Yesterday afternoon, I crawled off the California Zephyr after spending sixteen hours next to a window watching snowy mountains go by as I sat alone with a good book (Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker), some new music on my iPod (Bombay Bicycle Club), and laptop to write short stories (Sci-Fi and Cli-Fi, with very little Wi-Fi). I was completely alone, standing up only to stretch and get coffee from the service car. It was spectacular.
A century ago, trains propelled people into expanses of uncertainty. They helped us contract time and space, a theme I regularly wrestle with. Trains pushed Europe into Asia, and solidified New England. They stapled towns together across the American Midwest like a string of Christmas lights, one after another after another, bringing them to the foot of the Rockies and knitting cross-communal quilts in the process. The railroad changed history entirely.
Today, trains are far from the fastest form of transportation. I could have gone home by plane in a fifth of the time it took by train. But for a historian and writer, trains are the perfect form of travel. Being able to slow down, lean back, and reflect on the past semester was just what I needed.
It’s difficult for me not to be reflective this time of year. Winter break imposes introspection. In one year, I’ve changed more than I thought possible. I almost wrote a novel but completed a poetry manuscript, and saw the publication of two poems, an essay, a story, and a ten-minute play. In the past year, I found more of my voice than I had in ten years prior. I also moved to a new home and school, leaving behind everything familiar. I raced through the last semester too fast to enjoy it, propelled by a locomotive of too much ambition.
These days, trains are a way of retracting time and space, and after running through the semester at full speed, slowing down to watch the nightscapes and frosted mountains go by was a healthy step back, a way to manage the introspection overwhelming me after a year of so many wonderful, terrifying changes.