I’m riding a highball double-stack train into soy fields in Western Montana. The sun hangs low over the distant hills and two long fingers of railroad track burn gold on the empty line. I’ve barely slept in the last three days. The ceaseless rattle and roar of the train has wedged itself into my brain. My fears of being caught by a Railroad Bull, falling asleep and derailing at night, running out of food and water, or falling off the coupler while I’m trying to take a piss all blur with the beat of the train. I don’t know what town I’m approaching, what town I’ve left behind. The 5,000 tons of steel and iron don’t care if I need to catch sleep. There isn’t a whole lot I can do but hold on, watch the sun slide under the empty barns, and keep going.
I admit, I love seeing the world like this—flickering, fading, flashing by in a glance, rolling off in a single direction behind me. The feeling is unlike anything else I’ve known. More immediate and powerful than any drug I’ve tried, any danger I’ve dared myself to face. Birds fly suddenly over the cars. A horse walks stoically into the open field, his dark mane blowing free. Cars at the crossing are clear for a moment and gone, washed in a punch of sun. The glowing faces of the people inside imprinted in honeyed light.
The way I started riding trains is a little circuitous. I was born in a small town in Southern Minnesota, a block from a railroad yard and a cereal factory. At night, I could hear the freight trains roll through, swapping their engines and sounding their notes through the dark. Even as a kid, I was aware of the distance the trains traversed. Coming or going, they were always on the move, struggling against their own gargantuan weight. Their journeys seemed epic compared to my own small-town escapades, which usually involved building forts in the woods, playing baseball with friends, or biking to Casey’s General for candy. The trains didn’t seem as much counterpoint to my life as they did background music, as common as the whine of summer mosquitoes or Metallica blasting from somebody’s car.
Occasionally, my friends and I would go to the train yard and play in the boxcars, searching through relics of bygone hobo adventures: playing cards with half-naked women on the back, vodka jugs, old cans of Bush Beans and Spam. It was outlaw territory for us, and it worked on our imaginations the way books like Huckleberry Finn or Hatchet had inspired us few years before. We imagined the free-wheeling spirit of the West, the thrill of being stowaways on a ship so large we couldn’t see the engine, didn’t know where it began or where in the world it was taking us.
It’s easy to romanticize experiences like this, train riding in particular. The scenery is straight from a Woody Guthrie song. The feeling is about as close as it gets to the lyrical passages from On the Road, or more recently, the intimate portraits of traveling kids by the photographer Michael Brodie. It’s not an experience that engenders cynicism, even in the most hardened of riders. But the romance of travel is not why I’m out here, and it’s not why I spent the last ten years writing a book of poems about train hopping, hitchhiking, traveling poor and mostly alone through the mountains and back-roads of the American West. What interests me about traveling like this is what it does to my brain, on a very basic level. The imagery it presents me with, the language it inspires, and the depression it somehow seems to heal.
When I was 22 years old, I had my first mental breakdown. It was February and I was walking across the Washington Avenue Bridge at the University of Minnesota, where I was going to school. Snow was falling softly through the sky and streetlights poured this heavy yellow glare on the path. Suddenly, as I took a drag of my cigarette, I felt a layer of tinsel inside my head break loose. It seemed as if a disco ball had been hanging from the roof of my skull, unknown to me, and all at once had popped, raining down pieces of glass. Immediately, I was having a hard time remembering where I was, what I was doing, what I had just been thinking about. It seemed as if my entire identity—my memories, my sense of the physical world, everything that had happened to me in my life—was suddenly falling away.
When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t make sense of time. I tried to go to my philosophy class but listening to the professor talk about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was like watching an art-house film in reverse. Nothing made sense in a linear way. When I tried to read my textbook, the words swam around on the page. I remember calling my parents after class and telling them something was wrong with my brain. They brought me home to rest, and I tried unsuccessfully to flush my system with vitamins. It was one of the first times I remember actually praying to God.
The theory as to why this happened ran the gamut from seasonal affective disorder to thyroid deficiency, brain aneurysm to what my therapist called a “dissociative experience precipitating a cycle of major depression.” I was given a cocktail of anti-anxiety meds, anti-psychotics, sleep meds, and anti-depressants. Combining the meds with dietary changes, biking and running, and a summer prescription of “trying not to think too much” eventually worked. After seven months of therapy, exercise, and psychoactive medications, my thoughts returned to normal and I was able to read again.
The next year I spent studying abroad at Oxford. I was eager to travel after so much time at home and the weeks I spent roaming around England, taking EasyJet flights to Athens, sleeping at Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and riding high-speed trains across Germany were raw and inspiring. I was studying the Romantic poets, writing non-stop in my journals, and language just seemed to pour out of me. I was averaging three poems a day, dabbling in fiction, jotting down lyrics and images and whatever impressions came through. I knew a lot of these experiences were typical study-abroad type things and most of the poetry was trash, but I also noticed my mind became sharper and more intuitive the more I traveled. The more I pushed myself into strange situations, the more I moved, the more I reacted spontaneously to circumstances, the clearer my perceptions became.
When I was finished at Oxford, I moved back to Minnesota and had another mental breakdown. The effects were similar to the previous one, but more severe. Again, I had trouble reading, but this time I was having panic attacks and thinking constantly about burying myself in the ground. Not in a metaphoric way, but like, literally digging a hole with a shovel and burying myself in the dirt. I cut my hands and arms. I wandered around downtown Minneapolis late at night with a knife in my pocket and a weird insomniac itch. One night, I returned to the Washington Avenue Bridge and leaned on the railing. I climbed over the rail and stood on the far side, watching a barge tow garbage below. I wasn’t going to jump, but I wanted to know what it would feel like if I was going to jump. My psychiatrist had a hard time understanding the difference, and I was prescribed more pills and clinical evaluations. After months of tests, he decided I had Major Depressive Disorder and was Borderline Schizophrenic. It made me feel a little better to have a diagnosis, but it didn’t change my moods and it didn’t make me any more able to focus.
After graduating from college I planned on applying to grad school but was still having panic attacks and obsessive thoughts. I remember having a vivid sensation of my life as a writer leaving me behind, cruising off in a bright direction without me. When the sensation was too strong, I returned to childhood landscapes to look for signs of a former self. I visited my old house. I wandered in corn fields and hung out by the railroad yard in my hometown, waiting to see if a train would come through.
I knew I needed to leave the Midwest, so I began to travel obsessively, somewhat afraid that if I stayed in one place for too long, the depression would start to come back. I worked side jobs for small sums of money. I sold plasma at the blood bank and volunteered at local food shelves. I painted my grandfather’s cabin in Northern Minnesota and picked up a few more jobs as a cook. Every time I rounded up a few hundred dollars I would pack up my things and go. It didn’t matter where I went as long as I was moving. I bought cheap flights around the country, hitchhiked, rode Amtrak, went back to Paris and lived at the bookstore again, hiked in the mountains, road-tripped with friends, and eventually began riding trains.
The first train I caught was an intermodal traveling from Minneapolis to Seattle. After waiting for days in the Northtown Yard, I finally climbed on a ridable car and hunkered myself in a well. When the train started moving, the sound was deafening. It creaked and crawled up the Mississippi bluffs as a filmstrip of images played themselves out in the sky. There was nothing to do but observe the constant change. Within an hour I was cruising over miles of cornfields, riding through twilight and letting the wind whip hard in my hair.
Unlike other modes of travel, train riding is largely a solo experience. It doesn’t put you in contact with strangers as much as it forces a rough, more psychological contact with yourself. Over the past ten years, I’ve ridden through fracking lands in North Dakota, farmlands and ranchlands in Montana, forests in Oregon, crossed numerous mountain ranges, deserts, reservations, and survived the infamous Cascade Tunnel—an eight-mile stretch through the heart of a mountain notorious for asphyxiating train riders due to the concentrated pools of exhaust. I’ve run out of water and had to drink from streams. Run out of food. Heard nonsense whispering voices echoing all hours out of the walls. Terrified myself in the train yards hiding from Bulls and the ominous phosphorous lights of the watch towers.
While riding, I had nothing to do so I wrote constantly, scribbling poems and loose fragments in my journals. The rhythm of the train became tied to the rhythm of the poems—a loose anapestic meter that allowed for internal rhyme and a sense of momentum. I accepted fragments and images as they came. I kept the language moving forward and developed a style I would use in my first book of poems. When I got on my first train, I didn’t know where I was going, or even why I was riding, but I felt entirely anonymous to the world, free from my own life, and for the first time in a long time, entirely alive.
What seems to draw contemporary riders to trains is not so much a runaway fantasy but a need for isolation and extreme experience. The feeling of riding is uniquely disorienting, at once shockingly beautiful and the biggest waste of time you could imagine. Things go wrong on trains much more frequently than they do in the real world, and the inability to control your fate can be crazy-making. One minute you feel like the Sundance Kid, the next you’re ducking down in a well with floodlights over your back. The feeling shifts and turns like the lines of a poem, and out of all the ways I’ve tried to heal my mind over the years, it’s the closest thing I’ve found to an antidote.
Train hopping doesn’t give me a reason to live exactly, but it gives me a version of reality so intense and other-worldly that depression doesn’t seem like an option. American culture is not sympathetic to mental illness; the institutions we have to treat symptoms are good at prescribing meds but not understanding the deeper roots. Pills can be effective in treating depression, but more often, it’s a product of environmental and hereditary factors that are much more delicate than anyone can guess. Everyone is entitled to their own version of happiness, and if they’ve gone through a life-changing illness, mental or otherwise, their own version of healing. I’m not trying to imply that people who suffer from depression should start traveling around, blowing off relationships and quitting jobs. Obviously, what works for one person might not for another. Train riding is an extreme act—illegal, dangerous, frustrating as hell, and I’ve personally known people have who left actual pieces of themselves on the tracks. I’m not advocating for people to go out and jump on a train. What I’m saying is that anything, literally anything, is better than suicide.
What heals us eventually is ourselves. And the advice I want to give anyone reading this who is struggling with mental illness is that the real solution is somewhere within. You find it with change, intention, and time. So hold onto whatever dark engine you need to feel beneath you. Let it take you in a new direction, and whatever you do, keep going.
Kai Carlson-Wee’s new book of poetry, RAIL, is available from BOA Editions.