This is the third and final post in a series of stories from a special guest author — one of last year’s #TalesOnRail Artists in Residence, Jack Callahan! Jack is a writer and photographer living on the coast of Maine in the US.
The wheels of your suitcase click clack over the station door’s threshold. Pigeon wings flap overhead. Tendrils of street sounds waft in behind you as you enter, and the scent of tobacco and fresh bread swirls. Shoe heels and high heels and boot heels echo to and fro. Train whistles blast. People stroll leisurely with the paper under their arm; others rush around, past, and through them. Announcements happen rapidly in a language you only sort of understand. Behind you, streams of people pour endlessly through revolving doors. From the mass of echoing footsteps, they peel off periodically and rearrange into rivulets that exit the station, only to be replaced by others streaming in as the turnstile spun. Beyond them, trains come and go like pistons while the arrival and departure signs blink and flicker like silent conductors, controlling the whole process. You’re in the Gare du Nord in Paris.
Last fall, I found myself on the inaugural #TalesonRail trip with Rail Europe, setting out to explore France and Switzerland. I had ridden trains before. I had ridden trains in Europe before. But I’d never done something like this. We had 1 week, 2 countries, 3 languages, 4 cities, and countless stops and transfers ahead of us. Waiting for our first train out of Paris to Avignon, the station felt like our itinerary come to life: people running in every direction, shouting to be heard, dragging heavy bags, tired but exhilarated. I was anxious to get underway, to get to my seat on the train and get moving, because trains have a unique power over me. You’re moving, but you’re not expected to do anything. Every seat comes with a window, and there’s no seat belt sign. There’s a bar, and the cell phone reception is never as good as you’re expecting. There’s time to read and time to write, and whenever you’re ready there’s the train ready to lull you to sleep. In other words, I find it utterly impossible to be anything but totally relaxed on a train. The French and Swiss countryside out the windows would just be a bonus.
While I’m prone to falling asleep, the thing I like to do most on a train is simply stare out the window. The train takes you past incredible sights, from city skylines to isolated mountain lakes. The landscape changes suddenly, and even the boring parts are gone too soon. You’re afforded glimpses into daily life of random people with absolutely no context: I saw a man getting his head shaved behind a factory loading dock, I saw donkeys in scrubby pastures, and I saw deer on wild hillsides. In Switzerland, we whipped by convenience stores and the most domineering cliffs I’ve ever seen. In France, we flew through endless vineyards and impenetrable fog. It was in this fog, in the farmlands north of Lyon, that I saw one of the sights that stuck with me most from this trip.
The TGV travels at 300km/h from Paris to Marseille, and north of Lyon is a flat stretch of farmland where the train hits its top speed. The track runs atop a berm between the fields so that passengers survey their surroundings, ever so slightly, from above. It’s a disorienting feeling, not a point of view I was used to, and provided a sense of flight. As our train passed through these fields, the fog was so thick we may as well have been traveling at night; there was nothing to see. There was nothing to see, that is, until something would materialize out of the fog. At 300km/h, you can’t blink and miss a house before it disappears back into the fog, but it’s close. And so I was lucky when, all of a sudden, a squat, grey stone farmhouse appeared out of the haze and slid by me. A scene out of space and time, a little boy stood in the yard surrounded by dark green grass, a clothesline nearby and an old car parked next to a garage, dilapidated agriculture accoutrements pouring out of it. Everything else was pure white empty space. In the split second I saw it, it looked like a photograph. Ever since it’s seemed like youthful imagination embodied.
Another moment that lodged itself firmly in my memory and has since colonized my imagination was coming into the valley at Brienz, in Switzerland near Interlaken. The train empties out of a narrow mountain pass into a massive valley. Cliffs and mountains stack up nearly vertical on both sides while the valley floor, a lush meadow nearly a mile wide dotted with chalets and pastures. More ornate estates clung to the mountainside as we approached the edge of a lake. It was as if I’d fallen asleep and awoken in the pastoral summer getaway of every fantasy character you’d ever read about, from Gandolf to Jon Snow, Hagrid to Mr. Tumnus. We passed up the edge of the lake, Brienzersee, quickly, but part of my imagination stayed behind to live out the castle-storming, cavalry-charging, maiden-saving storylines that such a location evokes.
As long as I can remember, it’s been the otherworldly places I’ve felt drawn to. As a kid, it drew me out into the woods and orchards of New Hampshire, down canopied streams and to the edges of beaver ponds and into fields dimpled with deer beds. As I’ve grown up, it’s taken me to parts of the world I never expected. But I’m not an adrenaline junkie, I don’t particularly like to be in discomfort, I get nervous easily. I’m not after the explorer’s jolt of danger or uncertainty; these places, in and of themselves, do nothing for me. The simply give me the right combination of raw material and empty space to let my imagination run wild. The train, then, provides a constant stream of these spaces, this imaginative whitespace. Just as I think I’ve filled one up, the train comes around a bend, or up to a station, or through a mountain pass, and the story changes. New details, new characters, new material is presented and I have to reimagine things. From the comfort of my seat, I’m presented with an endless flow of imaginative nourishment. With my notebook at the ready, what more could I need?
Want to join us on a free trip to Europe for our 2nd annual #TalesOnRail trip? Details on how to win a spot here.