The train to Chicago

Sun dogs linger until almost sunset, weird prismatic spots in the wispy clouds. A man across the aisle is singing softly into a book.

*

We plunge into a mountain. This is nothing like flying. We are burrowing our way into the continent.

*

I hear the announcement faintly from the next car: ten minutes till Johnstown. Orange water in the creek beside the tracks; the rocks stained orange. A woman two seats ahead on her cell phone: I got your voicemail an hour late… It was all choppy. I couldn’t make it out. Did you get my text message? … Yeah, I got your number, I’ll try and call…

*

Onion domes. I too revere the holy onion. In fact, I’m told by sharp-nosed friends that I smell faintly of onions at all times. There are worse scents to wear.

*

An industrial wasteland, mostly reduced to rubble – acres and acres of it, dotted with yellow excavators.

*

It’s hard to tell which factories are abandoned – those with lights in them look as derelict as the rest, sooty, missing half their windows.

*

Welcome to Johnstown, the saddest city in Pennsylvania. Three people get off; one gets on. She settles briefly in front of the singing passenger, then gets up and moves to the front of the car.

*

Nine large churches in one neighborhood, including two more with golden onions. The severe-looking brown church must be where the Presbyterians go.

*

A forested hillside strewn with boulders, gray and hulking but somehow the opposite of depressing.

*

Through the windows opposite, I glimpse the cooling towers of a power plant silhouetted against the darkening sky.

*

Whistling some small, anonymous crossing. There’s a train coming, you think, having grown up near the rail line, and then realize you are that train.

*

I can hardly see anything out the window now, due to the reflections from all the lights inside. Every seat is illuminated by default, whether or not it’s occupied. The conductor comes through, collecting the yellow slips above our seats, no longer keeping tabs on us.

*

To travel by train at night is to travel through darkness, with no street lights or billboards to mark one’s route. What lights exist are at a remove, beyond the dark corridor of the railroad right-of-way. This is a side of the country one forgets all about on an ordinary road trip — the unadorned back forty. And at night, one doesn’t see all the trash.

*

A mall parking lot is an oasis of light. Then we are slipping behind it: orange lights, beveled blocks. We should be right about at the Monroeville mall, where Dawn of the Dead was filmed. I’d recognize it from the highway, of course. Train travel can be disorienting like that.

*

A brightly lit warehouse full of nothing. Parking decks lit up like cruise ships.

*

The rhythmic rocking of the train combines with sleep deprivation to lull me into a state of child-like passivity. By the time I see daylight again, somewhere in Indiana, the land will have abandoned its own attempt at rhythm save for the gentlest of swells.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

4 Comments


  1. Nice, Dave. I feel that same way when on a train as an adult – it’s just weird to “be”the train instead of the one seen from beside the tracks. And now, with our studio near the Canadian Pacific tracks with lots of traffic all day, that feeling of being the watcher is simply reinforced.

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    1. Glad that phrase resonated with you. Rachel Shaw, whom I met for coffee on Sunday, had the perfect phrase that I should’ve used here in reference to railroad rights-of-way: feral space.

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  2. I love this. Especially those scenes of the industrial wasteland, the abandoned factories. The only time I’ve seen that part of the country was when I took the train from Austin to Boston and back while I was in college in the early ’90s. Before the return trip I’d never seriously tried to write anything except for school. On the way back somewhere between Pennsylvania and Chicago, I felt this overwhelming need to write what I was seeing. I borrowed some paper from the woman sitting next to me and started writing. Haven’t stopped since…

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