Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Trains

My mother recently commented on the allure of trains. She may not have meant much by it, but it started me thinking. This is a common problem, it would seem, in my life. Even seemingly throwaway comments set me off on long tangents of thought, where, on occasion, I get lost.
On occasion this is fun. Sometimes, it is problematic.
Nevertheless, trains. I began to think about why, exactly, I like trains.
There are, I think, several reasons. Firstly, there is a very real, very visceral experience when one is close to a train. I presume the new, super high speed trains are different, but the old-school freight and passenger trains I am used to are very big, very loud. You can feel the earth move when the pass by, even slowly, and the noise is deafening. Should they be up to speed, the full effect is overwhelming. This translates surprisingly well to the inside of a passenger train, where both the vibration and noise (both muted) can be quite relaxing.
Beyond the physical experience, however, trains have an important cultural element that still holds much currency, despite the explosion of the automobile culture in post-war North America. In Europe (through the eyes of a North American boy, in any case), the trains moved Sherlock Holmes from London to the moors, to hunt the ghostly hound. They carried one to the east, the Orient Express, heading to the outer fringes of the comfortable, known world. They were a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, with the great boilers pouring black smoke into the sky as they steamed ahead into the future.
In America, the train was something else. It was also the future, but the promise was of the fulfilment of the Manifest Destiny, the American push for the west. The train, in all those westerns, was the link between the old East and the new frontier. The track, laid down over so many barren miles, broke the last barrier of a whole and united country, at least geographically. And the same is true in Canada, where the Prairies and the Rockies made formidable barriers, breached finally by the trains.
On a more personal note, trains for me often represented the link to the outside world. It can be a long trip to my ancestral home, and one of the most comfortable ways to manage it was always the train. It was more spacious than the bus, and not all of us had access to cars. 20 hours on the train was always better than a similar amount of time on the bus. And a lot of people knew it. So if you took the train home, say, the 23rd of December, you'd be on the train with friends, and neighbours, and family, some of whom you may not have seen in quite some time. Trains had social areas, and kitchens, bars, and, if you had the money, beds. The train was how you got home. Also how you left it for the big city.
This is cultural weight, Gentle Reader. This is why, when I hear the train whistle, or feel the deep rumble  close to the track, I invariably pause, in awe. And I dream.



    The railroad track is miles away,
    And the day is loud with voices speaking,
    Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

    All night there isn't a train goes by,
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
    But I see its cinders red on the sky,
    And hear its engine steaming.

    My heart is warm with the friends I make,
    And better friends I'll not be knowing;
    Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
    No matter where it's going.


    It's little I care what path I take,
    And where it leads it's little I care;
    But out of this house, lest my heart break,
    I must go, and off somewhere.

    It's little I know what's in my heart,
    What's in my mind it's little I know,
    But there's that in me must up and start,
    And it's little I care where my feet go.

    I wish I could walk for a day and a night,
    And find me at dawn in a desolate place
    With never the rut of a road in sight,
    Nor the roof of a house, nor the eyes of a face.

    I wish I could walk till my blood should spout,
    And drop me, never to stir again,
    On a shore that is wide, for the tide is out,
    And the weedy rocks are bare to the rain.

    But dump or dock, where the path I take
    Brings up, it's little enough I care;
    And it's little I'd mind the fuss they'll make,
    Huddled dead in a ditch somewhere.

    "Is something the matter, dear," she said,
    "That you sit at your work so silently?"
    "No, mother, no, 'twas a knot in my thread.
    There goes the kettle, I'll make the tea."

    Edna St. Vincent Millay

  2. I am happy, at least, to know that I am not the only one who feels this way about the trains. I had been reading up a tiny bit about St. Vincent Millay, and another blogger somewhere (I fear I do not remember where) mentioned how unapologetically bleak some of her stuff is. This last one reminded me of this comment. And yet, bleak as it may be, she really manages some beauty. You are of course, anonymous, and yet, somehow, in my mind, I imagined I heard your voice as I read the poems. It is so nice to have poems read to one.