“Ev’ry day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines.
And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories…”
These lines, from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound,’ both do and don’t speak to me about travelling on the train. Their song is about homesickness, a journey with the goal of being home, but when I’m on the train, there is no where I really want to go; I am already at home, at home with the endless stream of towns that look the same (but also don’t). It feels like my place, where I belong.
Though I didn’t travel by train as a child, there is something deeply nostalgic and moving about train travel for me, looking out on the country in its particularity, so damaged, so ruined, so ravished and yet ravishing: the forlorn small towns, their broken branches, twisted metal, empty storefronts, manicurists, pawn shops, rusty welding shops; the skinny dogs on too-short leashes in back yards full of trash, the half-dressed children in those yards looking right back into the train; the acres and acres of industrial machinery, plantations of overbearing oil tanks, cities dazzling with lights at night; churches of all shapes and sizes, military installations, thrift shops and food pantries; bridges and sudden glimpses of shimmering waterways, herons, hawks, osprey, swans, something dead.
Slouched in my seat, nothing to do for 5 or 10 hours but look, tears running down my face, it’s so beautiful and sad, so poignant, so achingly detailed, so known and unknown, so far away and right here, now, never.
“Similarly, the time vagaries of travelling. Clock and calendar time loses meaning for me when I’m on the train, a bit odd since timetables and hurried connections can be key. But as the scenery goes by, and the sense of place is blurred and no-where, so my sense of time is predominantly of being out-of-time, timeless, both timeless and placeless, existing only here, and “here” is moving at 60 mph, and now, which is moving at some speed of its own, too.”
Train travel is unlike car, ship, or plane travel, because unlike the former, train passengers, particularly on longer trips, rarely know where they are most of the time, and unlike the latter two, the scenery never stops and it always changes. Usually it’s moving so fast alongside the train window that it’s unfocused, and as I stare out the window, my mind unfocuses along with the placeless place my eyes record as a smudge, a blur, always the present moment.
“I believe I was trying to remind myself of how it had felt to be wordless, completely of the physical world – that even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.” — Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015)
“‘People [usually] just want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. We don’t give ourselves the chance to be in the moment,’ [train passenger] Trent says. ‘Whether it’s good or bad, you grow. It’s about experiences.’ He was describing something special about the long-distance train: It is a place to slow down and experience the present.
“The long-distance train is one of America’s greatest and least heralded public spaces. Perhaps without intending to, the train encapsulates many qualities of public spaces that planners and designers try so hard to create.”
It’s a place to slow down, experience the present, and be “together alone” in a heterotopic public space, one outside of the normal places we inhabit day to day.
Sherman says that the train is democratic, and it facilitates connections among diverse people by virtue of the time spent together, the train space itself (people are close but not too close, there is a choice of spaces: seat, dining car, lounge, sightseeing car), the fact that everyone is ‘together alone’ outside their normal space; and there is always something to talk about — the place outside: “That long-distance trains aren’t designed with one specific aesthetic, demographic or psychographic in mind means that the ride is more about what’s unfolding within the space rather than the materiality of the car. It also frames the passing landscape in a way that makes it easy to use as a conversation starter.”
Trains, she says, “foster a sense of appreciation and curiosity about the landscapes through which they pass, which in turn help passengers develop a deeper connection to place.”
I wrote in 2008 a little about some long-distance train travel I’ve done (Coast to Coast on Amtrak), including being stuck in Denver overnight, in the snowy Rockies for about 8 hours another time, etc. You do develop a certain sense of place from these experiences, learning about the place by spending time there — several times, I’ve been on trips where the train has remained in one remote place (who knows where?) for more than 4 or 5 hours, without moving; it’s an interesting exercise, to watch a place, but not really interact with it, for that extended period.
I appreciate seeing Donner Lake, meandering through the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas, wandering from one small southern town train station to another, spending time near the train stations in El Paso, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, and so on, but the true place for me is really the tracks, the motion, the sometimes jarring, sometimes hypnotic blur of wealth and poverty, cruelty and compassion, life and death, gritty and sleek, wild and artificial, restful and agitating, then and now, here and there. All here.
Video near Petersburg, VA, Jan. 2014:
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poemThirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.