(“Travel”, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Favorite Poems: Old and New, Selected by Helen Farris)
From my home it is nearly seven miles to the nearest train tracks. Between me and that crossing, there are busy highways, a suburban mall, residential neighborhoods, and even a gain in elevation - hill and valley, wood and field, concrete and condo. I rarely hear a train pass. Yet, on a clear night, when the wind blows from the south or southwest, I hear its plaintive whistle - even, unless my mind deceives, hear its wheels on the tracks, a low rumble, an undercurrent to the hum of traffic. Last night, about 11:00, I cracked the window slightly to the night air, pressed my ear into its opening, leaning on the windowsill, and heard the faint clickety-clack and rumble of the wheels. It takes a train to cry, I thought.
Train whistles provoke longings. They make me want to leave, to go, to travel no matter where. The very idea of movement and compelling visions of mountain gorges and lonely prairies and desolate, moonlit deserts stirs the wanderlust. “Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,” concludes Millay in her poem, “no matter where it’s going.” Reading that, I nod my assent back across time.
Once our family took an overnight train from Jasper, Alberta through the fir trees and mountains of British Columbia. We slept in comfortable bunk beds, lulled to sleep by the wheels on track and the rare and lonely station light. Another time we traveled cross the high plains of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota from Glacier National Park to Minneapolis. Though not nearly as comfortable as the Canadian train, our consolation was that we could rest, walk around, and eat in the dining car, not worrying at all about driving. And when, after all, would I next be in Minot, North Dakota? Never, I thought, smiling. Unless I came by train, wandering across an endless landscape.
The length of some trains is beguiling. Once, we sat at a railway crossing outside Vail, Arizona, while a seemingly mile-long freight train snaked across the desert. Another time, I stood feet away from another freight passing through Fargo, North Dakota, enjoying the snapshots of main street between the passing cars, the power of locomotion, the clanging of the crossing bells and lights, and the endless linkage of cars trailing off into the horizon. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone, the last car rounding a curve and leaving sight.
I understand why some have hopped aboard freight cars, like Dustbowl refugees, Okies, and Woody Guthries. It makes me wonder if I have hobo kin, restless travelers bound for glory or, at least, adventure. And maybe that’s what beckons - that desire to experience something other, something new, something unknown. When as a child I watched the Southern Railway trains pass, I knew someone was going somewhere far away, and I wasn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go and see what could be seen, to get loose of my little world. There was that ineffable if incomprehensible sadness when the caboose and waving conductor faded from my view.
“Trains, says writer Dana Frank, “tap into some deep American collective memory.” So it’s not just our own personal history that trains conjure up but something deeper, something about expansion and movement and hope, about grass that is greener elsewhere, about dreams, about moving on. Trains seem timeless, throwbacks to an earlier age, reminders that we are always moving.
It takes a train to cry, says Bob Dylan, in that world-weary song from 1965. Dylan returned to the imagery of a train over decades later with “Slow Train Coming,” an apocalyptic vision of a reckoning to come. In one verse, he snarls:
Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend
Next time you hear a train, consider where you are and where you’ve been, as well as where you need to be. The whistle you hear is longing. The power rushing past is reckoning. Yet the gleam in your eye as the last car rounds the bend is hope that you too, with grace, will soon reach your hobo home, where longing meets laughter, where all our wandering leads us home.