Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Dear Zachary,

Even when you were barely two years old, you had a gift for the mechanics of getting from here to there.  When we were snoozing in the early morning while your parents were at the hospital with the very newly born Ally, you woke in time to drag me to the window for an event that was essential to your happiness.  “Trash truck,” you told me authoritatively as said vehicle made its anticipated appearance.  And I think that I have never impressed you so much as when, several years after the trash truck ceased to enthrall you, I told you that in New York I took a train to work every day in an underwater tunnel.

And so it is you that I think of whenever I find something better or more unusual than that NJ PATH train—Vietnamese sleeper buses, Asian tuk-tuks, even our own wheezing but intrepid motorbike in Siem Reap.  How marvelous it was to board a night train in Bangkok for the exotic mystery of Chiang Mai, knowing how much you would love the waffle stands, the rainy train station, the attendants in smart uniforms helping us to find the correct car.

What is it about train travel that so captures the imagination?  I find particularly wonderful the sleeper trains that keep doggedly chugging ahead while I am off in some dreamworld.  Even the process of changing my rather ordinary seat into a curtained little bed, complete with reading light, was somehow magical when performed in under sixty seconds by an erstwhile servant of the Thai railway system.

And then, after nodding off in the rhythmic darkness, there is the wonder of awakening in a different landscape altogether.  First the foggy softness of dawn, and then the lush green tunnel of vegetation through which you stumble to the end of the car to brush your teeth and then, just as you begin to feel claustrophobic, the jungle subsides enough to show you that you are in the mountains.  The blurred tree trunks outside the window are actually only the canopy, the height of them falling far below down the steep sides of misty mountains that will never seem anything but unfathomable to someone born in the comforting open flatness of the American Midwest.  I think, perhaps, you would even have been fascinated with the baby cockroach that I discovered flirting with the cuff of my pants, and with that in mind, I tried to approach him with the same adventurous spirit.

Onward, onward, we pressed through the early morning, through small towns just waking up, entire lives unfolding before my eyes in the instant the train rushed past them—market sellers setting up their stalls, siblings struggling into their rain ponchos, the sleeves of a moto driver flapping with his gaining speed.  Do people glimpse me like this sometimes, catching me in some ordinary moment that gives them an intrinsic understanding of the shape and rhythm of my life?  Do the people outside the window ever glance up and see my pale face pressed against the glass, caught in a supremely unordinary moment?

That, perhaps, is why train travel is so special, the way it so defies the mundane.  Unlike car travel which can be lengthened or shortened, sped up or slowed down at our will, trains are only ours for the time it takes to get from here to there, and no matter how much a part of me wanted to stay on the rails, another part itched for an endpoint, a destination, a disembarkation.  A final stop always marks the beginning of something new, whether I am climbing the platform stairs into Manhattan or stumbling into the bright warmth of the Chiang Mai train station.  Endpoints are what assure us that we are moving forward.  What All aboards and Last stops—milestones, celebrations, commencements, deaths—await both of us are beyond my speculation.  I only know that even now, there are real and metaphorical trains ahead, some of them already pulling into the station.

With love,

Aunt Shannon

1 comment:

dunlapfabfive said...

That was soooo sweet-- I got a good cry out of it! Thanks, it was something sweet like this that I needed after the absolute horrible week we have had here.