Plains, Trains, and the Language of Being Mobile

It was a week of trains. First, there was the train near vast tracks of frozen farmlands that I watched from my car window. It was red, and then black, and then a host of different colors as box cars followed. It puffed and chugged its way through the Minnesota landscape, while I crept slowly along a parallel ice covered road, wheels slipping and following a path other than that I was setting for them with the steering wheel. The train was a bright spot of color amid all that white. It seemed so warm for one for whom winter has been so long.

Then there was the notice of my nomination for a Pushcart for what is only the third creative essay I have ever published, titled “The Memory Train,” followed shortly by the train in the story of Amtrak’s first writer’s residency.All of these made me think of my first time riding the train as an adult, which was also on my first (and so far only trip) abroad.

My first time riding on a train as an adult was in France. It was a short trip, and was little different from riding the Metro like I would do during the rest of my time in Paris, except that one rolled through dark tunnels while on the other I could see sky. The first time I rode a train in the U.S., from Chicago to D.C., it reminded me of this earlier experience, not because they were both trains, but because when riding to D.C. from Chicago I felt as though I was in a foreign country where I spoke little of the language once again. There was a kind of solitude in riding the train similar to that I’d experienced when wandering that foreign city.

In Paris, I hardly spoke or was spoken to except when with my school group, though I didn’t mind this lack of physical conversation. The city itself was speaking to me and I was doing my best to listen. I filled my eyes with architecture and art, my belly with carrots peeled by pocketknife or a bowlful of mussels cooked in wine, each day a new something baked and purchased from the patisserie, each day a new something through my camera lens. I was learning the language of a city, but I wasn’t learning French.

When I rode the train from Chicago to D.C. and then later back again, it was like being in a new country because the train felt isolated from the places it drove through. There was no Internet access, no cell phone service. I ate with new people at each meal in the dining car, passed through cities without stopping, watched hills rise and fall past the windows, passed small towns of new architecture unfamiliar to my Midwestern eyes. It was beautiful, like learning the shapes of Paris, though a different kind of beauty. It was that of houses weathering time and loneliness. It was the beauty of survivors, of the industrious. It was a sparse beauty, cohabitating with the wildness of trees and difficult weather. But like the beauty of Paris, it wasn’t my language being spoken.

Still, I would like to learn the language of those lands the way I have learned my own lands through all the miles covered in my car.  I would like to learn to speak the language of those empty spaces. I would like to like to speak of hills and of other lakes. Of mercantile shops in little towns with far flung neighbors and white painted houses. I would like to speak the language of wildness. And I would like to learn it on a train.

 

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