Here’s almost everything I know about trains.
Trains are great generators of white noise. This is good if white noise helps you sleep. Trains and the people inside them also generate plenty of the other kind of noise. Is black noise the opposite of white noise?
You’re never quite still riding a train. That makes it nearly impossible to write legibly on the train even when you try really hard to make it so.
The windows, your main contact with the landscape, are usually dirty, which makes it hard to take decent photographs. I often see things I want to make pictures of. And also, the constant motion makes it hard to take photos. I do it anyway. At the very least those terrible photos will remind me of things I want to remember.
Timetables carry the rule of law on trains. Want to visit the blanket vendor on the platform in Albuquerque and get a sandwich in the café? You have exactly 28 minutes, and they’re not coming back for you if you get distracted and miss re-boarding.
Trains bend the time-space continuum; it seems that no time has passed on “the outside”—which sounds like “train as jail,” which it kind of is if you want to get to where you’re going. Time inside the train slows to a crawl, too. Are we there yet? I decided to just give my life over to the experience, to enjoy and to document as much and as well as I could.
My trip of two-and-a-half days on the Southwest Chief and the Capitol Limited was almost exactly five months ago. I was bound for Washington, D.C, for the Women’s March. I traveled alone, but with many companions. (The words “companion” and “company” come from Latin: com- “together with” and panis “bread,” literally “taking bread together.”)
Train travel is what democracy looks like. People of all skin colors and religions and socio-economic means ride trains for all sorts of reasons, but the experience of the rich and the poor isn’t that different. We’re all trapped inside, with various levels of entertaining devices and accommodations.
By the way, it’s a lot easier to sleep on a train when you have an empty seat next to you. Or when you know and love your seatmate. Anything else feels unbearably intimate, like bedding down with an utter stranger. I’ve tried all those options, and next time I’ll do what I can to get myself into a sleeping berth. If there is a next time, that is.
Six Amish girls, pre-teens to teens, speaking a mix of German and English played cards at a table in the club car. A young Amish couple and their baby sat with me at another table. Her eyes widened when I said I was going to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March. “We vote on our knees,” said the husband.
Paul Simon is singing: We’ve all come to look for America. There’s a theme. “What does this new America look like?” I wrote. Five months on, we’re learning. Sometimes we move slowly, incrementally, and other times there are tectonic shifts, earth shattering in ways we adore or abhor. Sleight-of-hand moves—“Look over here!”—distract us while Congressional leadership and departments in the Executive Branch plot to abolish health care for millions, undermine civil rights and desecrate the environment for fun and profit.
What we seem to be experiencing is a kakistocracy*, at the very best, and at worst, a period of deliberate legislative mean-spiritedness not seen in recent years. I don’t know a word for that.
A friend mentioned to me last week that he’s writing a piece about the Declaration of Independence, which ends with this: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” (Emphasis mine.) I’m no historical or legal scholar, but I take this to mean that we all are, and always have been, on the same train and that feels about right to me.
*A kakistocracy (English pronunciation: /kækɪsˈtɑkɹəsi/) is a state or country run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was coined by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829. (Thanks to Anu Garg at Wordsmith.org for bringing this and many other great words to light via A Word A Day.)