Paul Theroux is my train travel mentor. Tom Zoellner is my train hero. Nevertheless, when I head to Spain, Italy and beyond, I have no intention of attempting to travel in either of their footsteps, or according to their goals. If you chose to vicariously ride along with me, you’re going to be riding First Class. If First Class is full, we’re sticking around town an extra day until there’s a seat. I’ll ride Second Class when that’s all that’s available on a short haul, but that’s as déclassé as I’m getting. If you want to share a low-rent travel experience with me, just wait a bit until I check into the hotel.
While I embrace Theroux’s loathing for sightseeing, along with his minimalist goal of traveling by train so he can simply get to the next station and hop on another train, I won’t go the lengths he’s willing to go through simply to ride the rails. There are trains he rode in India and China for example, where the differences between his comfort and that of Jews riding the rails in 1940s Germany seemed indistinguishable. And Zoellner purposely booked the lowest class of car just to meet and interact the kinds of passengers who rode that way out of necessity. Theroux didn’t seem to mind if the train was a garbage dump on wheels, or so cold inside a Chinese train car that “spit had frozen on the floor into misshapen yellow-green medallions of ice.” Zoellner actively sought conversations with passengers whose lives were so forlorn they’d make a bad example for the worst of country songs.
I know it’s a legitimate character flaw, but I don’t even like conversing with interesting people living hugely successful lives. If Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Ernest Hemingway or Drew Brees sat down next to me on a train and didn’t want to talk to anybody, they’d have no problem with me. (Okay, the Drew Brees example is total BS.) And if I ever found spit frozen to the floor of my First Class carriage, there’d be a voucher for a First Class sleeper to Prague in my backpack before I’d leave that train! Harrumph!
It’s not that I’m bourgeois, although my brief experiences with European high-speed trains is rapidly turning me into one. It’s just that my objectives for train travel are quite basic, quite similar to those of smoking marijuana, in fact. I travel by train to get high. That’s why I don’t care where it’s going, or whether we get there on time. All I want to do is kick back, mellow out, look out the window and semi-hallucinate. So, a valid question would be why would anyone want to read what amounts to a personal account of a fake drug high?
Well, first of all, it’s a true high achieved without the use of real drugs. A natural high on life, if you will. There is no clackety-clack on Europe’s continuous rails thanks to something called, I think, thermite welding, but the steady, richly textured whir of a bullet train can still contribute to consciousness expansion. Like the reassuring repetitive quality of religious liturgy, a train trip can leave you with the same mystical experience, disembarking as if from a four-hour High Mass, and then exiting the cathedral of the Gare De Lyon. Yeah, that’s overwritten, but what else do you expect from someone who just toked up on a train?
So for me, I won’t be extending myself to experiences that will alter my default withering view of humanity; nor will I acquire much in the way of first-hand insights into how the other ninety-plus percent of humanity lives their lives. Nor will you learn much about the power configurations, locomotion or history of passenger rail traffic. There’s better train travelers afoot for those subjects. From me, you’ll get an occasional chuckle, scratch of the head and the very rare legitimate insight that will cause you to wonder why I couldn’t have come to that same conclusion sitting on a couch at home with a bag of Doritos perched on my stomach.