“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” Paul Theroux and I share this memory, only I lived near the tracks of the Chicago and North Western.
“Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places,” continues Theroux, “a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to--like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass.”
Trains can be silly, like Thomas the Tank Engine, or have features cherished by entire cities, like the MTA stop in the Bronx next to the new Yankee Stadium.
The train I took was one-half mile long, had three dining cars, four dome cars, and a bevy of coach cars and sleepers; two engines with the might of 10,000 horses pulled everything from Toronto to Vancouver, four nights and five days altogether. The Canadian is the flagship train of Via Canada, and it barrels through forests speckled with dew-drop lakes, prairies that glow from golden canola fields, and mountains reaching two miles in height.
Like the Liturgical Year, there is rhythm and meaning to each day. Mealtimes are benchmarks for fellowship and conversation; it seems everyone is happy to talk about their life. When you sit in the last dome car and grasp the incredible momentum of mass--upon which you are but a tiny thing--you wax philosophical: How much is life like this journey? What choices do we have to truly alter the 70 years of our life? How much is determined by the rails, or by God’s will? We recognize that we have no say in the passenger list; perhaps this is why “neighbors” are mentioned so gravely in that ancient prayer. Everyone is connected.
Stations--like the one in Winnipeg, cousin to Grand Central Station in NYC, built by the same architect--represent comings and goings, departures and arrivals, starts and finishes; they represent and evoke deep feelings of separation and loss, whether parents and family, friends and foes, husbands, wives, and partners, or lost loves never to be near again on this Earth. Trains can be sad.
There may be more planes and cars but trains have inspired more songs. Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues” longs to be free like the people on the train when he hears that melancholy whistle through the iron bars. Peter, Paul, and Mary belt out “This train, don’t carry no gamblers” and The City of New Orleans will be “gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” Other songs abound.
Along the way Native Americans, living where beauty, poverty, and sickness coincide, snub the waves and smiles from the first-class passengers. How can they ever forgive? Perhaps we should be wary about telling others about the importance of forgiveness. Evils and hurts live a long time.
When we start to reflect on how it’s the journey and not the destination that count, another bar from a song echoes in our heart, “This train, she’s bound for glory/ If you want to get to heaven then you’ve got to be holy/This train....”
I would like to have a book discussion on the blog here in October/November on the topic of free will in psychology and theology. For those interested I’d ask that you try to get a copy of Mortimer Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes and dive into this exceptional work beforehand. If you can't find it at your local library, you can read it here as a Google book. As you read please feel free to discuss the book with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Van Ornum