After this past long, cold, wet winter, I needed a few moments of peace to refresh and reconnect with the state I’ve known and loved — and I definitely wanted someone else to drive me around for once, while I caught a nap. So I hopped the Carolinian and rode that Amtrak train from its first stop in North Carolina to its last, for no better reason than I’m one of those Americans who keeps the train in the back of his mind as something counter cultural, something slow and straight enough to enter into a calmer time — a time that is at once lovely, and about as relevant to modern life as a pantaloon. The train is too slow for most things, but not for dreaming. I met it in Rocky Mount.
The Carolinian is late to the station. This is all right; no one freaks out about it as they might in an airport terminal. An airport terminal organizes itself around maximal seating and shopping efficiency, the traveler internalizes its indignities in the name of that efficiency, and, therefore, disruptions in the air-time continuum (late and canceled flights, overzealous airport screeners) become occasions for existential dread and panic. This is not the way of the train.
Instead, the train station in Rocky Mount seems built for maximal nostalgia, and nostalgia is the sort of thing that needs time to flower and reveal itself. It takes time to study the benches in the waiting room and to notice how easily they could become church pews. It takes time to realize that the tile in the floor is real, and that Thelonious Monk probably walked across it. It takes time to understand that the reason people whisper is that the ceilings are vaulted, and otherwise their conversations might echo on in the rafters forever. The main sounds of the Rocky Mount Amtrak station are the giggles of local boys gathered in the entry with their bikes to wait out the rain, the incipient harmony of three different snorers slumped in their pews, and a conversation between our train host — a retired Charlotte schoolteacher with the train man’s habit of continually checking his watch — and one of the retired men who hang out at RJ’s Hot Dog Dayz, the station’s eatery.
“Forty-five minutes late. Forty-five minutes,” the host calls out, wandering the waiting room in his blue Amtrak ball cap and blue blazer. “Lost 30 minutes sitting in Richmond for some reason.”
“More like 50 minutes, you ask me,” the other man says. One could argue the exact nature of RJ’s Hot Dog Dayz’s nostalgic agency, whether it’s in the coconut cake; the hefty hot dogs; or in the life-size figures of Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the rest of the gang, who stand outside of RJ’s watching the travelers. All four members of Dorothy’s gang are sleek and seemingly really well-fed. Oz is this way, they seem to say, turning time’s arrow backward.
The train host walks over, wags a finger at his doubter, the hot dog fan with all the time in the world.
“The older you get, the unfunnier you get,” the train man says.
“The longer you talk, the more ridiculous you sound,” the hot dog man says.
The station becomes quiet again. I don’t remember if it was 45 minutes or 50 minutes. The difference seemed minor at the time. What would I do with those five minutes, where would I go, what would I do with the knowledge that my train was late? Nothing. There’s no other train, no alternate flight. You can bang your fist on the ticket counter all you want, but the train is the train, and it arrives when it arrives. The train passenger has no choice but to wait, and this dawning realization lifts something in my heart. I relax. I nap; I probably snore.
At some point, we leave.
My plan is to get to Charlotte, go quiz my little nephew about the exact nature of his train love, and then reboard the next morning for Rocky Mount. Quick and easy. Efficient.
Since Rocky Mount, the train has become crowded, mostly at Wilson. A few more straggled aboard in Selma. The terrain has stayed flat most of the way, the horizon receding into the distance, which is what gives eastern North Carolina its air of mystery and vastness. We ride along on an impressive suspension that conveys the sense of gently floating above all the cotton and vegetable fields, banking and turning through the windbreaks.
The interior of the coach-class car is roomy but also familiar. I notice, with some disappointment, how much it resembles the interior of an airplane, though the seats are bigger and the windows are so huge that they pull the eye outward for most of the trip. The first truth I discover is that the sensation of riding the Carolinian is that of being in the landscape of North Carolina, but not of it. The world outside the train is framed as if it has been projected on a screen, and it travels by too fast. Even so, sometimes the train rises and falls, cants left and then right: The geography and geology will not be entirely denied. The sound of the train’s horn is distant, a faint hum. Every day, this same train passes my office in Durham, and I know how shatteringly loud that horn actually is, but on the train, it barely registers because I have become one of those I wonder about when I’m sitting in my office trying to work: Who are those people, and where are they going? Every day, twice a day, for years, I’ve wondered this.
The fall line between Selma and Raleigh passes suddenly, and then we are climbing more hills. The built landscape closes in, the horizon tightens. Infrastructure and its cast-offs — telephone and power lines, giant culverts, dumps, scrapyards, piles of tires — become more apparent. No town puts its best face forward to the train tracks. There are no signs intended for viewing from the train except for the graffiti painted on the concrete underpasses. Jason hearts Misty forevs. Old railroad buildings have become boutiques, and they turn their backs to the train. And yet, as we roll into Raleigh, children are pulling pink and yellow suitcases, dancing and jumping and clapping on the platform. We are a huge, screeching, mechanical avatar of the outside world, but we stop for even them, and they celebrate the occasion. The men in the funny train hats jump down and place step stools, and when the children get aboard, they insist on helping put their suitcases in the overhead storage. They fight over the window and are soon asleep.
As darkness comes on, the windows in the taller buildings begin to glow and clarify, and in them hang Magritte posters, Panthers helmets, and Ikea lamps. Cell towers sprout like stalagmites, and little hummocks lit by ghostly orange sodium light seem to grow as the shadows deepen. The red-and-purple neon arc tracing the curve of the exhibition center at the state fairgrounds is a frivolity in a darkness that is quickly seeming unfathomable and pure. Where are you going?, I imagine the people in the apartments thinking, and I think, Why do you stay? All the time, the conductors walk the aisle, checking our tickets, asking, How far are you going, how far are you going?
A woman from Baltimore — her clipped and twisted vowels are unmistakable — stops at my seat.
“How far is the dining car?”
“Just two cars up,” I say.
“Is it warmer there? I’m in the back, and it’s freezing.” She’s wearing a long coat, a colorful knit cap, small silver glasses, and cut-out gloves.
“I think it might be warmer up there,” I say. “It’s comfortable.”
“Well, I’m freezing.”
“It’s just two cars up.” I am searching for the right thing to say and come up with nothing.
But she turns and heads back to her freezing car. I have somehow failed her; I’ve failed to connect. We are all failing to connect aboard the Carolinian now that night has come down. Headphones and screens absorb the collective attention of everyone still awake. The one person who has voluntarily spoken to me has now exiled herself to what is apparently the refrigerator car. The quiet in the car settles down heavily. Lights dim, and the car becomes depthless, like a dream. I stare out the window again. I listen for the last voices. “Where can I get cash?” asks one voice from far behind me. Just behind me, an older couple reads together from that day’s lectionary. I have my missal with me, and so I open it too. January 23: For if that first covenant had been faultless, no place would have been sought for a second one.
There may be no lonelier place than a train at night.
Outside, we pass the barbecue demarcation line at Salisbury. In towns, the electric lights flash and move without pattern: some street corners but not others, some porches but not others. Streets shine. The landscape detaches from anything familiar. Things become bigger, looming out of the deep dark. The imagination expands. Concrete things flash by like monoliths, ancient pyramids.
Where are you going, where are you going?
The natural world has receded away from the windows, and all that remains are the things deliberately placed and lit. I look back through the window and try to summon the discipline to look past my window, through and beyond the reflection of the curious, apprehensive, middle-aged man reflected back at me, bald head shining.
At night, severed from the tether of the familiar, we could be anywhere. The train sounds its horn: Here we come. This is why cavalries have bugles, to quench doubt: Here we go!
At my family’s place in Charlotte, it turns out that my nephew Brody isn’t so much into trains anymore. Transformers are the new thing. It’s good to see him.
The next morning, my brother-in-law drives me back to the train station. He reminds me about a famous photograph of a Native American out West, watching the train tracks snake through a canyon to their vanishing point.
“It’s as if he’s thinking, There goes our way of life,” Richard says.
“Here it comes,” I say.
“He’s thinking, What’s coming?”
“He’s thinking, And someday it will bring the Kardashians, thanks a lot.”
“Man, why can’t we look away from them?” Richard asks.
“We are a nation of rubberneckers.”
I am in a good mood for the return trip. Richard played me “Folsom Prison Blues” on the way to the station, and that always picks me up. I’m ready. And then I’m standing in line behind a man in a polka-dotted knit cap, black boots, and a hoodie, who is wiping tears from his cheeks, and I’m ready to give up on this whole train trip idea. Then another man, this one in a gray suit and carrying a leather overnight bag, walks over and puts his hand on the crying man’s shoulder. They talk. Soon they are fast friends. The crying man is off to bury a loved one, and the man in the suit has some experience with that. He whispers words of encouragement, tells the man it’ll be over soon. He changes the subject, and soon they are talking about the perils of driving a car in the rain (you don’t want to do that when you’re upset, they agree), and they discover they both cook in fancy Charlotte restaurants. From then on, the two stick together the whole trip to Raleigh, laughing most of the way.
It occurs to me then that the train isn’t just there for dilettantes like me, but also for exactly these moments: when life calls you someplace suddenly and you haven’t any way of getting there yourself. You have no private jet, no ride, no car you can take for a week for a funeral and subsequent arrangements. The train is there for the earthbound, the last-minute rider, and the romantic. Otherwise you’ve got to walk it, like Dorothy and the Tin Man, and sometimes Oz is just way too big for that.
This morning, the departure of the train corresponds almost exactly with the emergence of the sun, as fingers of light move slowly up and past the horizon, running through a half-dozen colors. It’s Saturday morning, the world is not entirely awake, and so the engineer lays on the horn.
The streets begin to fill. The stores open. The lights that the night before had transformed into campfires and torches and ships at sea have now disappeared. The monoliths and pyramids are bridges again, and this one proclaims, Trey + Morgan. Pickup trucks dominate the early morning streets. The mood on the train is light. People are chatting and eating bagels, happy with their first cup of coffee. We, the people in this car, are the train that passes by every day at 9:46 a.m., and as far as the early morning shoppers are concerned, we might be the very same people. They wave.
After we pass through Durham, I begin to search the distance for my own home over there in Chatham County. At every stop, people get on board, and soon there is cackling and a constant murmur. The more people who board, the more it feels like I am being drawn back to the world, that this train is no longer isolated. It’s a place, a town, a city, with its own dynamics of culture and economics, which I am bound to leave forever, never to return.
Each of us has some place to be, some place where our presence is required, either in fact or in our imaginations. And so, when the conductor asks, Where are you going?, there is an assumption in the question that’s heartening: that there is a place for us, that there might be a place for us farther along.
In Rocky Mount, Dorothy and her companions have left. That seems about right.
This story appeared in print as “A Little Farther Down The Line.”