I saw it the other day. Usually I just hear the deep bellows from my bed, where I’m trying desperately to fall asleep. Trying is always the wrong way to fall asleep – it just needs to happen. Ideally, sleep comes to you – heavy eyelids and deep breathing descend suddenly, and you’re gone. I try, though, and that’s why I fail – I think too much and then I try too hard… if I fall asleep in the next 15 minutes, I can get a solid 7 hours…. wow, I’m really not sleepy… I can’t get comfortable… why can’t I sleep? Stop thinking, stop moving, stop reciting tomorrow’s schedule in your head… workout, chapel, class, meeting with professor… oh shoot I’m doing it again. That’s when it usually comes, interrupting this insomniatic mental flow: the train whistle.
I’ve come to love and hate the trains in Holland. I hate them because they keep me up at night when the window’s open. And it always is. I hate that passing through our medium-sized town, past campus, onwards to Chicago or Grand Rapids or wherever it’s going, necessitates upwards of 15 whistles. I hate the infrequency of their coming when I lay in bed, listening, startled by an unexpected one, waiting alert for the next whistle. If I’m counting sheep, the trains run them over brutally. My poor sheep.
I love the trains because they take me places. I love them because they are urban. Fast. Quiet from the inside. I love the leg room. I love the two levels, the tiny bathroom that reminds me of an airplane bathroom, the rack for luggage and the footrest. I love the wide windows through which I can spy on Michigan residents in their backyards and on their main streets. I love how invasive the train is, cutting through places without apology, and yet how trustworthy it is – it will never spill its secrets. It keeps going, never stops to ask questions. It always reaches its destination.
It’s funny to me that when you’re not on the train, it’s a disruption. When you’re on the train, it’s an adventure.
When I saw the train, I was walking back from working out late at night. Out of nowhere, dirty steel hurtled past close enough for me to see the bolts and the latches on the doors. Rather than hear it from bed, I watched it from the sidewalk. Its whistles had a sort of paralyzing effect on my body – I stopped, watched wide-mouthed, grounded in place by the roar. Then I saw the end, like a silver slinky being dragged away into the night. And then the train had passed.
John Mayer, who I pick on my iPod almost every day, sings about trains: Stop this train, I want to get off and go home again, can’t take the speed it’s moving in… won’t someone stop this train?
Mat Kearney sings about being a trainwreck for you. Kelly Clarkson Just Missed the Train. There’s a band called Train (not surprisingly, when you google the word “train,” they are the first result. The Amtrak site is second).
And you can’t forget Christmas train sets around the tree, little boys with their Thomas the Tank Engines, the Broadway Pizza logo.
Somehow I don’t think I’m alone in my fascination and frustration with trains, these strange, exhilarating things.