Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.
— E. M. Forster
The thing about being a worried person is that you learn from early on to become suspicious of joy. Being made suddenly happy is like being quickly raised up very high over the ground and held there, where all you can see is the earth far below. The view is nice but the rope feels too thin and it’s an awfully long way down.
I am aboard the California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City, beating a retreat once again from the newly emboldened and quickly advancing front of unrequited love. I had fallen for a girl too deeply and too quickly for her to feel the same and the ground, as they say, was coming up fast.
As I sit, an old ex-school teacher with a Texas drawl, bargain-basement plastic glasses and sequins on her sweater, whom I have known for 20 minutes tops, pushes a cup of frozen yogurt in my face—raising her voice to counter my lamentations about lost affection:
“You know what existential despair is?” she says, the peach yogurt coming dangerously close to my mustache.
“It’s just extra despair for people who like to feel smart. It’s more tragedy than you need and you hold on to all of this because you think you deserve the weight of the world for all the good it would do you but, good lord, the world doesn’t throw its weight around like that. Your sadness is the same sadness that hundreds of millions that came before you felt and millions will feel long after you’re gone.”
She puts her hand on my hand. “I mean, come on now—go outside and look at a rainbow or something.” She sighs and puts the yogurt down.
“I mean, really. Honey, you seem nice but everything bad that happens isn’t a contribution to your grand unifying theory of the world’s malevolence”. I nod and give a thin smile. She gets up and changes seats to leave me alone for a while.
I set out to Chicago a week before to meet a girl I’d fallen hard and fast for. I was returning home, having learned that the feeling wasn’t mutual.
Outside, we cross the Mississippi River that’s covered in huge chunks of ice heaves in the dazzling afternoon light and we both look up and acknowledge the change from Illinois into Iowa. There are twelve hundred and some-odd miles to go before Salt Lake City.
Travel by rail across the country is righteous in its simplicity.
There is nothing to do that you don’t do yourself, and if you don’t do anything, you can still have the portrait of America continuously repainted for you outside your picture window while you wait for something to happen—a wide, clear space for the melancholic, fighting against the mendacity of their own despair.
Nobody rides the train just to get where they’re going—not these days, at least. We’re all here, like me, to see how far we’ve come or how far we have yet to go. For lives that need a cairn made up of a few days to mark the way, a trip on the Zephyr from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay is—if nothing else—awfully cheap therapy.
Being on the train does not stop the world like I want it to, but it moves the world around me, in front of me and without any effort on my part. All the passengers become prepositional beings presented with the greatest of gifts for a life that’s sliding away from us—a controllable space in a difficult world.
We leave home to discover ourselves but we all must return home again to learn what the world has infused in us while we were away.
And, in truth, that’s the genius of rail travel in 21st century America. None of us, really, need to be there.
Rail is slow and it can be expensive. Sometimes we have to sit for a while to wait for a freight train to pass because Amtrak has to pay for passage on Union Pacific lines and you don’t always know when the line will be clear and things will start back up again and if you’re impossibly sad, sometimes feeling the world stop something other than you is a strange sort of comfort.
In Colorado, during a snowstorm, too much ice builds up underneath the engine. The engineer stops the train, gets out, slogs through the snow and underneath the wheels and bangs on it with a wrench while we all watch.
For a person looking for what’s next, rail travel is a frontispiece to the upcoming novel of their existence—the blank space ahead of possibility that must be present and turned through to begin again.
And in those times, there is literally nothing that anybody can do about the situation but make the best of it and nod to your neighbor and give them a look that says, “Well, what are you gonna do?” and offer a shrug.
The world, it occurs to me, has lost sight of what it means to share. Instead of searching for adulation from others, it is perhaps instead to suffer a bit with them, to know their burden and for them to know ours.
The engineer bangs on the undercarriage a few more times until all the ice is off and we watch the snow outside. Just like that, we’re off again.
* * *
It’s late when we come into Utah and it’s dark outside, with lights of the freeway far off in the distance and nothing but high desert everywhere else.
In the lounge car a woman with the most serene green eyes and long, impossibly elaborate braids trailing down her back takes out a ukulele as we cross the Colorado Plateau.
Amid the dim lights of the car and the sway of the train, she begins to play, of all things, Leonard Cohen songs.
And when she plays Hallelujah, I finally break down.
Real tears come as I catch up to the reality of returning home without the dream I thought I had.
It was the trip we’ve all had, or will eventually.
In the beginning, I thought I had the most beautiful thing I could conceive of at the time. By the end, I knew it was all falling apart and I didn’t know why or how I could stop any of it from shattering.
Love is beautiful but it is strange. It suspends us above the earth and in times of disruption all we can do is look down at the ground so far below and then up into the stratosphere, where the blue turns to black and to reach up to the one we love and whisper with what strength we can find in our voice,
“Please. Please. Don’t drop me.”
We all stare out the windows as she sings. People reading their books put them down. Everything goes silent in the train car except the steel wheels underneath; with her voice hanging in the air, we hum along, speeding through the desert night—some of us going home, others leaving it behind, all of us here—for now at least—together.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
She plays the final note like a god making the last bit of a world and as the train makes the turn into Green River, as we all sit quietly, looking together out at the moon’s silhouette above the cliffs, with lives to be lived when we arrive—remade from our departure, through this moment, this quiet, and these stars serving as the precious and temporary space between.
The train whistle sounds; we pick up speed through the night toward Salt Lake City and we sit moving underneath the Utah moon. It is a long time before anybody speaks.
I touch the glass of the window, feeling that connection again with motion across the earth —back on the ground it seems, looking out at its broad expanse instead of down, upon it, from a point too high; feeling our movement even as the world outside goes dark except for the lights of a truck twinkling, far in the distance.
It is one small light in a huge empty and darkened desert and behind that light is somebody too, perhaps also going home again. And if that is all the light there is, then for now, it will have to do.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Two hundred miles to go. Hallelujah.
Mike Place is the director of a Lehi-based open-source software company and an instigaor of nonprofit technolgies in Utah and abroad. He is also a hopeful romantic.