Before I had a car I traveled by train from Chicago to Michigan. The Amtrak. The traveling system that travel writer Paul Theroux calls, in essence, the underbelly of railway transportation worldwide and a disgrace to the term locomotive. I’m paraphrasing since I lost his book and the vast expanses of the Internet are uncooperative this morning, but that is the essence of his opinion.
There’s not doubt that the car is the only suitable vehicle for the great American road trip. There is no denying the endless possibility at the start of a road trip: Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” echoing or blasting or squeaking as you gun it down the highway, depending on the quality of your speakers.
But there is something much simpler about surrendering an element of that constant choice and streamlining yourself to a conductor’s schedule—pre-ordained stops allowing you to experience a new kind of freedom. The space to spread your legs a bit, have a snack, get a drink. A constant motion that doesn’t hinge on your ability to keep a foot on a pedal and a direction not controlled by jerky hands placed at ten and two.
Some of my best conversations and some of my best pieces of writing happened sitting on trains. I lost my British flip phone on a night train from Amsterdam to Munich—the trip where we didn’t spring for sleeping quarters, couldn’t find any sleeping medicine of an internationally legal variety in Amsterdam so settled on €2 bottles of wine and crackers and encountered a gruff German passport control at two in the morning.
It was the mistiming of a train schedule that lead us to wander the streets of Venice for a night in the sprinkling rain, luggage in tow, short on Euros and with no place to stay the night. We settled into an abandoned Water Taxi platform on the increasingly puddled ground after fending off the advances of a drug addled gypsy and a wandering bag lady outside the locked train station.
I took a train every morning in Budapest to a little café called Budapest Bagel: a bar and a bagel shop where I somehow received college credit to write short stories and read novels following a longstanding expatriate tradition.
A train back from the Czech Republic was where my girlfriend and I made the acquaintance of a terrified Italian family as our ride stopped in the middle of Slovakia. It ground to a halt creepily and suddenly, brakes squealing the in the pit of the night and dark forests loomed ominously through train car windows, silently encroaching on our sense of safety. Dogs barked eerily, whistles blasted, flashlights swung, and chains rattled before the crackly voice of the Hungarian conductor broke through, speaking unintelligibly over the intercom. I had my pocketknife at the ready and we made friends across language barriers with the whites of our eyes and a shared sense of fear. The train started up thirty minutes later with no explanation and we shrugged at each other. This being Eastern Europe, these things happen from time to time.
A train took me, every summer through middle school and high school, to my grandparent’s idyllic home on the Thornapple River—which always felt like Christmas even in the dead of July. It was by train I saw the Alps for the first time. Taking a winding mountain route from Lucerne to the small Swiss town of Interlaken where we would eat cheaply from grocery stores and jump off trespassed diving boards into hypothermic waters.
It’s in train cars that I caught up with my writing, cramped hand bent over small pages and chronicling the adventures lest we forget in posterity. Jack Kerouac jumped freighters as a dharma bum and worked on railways across the Great Divide and back again. Jim West traveled in one as cowboy version of a secret agent in an old television series we watched on VHS.
A good friend spent a summer working as a server on a train that runs from Alaska to Denali and back again. I’m sure she has many different stories to tell about trains—revelry and old retirees and stiffed tips and too many hours covering the old worn tracks. But for me trains retain a bit of romance. They harken back to a short-lived window of Americana that conjured folk heroes like John Henry to race the steam drill, and they connect us to a world of transportation that transcends our borders. Tragic stories like Hemingway’s first wife losing a briefcase full of his manuscripts en route to a Swiss skiing vacation. Stories of lovers separated by a train departures hum with the song of despair and the promise of possibility.
That very same Amtrak which Paul Theroux called a shame upon railway systems across the world offers an incredible program offering a berth and a type of residency to writers. Fully paid, round trip tickets to any destination of your choosing, private rooms, and space and a mandate to write.
Amtrak, feel free to consider this my application.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.