A while back, the National Association of Railroad Passengers featured interesting little interviews with train riders, samplings taken onboard various routes around the country. People give all sorts of reasons for going by train—it’s relaxing, it’s cheap (not in the sleepers it’s not), ticketing is flexible, you see the country, you meet so many nice folks—but the one that pops up over and over, the great common denominator, is—guess what? Fear of flying. According to NARP, there are 31 million of us fainthearted earthbound types in the U.S.A. That’s nearly 10 % of the population. Late at night in the bar car, among ourselves, we let our hair down and compare our favorite plane crashes. I’ll let you in on a secret, in case they ever try to slowly choke the life out of Amtrak again, if you promise not to tell the enemy: We’d take any train they gave us. We love the train, and not just because it stays on the ground. That’s important, but it’s not the whole story. Cars and buses mostly stay on the ground, too, but they’re not the train, not the train at all. Even if they did get rid of the sleeper and the dining car, so that we’d have to ride in the seats for hundreds and hundreds of miles and bring our own food or get off and eat out of vending machines, if they eventually gave us nothing but wooden benches and made us ride with goats and chickens, we’d do it.
The reason for this has to do with the same reasons why there are a couple of thousand songs about trains. And the landscape those songs traverse is as vast and varied as the American continent—everything from hard times, regret, yearning and lost chances to transcendence, hope and redemption. Cars and buses certainly turn up in songs, but they don’t have anywhere near the enduring, versatile, dreamy, compelling power of the train song. Lonesome Car, Lonesome Bus? Strangers on a Bus? I don’t think so. Mystery Car? Ghost Bus? This Car is Bound for Glory? Midnight Bus to Georgia? Desperadoes Waitin’ for a Bus? Nope.
The train lives up to its intensely poetic reputation. It doesn’t let you down. Things—very, very good and very, very bad— happen on trains, and because of trains, that couldn’t quite happen anywhere else or on any other mode of transportation (see THE MAN IN THE BROOKS BROTHERS SHIRT by Mary McCarthy). Those things then go into a certain very interesting part of the brain where dreams and fiction and odd metaphorical connections form, all beyond your conscious participation. The train doesn’t just take you from Chicago to Denver or from L.A. to Seattle or from New York to New Orleans. You need a different kind of map for the other places it takes you.
The top bunk of the economy roomette has a definite coffin-like quality to it. It’s narrow, and if you try to sit up all the way you’ll knock your head on the ceiling. The lower bunk is wider, and you have the window. The curtains do a good job of blocking the light. The roomette has a heavy sliding glass door with another curtain held in place with snaps. You lock the door with a mechanical latch absolutely impossible to open from the outside. If you died or got incapacitated in there, they’d have to actually remove the door, or break it, to get at you.
So the sense of snug privacy even while people talk, laugh and clump past only inches away in the narrow corridor is extreme and delicious. When the train makes a half-hour maintenance stop in Salt Lake City at 3 AM on a frozen winter morning, the cessation of motion and the stillness as they shut down all the systems makes you rise up out of your dreams and drowse just below the surface. There are people on the platform, passengers and personnel, in the bitter arctic pre-dawn. Without opening your eyes or rousing yourself, you know by the subdued way they’re talking how stunningly cold it is out there. You are warm and infinitely cozy and comfortable. Nothing is required of you. You are in here, and they are out there. You can picture the icicles on the undercarriage of the train, the great clouds of steam. There are clunks and bumps as water tanks are filled and supplies are loaded. After a while you lean up on an elbow, reach out and move the curtain aside a little. You see the passengers, bundled up in big down parkas and wool hats and scarves, waiting to be let on: Families with kids and babies, cowboys, sturdy octogenarian widows. They have backpacks and little rolling suitcases. Some of them are carrying pillows and blankets, and all of them are gazing anticipatorily upward at the train windows.
You feel pity in a superior sort of way, because you were once just like them and you know exactly what’s on their minds: These are coach passengers, and they must enter a car full of sleeping people who’ve already traveled a thousand miles, and find seats for themselves. They’ll be huffing and puffing and hoisting bags onto the racks and waking people up who are draped across empty seats. They’ll carry the cold in with them on their coats.
None of this concerns you, except to make you intensely, acutely grateful for your bed and tiny locked compartment. You can drift back down, remembering how it was to be either someone getting on the train like that or someone asleep in the seats—or more accurately, someone pretending to be asleep while sending out fierce mental commands to move along, move along, don’t stop here. It’s hard to say which is worse. Probably it’s worse to be the one getting on.
Lying in such a bunk on just such a winter night on a cross-country trip not long ago, I recall another trip, years before, when I was young and broke and had to ride in the seats.
I’d managed to hang onto the empty place next to me through several stops that first night. I’d contorted legs, torso and head into a position across the two seats that allowed for fitful sleep, and I’d covered myself with my coat (including my face—they’re much more likely to leave you alone if they don’t know what’s under there) so that I was just a featureless, uninviting mound, not moving at all but hyperalert in the darkness under the coat when the train was stopped and people were shuffling into the car, coughing, scraping, blowing their noses, talking in carelessly loud voices right over me. I feigned profound unconsciousness, even when they bumped me with their bags and knees, did not stir even slightly until I was sure the last of them were settled, the lights off and the train moving again. I was aware, with each stop, that the car was getting packed, and knew that my piece of real estate was in serious peril. But there was an old man in front of me who was sleeping sitting up, snoring, with an empty seat next to him. As long as that seat was empty, I’d probably be okay, because they’d take that one first.
I’d managed to fall deeply asleep for a couple of hours. It can happen, if you’re exhausted enough. I was completely gone, on another planet, in some rumbling, murky dream. Then I was being shaken awake, a rude hand prodding my shoulder. There was no lapse time at all between dream and full wakefulness and awareness, and I came out snarling from under my coat. I saw it all in less than a fraction of a second—that the seat next to the old man in front of me was still empty, and I saw the face of the man who woke me up, startled by the ferocity of the creature he’d disturbed. I pointed to the empty seat in front of me and went back under my coat, away from the horrible overhead light. The man went away and left me alone.
There was no more sleep. Resentment sizzled toward the man who woke me when there was another seat he could just as easily have taken. After a while I sat up and saw that the old man was still by himself. I stood to stretch my cramped legs and aching neck, took a walk, and saw the man who woke me coming in my direction. He didn’t recognize me right away, but I went up to him and gave him a short, sharp lecture on the preciousness of sleep and how hard it is to get that kind of sleep on a long train ride and how I’d been on the train for almost twenty-four hours and that wasn’t just a little catnap I was taking but was serious sanity-saving sleep and he’d thoughtlessly ruined it when there was another perfectly good seat he could have taken without waking someone up who was so obviously deeply asleep and that I didn’t appreciate it at all.
He looked at the space just to the left of me, his face pained in some complicated way that wasn’t altogether clear, and said things were “really screwed up back there.” My indignation evaporated, and I felt sorry for him, and for everyone else packed onto this primitive contraption at the mercy of a chaotic system, and went back to my seat. I knew who my model was for that little performance—my mother, who, when she was young, had been dangerous to wake up because she was so protective of her sleep.
The train stopped before dawn. A lot of people were gathering their stuff to get off. There’d be a fifteen-minute layover. I decided to take a chance and go get some fresh air. I piled things on the two seats to make them both look occupied, then started down the steep little staircase, and found myself behind the old man from the seat in front of me. He was negotiating the stairs, not having an easy time of it. I heard him talking to himself quietly in the way that we do when we think no one’s listening, a private pep talk. He was saying: C’mon, Teddy Boy, c’mon, you can do it. And I saw that the insides of his pant legs were soaked all the way down to the cuffs.
All was revealed in that moment. I knew why no one took the empty seat next to the old man, I knew why the guy woke me up, and I now understood the expression on his face when he said things were really screwed up back there. And I had a very brief premonition of things I was destined to understand more deeply, perforce, a couple of decades and a half in the future, involving my mother, Alzheimer’s, and various implacable facts about the mercilessness of life that puts an old man on a train by himself to wet his pants and find his way to wherever he was going. Teddy. I saw him young, maybe as a sailor in uniform, a smoke in his mouth, his cap pushed back on a head of curly hair.
The moment, the premonition, the vision, were over in a few seconds.
I replace the curtain in my compartment. My arm slides back under the covers and my head rests warmly and heavily on the pillow. There are more thumps and clunks as they pull up the portable metal step and close the door. The power comes back on, the car hums, there’s a jolt, and we’re rolling again.
I wake later. This is no half-sleep—I’m fully alert and conscious. It’s still dark. What woke me up was the speed of the train. I lie there and feel the car pitching from side to side. This thing’s got to be doing 90. I picture the antique track bed, most of it laid in the 1800s. I’ve seen pictures of train wrecks, the cars jackknifed, sheared open like the tins cans that they are and piled up like toys. There was a spectacular wreck just recently, when someone planted explosives on a lonely stretch of tracks in New Mexico and derailed a train just like this one, flying along at night making up for lost time while everyone’s asleep and less likely to be alarmed by the speed.
I should be nervous, but I’m not, I’m only mildly interested. I think about my fear of flying, which kicks in weeks before the flight, as soon as I’ve made the reservation, and which billows up in waves of adrenaline and tingles of dread traveling down fingers and arms as the date approaches.
Fear of flying is vastly more complicated than other fears, in a class all by itself. It is not simply a fear of mechanical failure, of falling, of getting mangled, burnt, killed. It’s all of that, but it’s something else, too. The airplane’s heroic configuration and staggering complexity are human aspirations, yearnings, dreams and visions made manifest. Disaster-scene photos of all those soaringly heroic parts—wings, nose, tail, fuselage, designed to defy gravity and carry you away from your hunter-gatherer origins and into the infinite blue miles above the earth—lying there after a crash, reduced to pathetic rubble like the junk you see lying next to the railroad tracks, are the manifestation of the wages of hubris, which makes us fly too fast, too perilously high in our primitive equipment. Most of the time, we get away with it, but every once in a while the sun melts the wax in our wings and down we go. It is an occasional but precise toll exacted by the universe in exchange for being allowed into the outer troposphere. Fearful flyers know this in their bones, even if they don’t know Icarus from Ike Turner. In the minds of fearful flyers, airplanes and flying, and the fear of them, have mythological proportions. This is why quoting statistics to someone afraid of flying is about as useful as a garden hose on a forest fire. Whereas trains—well, sure, trains crash once in a while, but a train is a homey old thing, an earthy and manageable old clickety-clack with its wheels on the ground and no fancy notions. It’s just not the same at all.
So I lie there rocking in my little bunk, and pull the curtain back for a look. I see high ghostly moonlit rock formations rushing by.
Yeah. 90 at least, maybe 100. I watch for a while, thinking about geology, dinosaurs, vanished inland seas, and then I sleep.