It was New Year’s Day, or soon after, when I walked down the muddy, gray slope of the old Montague Farm, where we once lived and worked, after walking in the woods with Aussie. It had begun to rain so I was hurrying a bit, watching the slippery trail, when I heard the train.
There are train tracks some three-quarters of a mile from the Farm, a half-mile from the house. Amtrak used to use those tracks for its daily Vermonter, grumbling it way from Virginia all the way to northern Vermont and back, and I used to tell people that it was very easy to get to us, just be ready to jump when the train came round the bend into Montague. “There is no barrier or lights,” I’d tell them, “just a small white house on one side of the tracks and an even smaller mud pond on the other side, but there’s a road there and all you do is jump down, pick yourself up, walk half a mile, and you’re at our home.”
But Amtrak let go of those tracks in favor of tracks further south going through Deerfield, so now the only trains using our tracks are freight trains with a different name on each car, names like Canadian, Wyoming Rail, BNSF or Norfolk Southern.
I’ve loved trains all my life. They evoked adventure and mysteries just behind the bend. I think that my first English-language children’s book, when I came to the US at the age of 7, was about trains. Knowing this love of mine, Bernie took me down to New Orleans on a sleeper train on the occasion of my 60th birthday. I often wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a distant train. I lie, eyes closed, in a pleasant, reassuring haze; I know that all is well with the world when trains are still running.
As I heard the rumbling of the wheels while walking down the slope at the Farm, I felt my entire train life collapse into that moment. In a vague way I was aware of the many places and times I had encountered and used trains (yes, even the New York subway), the last being on the train from Tel-Aviv Airport to Jerusalem when my siblings and I returned from the Sinai, everybody looking down at their phones to follow the finals of the World Cup.
But that moment wasn’t about getting lost in some bygone time or era, indulging myself in memories and nostalgia. It was as if all trains melted right into that moment of stepping on the hard, muddy ground while a train rolled a short distance away, as if the rumbling of wheels was nothing but the beating heart of the entire universe.
These are now the daily episodes I wish to fully experience, when everything collapses into a bent Norfolk Pine, one squirrel suspended upside-down from the birdfeeder, white stomach glistening, the scratch of Henry at the dog door.
It’s funny to write this even as I will shortly go online to search for bookings for a trip to Brazil in the end of February in order to help plan a bearing witness retreat in Bahia. I was in Brazil some 20 years ago and loved it, and when I get on the plane I’ll be fine (though there are a number of planes to take on this trip, first to Porto Allegre in the south, then to Bahia in the north), and it’s all for a good purpose.
But adventure? Excitement to meet new people, see new places? My heart’s no longer in it, not as it used to be many years ago when I loved to travel.
Bertrand Russell wrote: “As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.” I don’t want that kind of intensity anymore for myself, though I can understand how others do. I’m no longer seeking out more and more experiences with no time to digest and absorb them into my very cells.
I have been reading for an hour daily for many, many years, and lately notice that I hardly remember what I read. I come across a phrase and sentence that means so much for me at the time, I’m sure I’ll keep it in my heart forever, but the next morning I can’t bring it to mind. Not just because my memory is bad, which it is, but because I’m inundated with aphorisms of great import. And still, I read more and more every day.
What would happen if I was stranded on a desert island with just one book? I would memorize it from cover to cover, and each sentence would serve as the gate to the paradise of meaning; it would be as essential to me as food and water. But when I read book after book, where is that deep intimacy with the words, the sense of a secret door that has unlocked the secrets of the universe, and I must take care of these words, hold them in my heart and never forget them? Instead, I’m deluged by study, deluged by literature.
The simpler the experience, the more I can lose myself there. So it could be that the best travel I can do right now is right in my own back yard.
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