Riding the Train

 

The engine pulled steadily west, away from the golden station in St. Paul, thrumming contentedly as it settled into the long journey that would end in the mountains of Montana, at Glacier National park. It was my first time on a train and it was getting late, but I kept vigil long after the other passengers had drawn their blinds and fallen asleep, to watch the stars outside the window brighten as the city lights faded behind us. It was one of those times where the world felt huge but alluringly within my grasp. Long after midnight, the lull of the tracks made my eyelids heavy, and I stretched across the extended seat and pulled the blue Amtrak blanket tight around me, feeling like a child on Christmas Eve.

The train rolled on through the night.

When I awoke, the rest of the car was still sleeping. The edges of the blinds glowed with a sharp line of light. He said we'd be in North Dakota by morning, I thought, and pulled myself to my knees to sweep aside the blinds. It was the golden hour of the morning. The train was parting its way through tall, rose-toned, swaying grasses that seemed to go on forever in every direction, just like My Antonia. Scattered about the fields were little havens of verdant, tall grasses with clear pools of water sparkling in their centers. A grey heron rose from one of the pools and flapped its wings in disdain at the passing of the train. The morning light painted its great wings as it rose and flew alongside the window, matching pace with the engine, wings bending gracefully at their rounded hinges. It veered off suddenly and doubled back, landing lightly in the water, hidden within the thick grasses.

No fences, no houses, no boundaries...just open space. I pressed my fingertips to the glass in wonder, eyes misting as relief I couldn't explain swept through my being. He stirred behind me, and I turned, whispering so as not to wake our sleeping neighbors, "Can we stay on this train forever?"

He laughed at my half-serious question and answered quietly, "We'd run out of money eventually," and stretched with a yawn to go back to sleep, but I kicked at him a bit till he grumbled and threw back the covers in defeat. We slipped on shoes and grabbed our coffee packs, and crept through two cars of sleeping passengers to the viewing car. The doors slid opened and light flooded out, revealing a long window box. The first half of the car had comfortable swivel seats with benches that faced outward into the expansive horizons; the second half of the car was filled with padded booths. The ceiling was a giant skylight that stretched the length of the room. It was the most wondrous space I had ever set foot in.

We found a booth in the back, and he filled the kettle at the sink and plugged it into the outlet below the table. I watched the world passing outside as the water warmed, and mused half-aloud, "I think I'd be a better person if I lived on a train."

"What?!" he joked. "Did you learn nothing from Snowpiercer?"

I grimaced. "Yeah, that Korean films give me nightmares."

"And caste systems—"

"—are bad. Already knew it." I grinned and gazed back out the window with a sigh. "Look at this... It's just all so beautiful. There's nothing out here. I want to sit in the middle of these fields for three days alone in complete silence, with just the stars over my head and the earth beneath me. If I could just get away from everything, maybe I'd start to understand the nature of the world, maybe even God—if she exists. I can't help feeling that the answers to everything are out there"—I gestured out passionately—"waiting for me in that beautiful solitude..." I trailed off, lost in my fantasy.

The kettle clicked. He pulled the AeroPress from the pack and scooped the whole beans into the burr grinder. A sweet, round aroma filled the car as he began to turn the grinder, and I breathed deeply and smiled back through the window where the tall grasses danced outside, bowing low, twirling, swaying, left and right. Giving form to the wind, I thought, following their motions lightly with my finger. He set a mug before me, and I smiled in thanks. Smile lines curved about his eyes in response, and he began again, filling the kettle and grinding the beans, round and round and round with the handle.

My head cleared as I sipped, and the colors of the landscape became more vivid. A farm appeared as a single speck on the horizon, then scattered into half-a-dozen smaller specks that grew further apart from each other as they approached. Soon, I could make out a man on a red baler cutting tightening squares through the hay field, rounding the corners carefully. The mournful whistle of the train turned his head, and he looked up and waved with an ear-to-ear grin.

I smiled and waved back. "I used to do that, you know."

He squinted out at the farm. "Do what?"

"Bale hay. Have you ever smelled fresh-cut hay?"

"Not sure."

"It smells like July—sweet and grainy...a little musky, but a good kind of musky. And when it starts to dry in the sun," I grinned and breathed deeply, almost able to smell it through the train window, "it's like fresh-baked bread. You can tell when the farms nearby have started baling a few hills away, just from that smell."

He smiled at my enjoyment of the memories and began to pour the water through the grounds. "Did you bale hay at your grandparents'?"

"No. It was when I lived in Washington, with my ex. There were lots of farms there that grew hay for horses, and I used to cut it with him and his brother." A lifetime ago, now.

It was funny how clearly I could still picture my ex, driving down the one-lanes in the red Ford 250 pickup truck he'd taught me to drive stick on, white V-neck tees and sunburned arms, Darius Rucker on repeat. The man on the baler became a tiny speck. I straightened back in my seat and met his eyes with a smile. "You would've been impressed with me back then! I was bucking hay bales off and on the truck right alongside the guys."

He laughed and stirred cream into his coffee. "How much does a bale weigh?"

"It varies. The ones I was bucking were about sixty pounds. The guys didn't think I was strong enough, so I had to do it just to show them. My ex's brother was such an infuriating sexist. I was so, so sore at the end of those days, but I never would've admitted it, not even to him." I shifted and smiled.

He grinned. "Sounds like you showed them."

"'Course I did." I grinned and took another sip, gazing at the landscape passing around me, wondering at how life was beginning to feel like that too—like a series of stories to be accessed and moved through like a film strip. We sat in silence a while, deep in thought as the landscape slowly changed. A train turned out to be a very good place to contemplate one's life. I put my feet on the bench beside him and sighed.

"So, catch me up," his voice broke through my reverie. "How's the novel coming? What's Charlee doing these days?"

"Same old, same old. Having adventures with her brothers. I'm going to start developing her relationship with her sister next."

"What's her little sister's name again...Lulu?"

"Lulee."

"Charlee and Lulee. I like that."

"Yeah, she's a handful." I smiled fondly as an image of the child with bobbed brown hair and a mischievous, dimpled grin popped into my vision. "The next chapter will be hers."

"Will she and Charlee get along?"

"I think so, yes..." I considered. "Someday, at least." I exhaled slowly, wrapping my hands around the coffee mug, pulling its warmth into my skin. I'd begun to carry quite a bit of emotion through the process of writing this novel. I felt the journeys of the characters as poignantly as I felt my own—perhaps because they were echoes of my own. My thoughts came full circle. "I just think I could find my best self if I lived on a train. I could be a really good person if I could get away from it all and exist in this kind of calm," I gestured to our surroundings, to the sunshine lighting the vast gold prairies.

The motion of the train made the speckled patterns on the table sway and swim. "You already are a good person." His voice came calmly, as the table undulated like a kaleidoscope. "The best I know."

I never did find out why he believed that about me—I suppose I’ll never know, now.

I slid over to his side of the booth. He put his arm around my shoulders, and we put the horizon to our backs and let the world to pass around us and change, little-by-little becoming something new, until it no longer resembled the places we’d been. Another couple stumbled sleepily in the viewing car. They glanced at us and smiled, because we were young and beautiful, and we smiled back, because we knew we were young and beautiful…

and the engine pulled us forward with a steady hum.

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