British author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Agreed. Movement is major, no matter how you accomplish it. And, lately, I’ve felt strangely compelled to do a bit more of my moving by rail. Not by air. Not by highway. Not by feet. Give me, instead, two simple, snaking parallel tracks of steel, wood and creosote, and an ample-bosomed parade of linked cars to shepherd me willy-nilly across its shiny, tempered back, ever onward toward the disappeared horizon.
Stevenson, a 19th century writer-cum-wanderer, shared my fascination with the railroad. As a young man, he once rode clear the way across the U.S. aboard a so-called “Emigrant Train,” the name given to the lumbering, coal-gobbling beasts that offered cheap, one-way fares to newly arrived foreigners short on connections and coin and ready for adventure.
The year was 1879, and the 28-year-old Stevenson qualified on all three counts. His parents disapproved heartily of the endeavor. He cared not a whit, for our Young Writer was thoroughly smitten. His 12-day railway dash took him through Jersey to Chicago, then across the Big, Empty Plains and onward to the stippled California shores, where an ailing lover named Fanny Osbourne awaited him. They’d met in Paris. She was older than he by a decade, and already married to boot, but that didn’t stop Stevenson from hopping a big-bellied boat across the Atlantic at her behest.
Stateside, he hopped aboard and settled in for the journey with pen in hand, dodging drunkards and tramps and foreign brats sniffing out the make of a brand new country while their tired parents rode in wait. On the way, he documented the life whipping past his railway carriage in a trans-national travelogue.
He wrote letters to friends:
“In America you eat better than anywhere else: fact. The food is heavenly. No man is any use until he has dared everything; I feel just now as if I had, and so might become a man. ‘If ye have faith like a grain of mustard seed.’ That is so true! just now I have faith as big as a cigar-case; I will not say die, and do not fear man nor fortune.”
He penned poems romanticizing the view from his railway carriage:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
He wrote about traveling by train in the jumbled company of raggedy foreigners fresh off the freighters: “There was a Babel of bewildered men, women, and children. The wretched little booking-office, and the baggage-room, which was not much larger, were crowded thick with emigrants, and were heavy and rank with the atmosphere of dripping clothes.”
He wrote about a strange calm that came over him as he sat atop the train roof, admiring the way the tracks snaked out before and behind him on in to infinity: “Peace of mind I enjoy with extreme serenity; I am doing right; I know no one will think so; and don’t care. My body, however, is all to whistles; I don’t eat; […] but, man, I can sleep.”
He wrote of America’s wild promise (“All times, races, and languages have brought their contribution”), and, after gazing upon the Native Americans and their plight, he also wrote of his adopted country’s ugly cruelty: “I was ashamed for the thing we call civilization.”
And, probably, too, all those long hours on the train, he dreamed of his Fanny, of the life they might have together, were circumstances to change. When he finally debarked from his train in San Francisco, he rushed to Monterey, where he found Fanny somewhat recovered, but still suffering the tapered pangs of nervous breakdown, the purported fallout from the unfaithfulness of her first husband.
Stevenson waited, and Fanny eventually left that no-good man and married her young globetrotter instead. They spent the remainder of their lives traveling the world together, by all accounts, happy as clams.
I, too, am buoyed by the prospect of movement. Backward, forward, westward. Any way you manage it, really, momentum is magical. I, too, like writing, which requires the fortitude to sit a spell. And where but inside the humble train car might the twixt ever meet? Truth told, as a writer, I do some of my best work on trains.
So how about this for a fantasy travel itinerary: tracing Stevenson’s forgotten route across the contiguous US with pen and paper, camera, and the sounding board of Stevenson’s trusty old travelogues in tow. That sounds like a fantastic voyage to me. Who’s in?