Ages of You

R.E.M. – Ages of You

Today I found out about the Amtrak Residencies for writers. I can’t tell you how perfect that is. I might cry. Right now I am listening to the train tape I made in college (the digital edition on my iPod) and I can see the backyards of America in my head, obscured now and then by the blur of greenery; interrupted by the occasional overpass. I always thought that would make an excellent anthropology thesis, America’s Backyards as Seen from the Train. That’s where the truth hangs out. The discarded bicycles, rusted red wagons, trampolines, and clotheslines.

Close by the cities, the scenery is much more industrial. Warehouses. Graffiti covered brick buildings and cement walls. Trenton Makes The World Takes. The cities give way to the suburbs, where the backyards and cemeteries make up the scenery. Depending on what train you’re taking, you might get far enough away from the built up areas to see more traditionally scenic views. I always try to sit on the right side of the train in a window seat. If you always sit on the right, you’ll see what’s on the left on your way back.

I love everything about train travel. I love the big, beautiful, historic stations. I love the smells of the engine, some kind of weird mix of diesel and electric, hot and metallic. I love the rhythm of the train swaying gently as it clatters along the tracks. I love the tracks! I have two rusted and discarded old railroad spikes saved in a bin. I have several Amtrak train ticket stubs saved alongside concert tickets. I love leaning my head against the window and trying to find a spot to put your feet that gives you just the right amount of ‘please don’t talk to me’ body language or trying to sit in such a way as to invite a little conversation. I love watching my fellow passengers, listening to them chat with their seatmate or talk with their children about what’s passing by the window. I like to sneak a peak at the book they’re reading. Watching as people meet them when they get off the train, and others saying goodbye as someone gets on.

I have taken the train as far north as Montreal, as far south as Georgia. The Adirondack. Southern Crescent. Overnight trains. Commuter trains. Sightseeing trains. Subways. I’ve been to Zoo Station. Paddington Station. Two of my proudest foreign language moments were giving directions to Salzburg’s train station in German and confirming in Czech that someone was waiting for the correct subway train in Prague. The only Czech words I can still remember are the words for beer and ‘next stop’ which is what they would announce as the subway pulled into every station.

It is hands down my favorite mode of travel. It’s not the fastest, there are usually delays on the line somewhere, but when I take the train, at least half the reason is just being on the train. It’s not the most convenient, being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. A few years ago, Amtrak started running a train up to Maine, the Downeaster. I am dying to take that train. In order to get the train from my house to my mother’s house up in Maine would involve me getting on a train when it’s still dark in the morning and switching stations in Boston. It would take more time than driving but I’m actually contemplating buying a used car up near my mother just so I have an excuse to make that trip.

There is just something about the train that brings up all kinds of emotions for me. It’s like I feel a tiny shred of what everyone else in my car is feeling. Some people are excited, some are sad, some are hopeful, some are worried, some are exhausted, some can’t sit still. I know all those feelings and have, at different times in my life, been one of those people sitting there. So now I look around and see me on my first solo train trip, me going to visit a sister or a friend, me with my best friend on an adventure, me trying to hold it together when things aren’t working out, me on my way to a job interview, me seeing new places and remembering all my old favorite haunts. I don’t get that from any other form of travel.

This is the fourth song on the train tape. My vinyl copy of this song has a longer finger-snapping intro. I really wanted to use this version but I couldn’t get it to only play the first part.


  1. That train writing residency is a great idea! There is something amazingly productive about being on a train. And like you said, the time to just watch and observe – inside and outside the car. Just great.


    1. Especially if you take one of those really long haul trains, when you don’t need to be paying attention to the stops. I’d also love to take a sleeping car one day, and one of those observation car trains.


  2. I loved taking the train through Europe! It was the best way to see the countryside. One of these days, I’ll have to take the coastal train…
    I loved this reflection, and love that REM song. 🙂


  3. I have never taken a long train trip, but I even get a little thrill when the Metra shows up to take me into Chicago, so my guess is that I would love it. Yes, you’ve convinced me to add “train trip” to my bucket list.


  4. My husband and I took Amtrak through Oregon, Northern California and Arizona all the way from Cleveland. The scenery was amazing and seeing all the parts of the country – the back yards – that you wouldn’t otherwise through any other mode of transportation. Also? I just heard REM at a restaurant and a good, familiar feeling washed over me; like it was the 90s again and I was in my 20s. 😉


    1. Wow, that is a long trip! Did it have an observation car?

      The backyards really are one of my favorite things about taking the train. You really do get a view of things that you just don’t see from the road.


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