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A Seat on the Train

When we decided to travel to Vermont by train, I looked forward to the trip with atypical giddiness. I imagined 12 hours of uninterrupted writing, reading, sleeping.

It was that and not. It was that and more.

The first leg of the trip—12 hours from Union Station in Washington, DC, to a tiny train stop in Essex Junction, Vermont—was dedicated to work. I spent the hours hunched over my laptop, desperately swearing at the unreliable wi-fi, cajoling it to please…just…work. As the hours ticked by, I’d wearily look over at David, consumed in his computer game. Every few hours I’d take a bathroom break—long enough to look up and realized we were passing over some bridge, crossing through some unknown town—but otherwise, I was decidedly focused.

I promised that at 5 p.m.—9 hours into the trip at that point—I’d turn off the work email, and settle into the quiet rumble of the car (it was 7 p.m. before I put the laptop away). By then, I was tired, dirty and dehydrated. I turned on a favorite movie on the iPad, determined to simply tune out. Head resting against the window, I found myself absorbed in the passing landscape—I watched the sharp blue skies and downy clouds of New Hampshire and Vermont shift into evening. Every moment my window seemed to shapeshift into another verdant mountain, another quiet pond. It was breathtaking.

Outside me, the world of the train had carried on. We quickly learned the Vermonter is a short train—just five cars. There was no quiet car–the greatest tragedy of our journey. David and I could have sat in near total silence for the entire 12 hours, still completely at ease in our mutual company.

The funny thing about trains is how much they are unlike cars. Cars require the constant attention of its occupants, constant notice of its neighboring vehicle. A driver can easily find themselves distracted by all the things to do in a car: steer the wheel, change the radio station, plug in a phone, reach to the glove compartment, navigate. On the train, these kinds of mechanical distractions are removed—which in theory was our reason for taking the train at all. But for others, these absence of these familiar distractions only served to help them identify new routines to pass the time.

I think it’s fair to say that David and I were in a constant mode of “do no harm.” As we entered the train, we carefully tucked our belongs into our seats, making ourselves as small as possible to cause initiate no trouble to our fellow passengers. We dutifully threw away our garbage, left the bathrooms clean, kept our noise to minimum. What surprised me most about the train was how often this rule was ignored by others.

On the train, I found myself wholly distracted by:

  • Loud phone calls—both full and open business meetings, personal calls to long-lost friends, the placing of orders.
  • Kissing — full on sucking noises from my backseat neighbors.
  • Screaming kids — running up and down aisles, banging on bathroom doors, throwing trash and Cheerios all over carpets.
  • Music — from playlists without headphones, to loud humming, to cell phone jingles.

No amount of earplugs or headphones could contain the masses.

But oh, the people watching.

My train neighbors were of every race, and age, and locality. I watched an elderly woman, no doubt on her way home, carefully deposited at a train station by a loving family member. I saw whole gaggles of women arrive on the train with shopping bags and suitcases, likely on their way to some weekend getaway. I marveled at the parents with the fortitude to bring their children on the long ride, to read to them the same books over and over, to not weary of being Elmo or Batman for the fifth time. Students heading back to college. Single women using the train to take them to some new adventure. Business men and women.

Unsurprisingly, there are gluts of riders who board and exit at stations like DC, New York and Philadelphia, but these longer layovers often allowed us a welcome chance to exit the train and breathe station air for a few short moments.

The train conductors were an entirely other matter. Sometimes, friendly, sometimes masters of their domain, I watched them turn over at regular intervals. I would guess that each 12-hour ride saw no fewer than 5 different conductors. At the origin of our return trip, one conductor had pushed the riders into two cars by locking the three ahead. His rationale was fair: families and couples had far fewer chances of finding seats together the further the train traveled and he wanted to give them a fighting change. Another conductor asked us to pack up and make our way to the doors more than 20 minutes before we were scheduled to arrive at our final destination.

I saw people who reminded me of my own small town family. We passed town after working class town. Gas stations and grocery stories that looked local and worn. We passed one area of Vermont where people came out to their front porches to wave at the train—this train that must surely pass through their windows with an absurd regularity. In one small town, we watched kids and parents gathering in a town square to stare and marvel at the passing locomotive.

I wish I’d given myself more time to dream on the train. My baser tendencies kicked in and I pulled my Twitter feed ceaselessly. I played podcast after podcast determined to drown out my vicious seat-mates. I started a new, albeit absorbing novel. I let the train carry me to and from home without much thought to its final destination.

Even so, I emerged content with how I had spent my time. For 24 hours I was the master of a very tiny domain—one the size of a a perfectly comfortable seat.