor whatever experience is in front of you--whether it's a chance to read for hours, look into the lives of a few strangers, or stare out the window and sink into daydreams--it's time to reconsider whether you really belong to the human race.

Second, I realized stepping off the train at Durham into an 85-degree afternoon, wearing a sweater, lugging a book bag filled with Penguin paperbacks and smelling like pastrami, that the surreal is my natural environment.

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