I think about train tracks a lot these days. I guess this isnt different than my normal way of being, tho. Im pretty much always aware of where the train tracks are in relation to myself. That started growing up next to a huge expressway that had both the L tracks and a freight line or two that ran along next to the lanes of traffic. The bridge I walked over on my way home from school took me over that torrent of travel and id play around with trying to get the big rigs to honk for me, or stand up close to the fencing and look over when a semi passed underneath, pretending the top of the trailer was the ground I stood on, getting vertigo and feeling like falling over. Sometimes id just stare at the lanes upon lanes of cars driving both into and out of downtown chicago, my view reminiscent of the video game 'frogger,' feeling the movement like choreography in my body, the vibration of the engines rumbling thru my legs and chest. Id watch from both sides of the bridge, sometimes catching the attention of the cars below, sometimes trying to spit on their roofs. It was the urban kids version of pooh sticks I played at, whiling the time away, hoping to be able to stay till the moment when the setting sun glinted directly off the skyscrapers, making their windows all look golden. It felt kinda miraculous cuz you had to be in the right place at the right time on the right day to see it and having caught it once or twice has stuck with me over the years as a personal triumph. Back then, those train tracks meant either the way into the city, if you were focusing on the loud and frequent rapid transit trains, or a slow link to the country, if you felt like paying attention to the creeping, tired looking freight cars which never seemed to go anywhere but then were gone. Being a city kid with no use for the country i focused on those L trains which were my link to the city as a high schooler, but maybe more importantly, which were the rhythm of my young life. they punctuated the aural landscape of my entire childhood, they could be heard every 10ish minutes passing nearby, if the windows were open or it was quiet, you could hear them inside. if you were outside, you couldnt get away from them, distracting a free throw at alley basketball, interrupting a conversation on the patio, the background noise of every kick the can or capture the flag game played on my block. my memories of summer nights as a child are characterized by the alternately rousing and lulling sounds of the blue line L train.
I went to a college in the middle of rural iowa that was founded at the intersection of two freight train lines, a north/south and an east/west. the n/s tracks actually went thru campus, cutting off my dorm from the academic buildings, slicing thru our pathways without so much as a light or a gate. I could stand as close as I wanted to the tracks as the train passed, I could leave a penny on the rail and have something super thin and smooth left over. I could walk for an hour on the tracks, balancing on a rail the whole time, as a study break, (or a social break as the school was so small sometimes it felt hard to get away from everyone) a half hour out, another half hour back. Or id walk to a preferred place and stop to think before heading back. 15 minutes north and youd be in the middle of corn fields, 15 minutes south and you could settle yourself on one of the ties that made up the tiny bridge over 2nd ave and watch the slow part of town take its time going by. These walks were always done to clear my head by concentrating on something going out far beyond myself, guiding me forward, making me keep my balance on a 3 inch wide piece of steel. It was a way of calming my mind and body, making me think about nothing academic, theoretical or emotional, simply letting me concentrate on spacial and physical dynamics and movements until I could get to the point of not concentrating on them at all. Putting body and visual sense on autopilot and letting my brain free associate or come to a realization about a problem, or simply exist in the physical world around me. It was walking meditation at its best and gave me a deep sense of peace in the knowledge that I became very good at making my way down those rails which were always spanning ahead, always allowing me to see beyond myself and away to parts unknown. The sense of anticipation for the future, of welcoming adventure, of travel as opportunity that had started on a bridge over 290 in chicago was crystallized into true love of movement there. The low wail of the train whistle rolling past my dorm room at 4am that had started out as a referent to the trains I used to hear at home, came to remind me that there always would be a way of constantly moving forward without forgetting where youd been.
Mostly these days I think about train tracks as my route to my destination via amtrak. Ive become kinda obsessed with taking the train everywhere I go. It means I get to see a lot more of the country than I would flying, as I seem to bounce back and forth between chicago and the west coast quite often. It is so much more interesting to while away a day staring out at the tan grasses of montana or the sulfur yellow rocks of utah than spend 4 fours with white clouds hurrying past. What do I have to hurry for? All ive got is time. The only thing in my life is the journey. The destinations I pick have friends and loved ones at them, which is marvelous and I will enjoy when I get there. but sometimes my travel time is the only time I have totally to myself, and extending it to be a couple days long (especially when a train ticket costs the same as a plane ticket but by definition includes a place to sleep for two nights) gives me a welcomed break from being a guest somewhere. I therefore think of my time on trains as a retreat. This last trip from seattle to chicago I didnt even bring a book, which necessitated that I either write or sleep. I did a lot of both. 2 letters, a childrens book idea, some work on a story, 1 and a half blog posts, and a lot of time with my dear hamlet, re-reading the play, making cuts, thinking about how I would direct it (this is a blog post waiting to happen, coming soon). Its amazing how much work you can get done with almost 3 days of no internet access...
the thing about train tracks and train travel that I think I started wanting to say back when I was rumbling thru minnesota, is that they immediately connote meditation for me. I mean, of course people get up and move around and get to know their fellow passengers on trains in a way you never could do on a plane, so there is a sociable aspect to it, but still, you are passing thru countryside, some of which cant be seen unless you are on a train (there are no roads there) at a pace that gives you time to mull over the shifting landscape (without the distraction of other cars on a road) and to feel the changes from one geographical location to the next. To remember how yesterday iowa was so softly green and today nevada is so violently red. To contemplate how different life must of necessity be between hilly maryland and west virginia and flat ohio and indiana. To be fully aware of each of the 2000 miles separating life in seattle from life in chicago and all the places and lives in between. Gives you time to get used to the difference, because the change is so much less drastic and you can see the evolution.
All this said, and I have yet to talk about the rhythm. The train for me is a place where listening to music is not needed because there is always this back beat rhythm of the wheels on the rail seams, the swinging sway of the cars on the tracks, the periodic ritardando and accelerando of entering and leaving stations. those stops become the pauses between songs when everyone gets antsy while waiting expectantly for the silence to quit being so loud and the train's music to start its lullaby again. Which is not to say that I dont ever listen to music on the train, my choices just have to be the kind that move in the same way. Yo la tengo's 'and then nothing turned itself inside out' was exactly suited for a grey/blue-misty-mountainous western montana morning, and (yes, ill admit it) counting crow's 'august and everything after' made for a marvelous golden-brown-sunny-rangeland eastern montana afternoon. Fleet foxes' self-titled was perfect. Just perfect.
but this traveling rhythm is important to keep me aware of the movement of the train, my movement thru life, my memories of travel, my plans for future places, my simultaneous awareness of where i am, where ive been and where i want to be. every L train near my house, every rail balancing step ive taken, every train trip that has taken me to a temporary home with loved ones, has comforted me with the familiarity and promise that my travel equals my life. and i trust the train to take me thru it. i know no other way.