Between the train tracks by the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, a yellow line on the platform marks where you should stand behind. Less than a step away another yellow line marks where you should stand behind if a train approaches the other side of the platform. To get to the platform you have to walk across a first set of tracks but there is a place to do this a little to one side of the gate that caps the path from the hotel. The woman at the hotel desk said that to board the train headed west through Flagstaff and across the desert towards L.A., you had to cross that first set of tracks to reach the narrow platform. She hadn’t said anything about when was best to do this, so three of us who were keen went out and stood there. I took my suitcase to board the train. The others were there to see me off. Having had a kind of nervous breakdown, I was fleeing at the end of the first day from a writers’ residency I had organized, leaving them all behind to get to know each other and make themselves raw and vulnerable together so as to make breakthroughs in the difficult and painful process of writing.
The rest of the writers lined the wide platform, safely at the edge of the railway tracks, that had been attractively paved in recent times in the course of renovations to the hotel, the masterpiece of the great architect Mary Coulter and once the jewel in the crown of the Fred Harvey Company, pioneers of American railroad tourism. Not the narrow platform we were standing on, carefully adjusting ourselves within the yellow lines.
Everyone was in a festive mood, after dinner and a few drinks. There was a general skittish nervousness among the group, partly because I was abruptly leaving with what already seemed like a thin excuse, partly because the town on the edge of which the hotel sat was clearly full of ghosts and sadness, partly because of the altitude in the high desert, and partly because of the trains.
By the time we realized that a train was coming, a freight train, in the wrong direction, the die was cast. To flee across the tracks would be undignified; it might be dangerous. Weren’t we between the yellow lines?
Helene Cixous says that dreams teach writers “not to be afraid of not being the driver, since it is frightening, when we write, to find ourselves riding a crazy book. The book writes itself, and if by chance the person opposite should ask you about what you are writing, you have nothing to say since you don’t know. Yet the book is written only if it has an engine. A book that writes itself and carries you on board must have an engine even if you don’t know how it works, otherwise it will break down.”
When I wrote a nonfiction book some time ago about my mysteriously absent father, the only time he flew off, in the book, into a series of scenes that were wholly and blissfully invented, he was aboard a train, travelling across the vast Nullarbor Plain on the world’s longest stretch of tracks without a curve, away from his and my childhood home, Perth, Western Australia. The Nullarbor Plain is notoriously flat, but actually it’s potholed like honeycomb with limestone caves from the distant time of oceans. Part of me wanted that train he was on to keep going and going, farther and fa(r)ther into fiction. Instead he reached the other side of Australia ready to start training for his new career as a naval seaman, a short career that would end violently in his suicide. After arriving in Melbourne, my father-in-the-book hopped across the steppingstones of documentary evidence and hearsay I laid out for him, making a succession of small leaps between them. Only on the train, in the desert, did unashamedly fictional characters appear and speak, and incidents occur that seemed to be free of history.
Now, looking back at where I came from, Perth, I believe we carried a collective sickness of radical displacement. The people of the Aboriginal First Nations were radically displaced, although they resisted and continue to resist. We Europeans were both displacers and displaced. We called ourselves settlers — as if settling was the gentlest possible of actions, like a butterfly alighting on a leaf, or a starling on a branch beside a village oval where people would soon be playing cricket. Understandably, but tragically, we wanted to make everything just like home. That was never going to work. We wanted to plant English gardens, orchards and hedges; to see smoke rising from stone chimneys and lamb served on China plates.
The Swan River Colony was established in 1829, just one year before the first passenger train in history traveled from Manchester to Liverpool. The railway, as much as any other invention, became the motor for radical displacement. In Western Australia, like other communities struggling to be modern, the sickness of displacement was mistaken for the cure. Before long they were building railways everywhere they could. This was the way to open up the land, it was said, as if describing cutting into the earth’s flesh with a scalpel, following lines inscribed by an engineer on a lamplit map. Both these actions—the mapmaking and the cutting of the tracks—require a Godlike, drone-like, Google Earth view.
Any point on the map is small; the mapmaker is huge. The earth itself is small (even the vastness of Western Australia can be made small); the engineer flies above it in his mind. A beautiful Railway Map of Western Australia published in 1938 reveals just how much the settlers had accomplished; how far they’d travelled, you might say. The southwest corner of the state looks like it has an iron ribcage, as arc after arc of track extends across the area the settlers named, prosaically, the Wheat Belt. This was a time when hope sprang eternal and at the end of every line a heroic, enterprising future was envisaged. But less than a hundred years later almost all of those train lines have been abandoned, in many places the countryside stripped of vegetation and topsoil, the settlers long since unsettled and moved on. Ghosts ride the lines. How did it all happen so fast?
My father was born along one of those ghostly Wheat Belt train lines. His father had bought into the short-lived dream of taking up land. It sounds like taking up a hem, and it worked in much the same way on a bigger scale: basically, you unpick what’s there and run a machine across it. Until the land would not be taken up, refused to yield, quite literally: the crops failed, the rabbits teemed, the bank foreclosed and the family woke up, as they saw it, in the middle of nowhere. Or, as they couldn’t or wouldn’t see it, out near the ancient borders of Wiilman and Nyaki Nyaki lands.
In the carriage of a train you never think about the engine. In the carriage of a train, the world outside will speed up or slow down but there will always be scenery of one sort or another, except at night or in a tunnel, those pauses, long or short, when scenery is suspended and, waiting for the world to light up again, you stare at the reflections of people you don’t know.
The train that night in Winslow looked to be at least two stories high, perhaps two stories with an attic in which a driver perched, at the window, in the dark, invisible. It was like a solid metal wall advancing at an unknown speed. This wasn’t a train that stopped here at this station. It was one of the long-haul freight expresses, each one a mile long and every car down the length of it stacked double-height with shipping containers, that came along the Santa Fe line from L.A. to Chicago and vice versa every 15 minutes, day and night.
“I had to learn the syntax of the trains in that town,” said one of the writers later. “I tried to outrun a train each morning, to reach the end of my run before the next train could overtake me. Could never do it.”
This was a railway town and now it is a dying railway town.
The train hit us but of course it didn’t hit us—only the air it was pushing out of its path hit us and slapped us sideways. For a moment it felt like the air, which was now swirling violently between the three of us and my suitcase, might with some equal and opposite force suck us back towards the train and under.
Trying to stand still on the narrow platform, huddled between the yellow lines, it felt like we were strapped into a wild fairground ride, as this massive heavy metal object thundered by. We screamed with the thrill of it, dwarfed in the shadow of the passing cataclysm, sheer walls of black sheet metal like giant frames passing through a film projector, each one spaced with a flash of the illuminated night.
At the grand opening in 1830 of the world’s first passenger train line from Liverpool to Manchester, the locomotive called Rocket that now takes pride of place in London’s Science Museum as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution struck a prominent politician in the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington’s official traveling party, its steel wheels running over the thighs of Mr William Huskisson and crushing him to death. Rocket, a successful prototype designed by George Stephenson, described by the writer, actor, and railway enthusiast Fanny Kemble as “this snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat,” was fatally, as it turned out, unequipped with brakes. Some things are too easy to believe and other things too hard. Charles Dickens was also in a train crash in 1865, plunging off a bridge. Physically uninjured, he thought he had escaped unharmed so tried to help his fellow passengers. But later he lost his voice for a fortnight, and his body succumbed to a disturbing, automatic movement he called “the shake.”
Railway accidents were like no previous disaster. Shipwrecks, for instance, were anticipated by storms, fog and darkness, or by drunkenness on the bridge, but a railway accident could take place with no regard to the weather, the skill, wisdom, or sobriety of the driver. All it might take would be a signaling error, a mechanical fault, or a construction flaw. At any time, suddenly, you could be subject to this shocking impact that would happen too fast for the experience to be absorbed. Doctors in the 1860, called this new phenomenon “railway spine.” Later the same symptoms would reappear as shellshock but for now the doctors call them post-traumatic stress disorder, and from trauma has come triggering. Ever since the first train, you might say, we have been in shock.
The other day when I took my son to the local swimming pool near where we live in Brunswick, a few kilometres north of Melbourne’s central business district, a train was there, where it shouldn’t be: blocking the road and very still. An ambulance was driving away, but slowly, sadly, as if this was the exact opposite of a life and death emergency. I didn’t say much out loud to my son, because all the time I was thinking of the stories I had heard about how common it is for people to walk in front of trains. All I could think of was the S word and that even now, after all, it still feels like a word not to be spoken aloud with sons. The police motioned to us not to park where we normally park, by the tracks. If we had parked where we normally park we would have been looking straight out at the two flimsy white cloths pinned up to hide from view something that was under the train. Under the middle of the train, nowhere near the front or back. The crushed remains of a body, I imagine. Imagine having to see that, having to clean that up. Imagine having to drive into such a body because it is impossible to stop and your train is so heavy and carries such momentum. Imagine that person making eye contact with you just before you hit them. The human body like a matchstick fired with blood. I want to see what is behind the makeshift curtain of the white cloths but, even more, I don’t want to. The train by the pool stayed so very still. Almost as if ashamed of what it had done.
The train that night in Winslow went on and on as if it would never end, and the thrill of that proximity to so much energy, the deafening noise, the shaking of the ground, the maelstrom of the air, the rhythmic blackening of half the sky—it felt as if we would never tire of it. Halfway through I stepped back across the track so that I could look back at the others, dwarfed and rocking on the spot, hair streaming in the air like wild goddesses on Roman coins. Eyes on sticks, laughing.
This was just the 9 p.m. stack train to Chicago, nothing special. The guy in the attic window radioed the local station switchboard. Some idiots on the platform trying to get themselves killed. The headlights of a car appeared in the distance on the wide platform, as soon as the train itself had passed. Two security guys got out and looked at this bunch of giggling, middle-aged out-of-towners. We know, we’re sorry, we just thought, because the woman said, but clearly, we won’t, we promise, yes. Writers, a lot of cardigans and scarves. Do you get a lot of people doing silly things? We get a few. Getting back in their car to fill in some paperwork if they have to. Could have been a whole lot worse. Could have ruined the whole night in Winslow, Arizona. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
Header photo by lambda86, courtesy Pixabay.