The Last Train Trip Before Everything Changed

Lauren Markham on Solitude, Snow, and Finding Reasons to Write

Toward the end of last year I found myself craving both snow and a slowing down of time.

It had been a feverish few months crammed with work and deadlines and in which hardly a week passed without my boarding a plane, or five. Then on Christmas Eve, my partner Ben and I walked ten blocks from our house in Berkeley to the Amtrak station, headed to visit family up north near Sacramento. The train trundled through marshlands of lithe birds and across the Carquinez Straight via elevated bridge, making us appear airborne. I always enter a state of enchantment on trains—with the world, even with myself. My frenzied brain slows and I’m almost immediately drawn to the page to write.

The week after Christmas was blissfully quiet but the New Year was approaching with its promise of renewed frenzy: more trips, more pages of my calendar filled with work. I had some writing I wanted to do and I thought maybe a long train ride would make me do it. Planes deadened the soul and were killing the planet; I liked that a train was a more analog and environmental method of transportation and that, when on a train, a person moved through a landscape rather than skipping over it altogether. And I like that the train was the slower way to get from one place to another.

Forced slowness is useful to me because my relationship to time is generally an adversarial one: time as something to conquer, some kind of foe to tame and break. I’m a Virgo, for one, and, as an astrologer recently told me, something called a “manifest generator.”

“You work and work and work and work,” the astrologer explained, “and then you feel tired so you go to sleep and then you wake up and you start working all over again.” It’s true. This behavior can make it difficult to write because, in addition to being a part time administrator at a high school, I cram my weeks with all sorts of other non-writing things. Perhaps I write so well from the isolation of a train car because it slows me down while also offering the comforting feeling that I’m getting somewhere.

And then there was the matter of my craving for snow. In high school my parents moved us from San Francisco to the East Coast, where I stayed for college. Snow was the magic that punctuated this relocation and the terrible gray, grim winters in those small east coast towns where I didn’t want to live; snow was the backdrop of so many cigarette breaks taken and books read and romances had and road trips traveled and friendships made that, in aggregate, helped me figure out how to be who I really was. And anyway, I always wrote more down when it was wintertime.

When I needed to stretch my legs I’d go to the observation car where I could overhear people chatting about the view outside… I heard no mention of the virus decimating Wuhan at that very moment.

So in order to get some writing done on what I had only recently started calling “my new book,” I needed a train and some snow. The snow would ground me, a train ride would move me forward.

It turned out that a train from Denver would take about 34 hours, dropping me off barely a mile from my house. I’d write the whole time; I could sleep when I got home. I told Ben about the train idea and as it happened, he was traveling to Denver for work in February. The plan was that we’d fly together, spend a few days frolicking in the snow, and while he stayed on to work I’d take the train back home.

*

It all came true. In Colorado it snowed so hard we could barely see the road we drove upon. The earth fell quiet and we tramped through powdery forests, hearing only our own breaths. On the second day the sun came out and the world around us glinted and gleamed. Tuesday morning we kissed goodbye and I headed for the station.

I asked the conductor taking tickets which side offered the better view. “They’re both good, you can’t go wrong,” he said and shooed me on, which disappointed me, as if he wasn’t taking my question seriously.

“You wanna be on this side,” a longhaired man in his sixties told me as I lugged my bags up to the passenger car, pointing to the south side of the train. “That’s the side you want, trust me.” I thanked him profusely and found my spot.

It was snowing again, lightly this time. I thought of Pamuk. “As he watched the snow fall outside his window as slowly and silently as the snow in a dream,” he wrote in Snow, “the traveler fell into a long-desired, long-awaited reverie: cleansed by memories of innocence and childhood, he succumbed to optimism and dared to believe himself at home in this world.” I settled in, took out my notebook, waited for the urge to write and for the train to rumble on.

The longhaired man was traveling with his brother, who had given him this trip as a birthday present, the brothers traveling by rail from Sacramento to Denver and back again. It was something the elder brother had always wanted to do. They were a sweet pair, one tall and trim and another short and stocky, both appearing as though on break from a 30-year tour with the Grateful Dead. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. Remember handshakes?

Our train slid from Denver and up into the foothills of the Rockies, where the snow had laid a fresh cloak upon the world. It was a comfort that no one in my life knew my precise location—most times I myself only had a vague sense based on what was outside my window and the occasional station call. Glenwood Spring, Grand Junction, Green River, Helper. When we stopped it was barely long enough for my fellow passengers to suck down a cigarette while I looked on with longing.

I always like being anonymous and alone within a crowd. When I needed to stretch my legs I’d go to the observation car where I could overhear people chatting about the view outside or their lives at home or what they might have for dinner in the dining car. I heard no mention of the virus decimating Wuhan at that very moment. I didn’t even think of it.

One of the troubles with writing, now—one the troubles I’m having writing this essay—is that in our forced isolation grief gets in the way, and so does fear.

Once upon a time train travel was the epitome of luxury, an invention so monumental it dazzled (as is the case with many dazzles of empire, it was also built thanks to unconscionable labor practices and land theft). Now, though, the train’s only real luxury is its slowness. On the train I wrote and wrote. Time opened up, the train worked its magic. For many hours we followed the path of a river, and I watched the places where the water rushed untroubled and the places where it had slackened and cooled toward its final posture of freeze. I had the terribly unoriginal but still comforting thought that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, there is this river here, this hushed snowy mountainside, this cloistered train track. At home in the world. The messy threads of my thoughts untangled. The perfect alchemy for writing.

The analog nature of this self-styled residency offered an opportunity to clear the clamor and connect with some essential and oft-neglected aspect of myself, some essential and oft-neglected aspect of the exquisite world outside my window. Now, the train is retro in an entirely new way. I had planned for this essay to be a letter of recommendation for writing on trains. Yet in just a matter of weeks, the very notion of train travel has become unfathomable. All those people crammed together in that observation car, brushing their teeth at the same tiny sink?

But this was all the way back in February 2020. What did we know?

*

For the past several years I traveled to Europe each summer to organize a writing residency. Flights between Frankfurt and San Francisco skirt the arctic and pass over Greenland, a vast, mountainous territory of snow and ice. I’d learned to sit on the right side of the plane for the chance to stare out the window at Greenland for about forty-five minutes and weep. All that breathtaking ice down there like a precious artifact, and me hurtling above it spewing noxious gas. Each time I felt a longing to be down with the ice and an anticipatory grief for its disappearance—all while understanding I was complicit.

One of the troubles with writing, now—one the troubles I’m having writing this essay—is that in our forced isolation grief gets in the way, and so does fear. I guess this has been true for me for longer than I’ve realized. Moving fast kept the fear and grief at bay. But now there’s nowhere to go.

In just a matter of weeks, the very notion of train travel has become unfathomable.

Somewhere in the middle of the Rockies on my miniature February residency, our train stopped on a side track to let an eastbound sister coach pass. As it slid by I could see flashes of its cabin life, our curious double, through the windows, and then it was gone. We were stopped for a while and then a while longer. It turned out that the switch had frozen up ahead and we couldn’t get back onto the main track. For two hours there was no phone signal, no movement, just me and my writing and the other people doing their own private things—murmuring to one another, flipping the pages of their books, adjusting their pillows and curtains to catch some extra sleep.

I knew that sooner or later the rails would thaw or a tool would appear or another train would come for help and we’d be back in the continuum of landscape, the snowy Rockies giving way to Utah’s red rocks and then to the open Nevada plains and eventually, the final morning, through Donner pass into the Central Valley basin and home. But for nearly two hours it was just blissful stillness and quiet.

Eventually, they unfroze the track and we pressed on.

*

“Remember that our families, friends and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent,” wrote Dr. Craig R. Smith, the Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia Medical School in a recent and rather stunning letter to his colleagues. “Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”

As a Manifest Generator, I am well-acquainted with the rapture of action. But now? (After nearly two weeks indoors, while I read that the death toll in New York has already reached the number of days in a year and a nurse has died from lack of protective gear?) This is no writer’s residency. My on-again-off-again fever (who knows if I’m sick or Sick) and rage and grief have rendered my usual current of energy dull, diffuse. It’s as though the tracks have frozen. I have hundreds of students and their family members who need unemployment benefits after having suddenly lost their jobs, but I spent two hours trying to help just one of them the other day, to no avail (in the world we’ve built, it’s hardest for the people who need the most to get what it is they most need).

I write these sentences between sudden bodily commands to sleep. I’m in the bedroom as if my own private, unmoving rail car. Ben is in the bathtub, reading. There’s a small fountain in the backyard outside the bedroom window so the steady sound of water spills into my dreams. Tomorrow, I’ll try the student’s unemployment application again; if it works, hooray, we’ll only have several hundred to go. There are hardly any planes in the sky anymore, a fact both ominous and beautiful. I think of Greenland, make a donation to the food bank. At times it’s hard to read. What if Ben gets what I have? I think about all the people who died in some soulless corner of an overrun Italian hospital alone, how they ring the bells for the dead in lieu of funerals. All that precious ice, and how cavalier we’ve been on this earth. What if my parents die, or yours, or you? The landscape is no longer a continuum. Once we’re back up and running it is unknowable what terrain will reveal itself around the bend.

*

Aside from cigarettes and snow, one of the things that helped me through the immense loneliness of adolescent winters was the discovery of Rainer Maria Rilke. I often took one of his books with me when I boarded the train from school to visit my family.  His poems were useful to me in that they simultaneously offered an enchantment with existence and the frank bleakness of things, making me feel as though I no longer had to choose. “You are not surprised at the force of the storm— / you have seen it growing,” reads his poem “Onto a Vast Plain.” “You thought / you could trust that power / when you plucked the fruit: / now it becomes a riddle again / and you again a stranger.”

It’s a tall order to simultaneously hold the urgency of the change being so violently wrought and the horrifying costs of that change. It is a writer’s job to render the world. But how do we render a world that we don’t yet fully understand?

I’m finding comfort in the idea that we don’t necessarily write for the present moment, but rather as a faithful offering toward some unknowable future. Try to purchase Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell most places and you’ll find it’s on backorder; it was an urgent book when it came out in 2009 but we need it now more than ever. How could Rilke have imagined that he was writing a poem for the millions of us shuttered up in our separate isolations while simultaneously watching one another in real time as we spiral in fear and fall sick and die?

Still and yet, I’m finding reason to write. Imagine being on that train again, nothing but my bags of snacks and writing implements, being pulled westward along with all those proximate strangers, our fingerprints smudging the railings and the faucets, no big deal. I knew when we were stuck in the wilds of the Rockies that the rail would be thawed and we’d eventually be back on our way toward the regular way of things. And now? “Summer was like your house: / you know / where each thing stood. / Now you must go out into your heart / as onto a vast plain. Now / the immense loneliness begins.” There’s that river by the empty train track, still running.

__________________________________________

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham is a writer based in California whose work has appeared in outlets such as Guernica, Harper's, Freeman's, The New York Review of Books, and VQR, where she is a contributing editor. Lauren is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, which was awarded the Northern California Book Award, The California Book Award Silver Medal, and the Ridenhour Prize. She teaches in the MFA programs at Ashland University and the University of San Francisco.





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