Staying on Track

I’m on a train again, headed north out of Virginia, through DC, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. I wandered from my wide and roomy comfortable seat up to the empty dining car where I hung out for a while in a booth the size of those at Applebee’s, had a breakfast sandwich and coffee I brought with me, and watched the farms and rivers retreat as we swung through Richmond and Fredericksburg. At some point we paralleled the Potomac through an area so wild it seemed more like a ride out west.

I took pictures.

It costs about $25 to get from Williamsburg to DC; another $7 to continue on to Philly. Gas is $4 a gallon; it’s 292 miles. At a generous 30 miles per gallon, that’s 10 gallons of gas. So for $8 less than the gas right now, I left Williamsburg at 5:40 and will arrive at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 12:10, wandered about the cars and stretched out in the dining car, walked around Union Station in DC, took pictures and texted friends, and even napped early on. No wear and tear on the car or my body or my eyes, no traffic jams, no parking expenses, tolls, nothing. $32 bucks.

I’m never driving again to a place I can take the train. I’d fly, of course, if it was a great distance. Well, except if the purpose of the trip IS the train, like in The Iron Scar, which, ironically, is why I’m on this train to begin with—to get to a convention in Philadelphia for the launch of The Iron Scar, do some book signings and readings, and hang out with friends. $32 bucks. Geez.

The dining car earlier filled me with a sense of some sort of powerful memory of chess, and vodka and beer,

of onions and sliced salmon and borsch. Of loud laughter from new friends and the cacophony that is a group of drunk Russians speaking their Slavic tongue for hours. The rumble of the train, the traditional music,

the hard, heavy slamming of the cabin door when others are trying to sleep, the low glow of Michael’s book lamp on the bunk below me while I’m trying to sleep, his harmonica playing American folk music in the passageways between cars, the uproar at “Checkmate,” which apparently is a universal word,

the old man in the dining car late one night just above the Mongolian border, of the hallways lined with travelers gaping at the dangerously swollen Amur River, of the ease of heart and spirit when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, of

the disappointment when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, because the beautiful bonding journey was coming to an end, of course.

I hope people read my new book and discover this for themselves, discover the hesitancy of letting go of their children when they are no longer children, of letting go of their fathers when they are no longer able to live the life they had lead, of letting go of our own trepidation at getting older, of being next in the line of succession, of moving further down the tracks without knowing what to expect, trying to enjoy the ride the best they can without losing sight of the horizon.

I hope they read my book that is not so much about trains but the ride, not so much about Siberia but those distant places ahead of us which seem so foreign and barren yet comprehensible once we are forced to face it.

I’m almost in Phlly. This was a deeply fast ride. I tried to enjoy it the best I could, tried to meet people and equally avoid them, spending time alone in the booth looking at the beautiful passing of the world outside.

If I could only take with me one thing from this ride I’ve been on, it is that I tried to spend as much time as possible witnessing the beautiful planet I’ve been privileged to see so much of.

It’s been one hell of a journey. A bargain to be sure.

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