Sometimes after staying up all night, I head down to the train station to watch the first train of the day.
On this particular early-spring morning, the red-orange sun was just beginning to slice through the clouds to the East, sending twin golden flashes down the rails. It was brisk; my breath swirled in clouds of white vapor in front of my face as I pulled on the sweater’s drawstrings. I had the platform to myself, except for a silent man with steel-wool bristles for a beard and a hand-rolled cigarette; the cold kept most others inside.
What is it about the silence of a cold railway platform that is so cathartic?
A friend bemoaned the lack of sacred places in the United States to me one day.
“This isn’t like Europe, where there are grand cathedrals in every city and little chapels dotting the countryside everywhere you go. And it’s not like India, where the spiritual is tied into the everyday (even if the ‘spiritual journey’ thing gets sold to Westerners as a commodity). And it’s not like the Muslim world, where the call to worship breaks in on your life five times a day to remind you of the greater glory of Allah . . . no, David, we live in a country where nothing is holy and no place is sacred.”
“Do we?” I asked.
As day came, the platform started to fill.
A man stood on the platform, ukulele case slung around his neck, talking fast and earnest to an uncomfortable bystander about the importance of youth ministry. Next to them a young woman dug her iPhone out of her handbag for the umpteenth time, glancing at it and pursing her lips (clearly she had little experience with the elasticity of Amtrak scheduling).
A young family was a little further down the platform, juggling small restless children and excessive baggage. An older woman picked up their umbrella when it fell; with her she had a tiny pit bull mix wrapped in a pink doggie parka. “I get seizures sometimes,” she explained, “and Lucy has my medical information on her collar. I’ve beaten cancer four times now!”
This is Mark Twain’s America, where the holy men and hucksters are difficult to tell apart and most everyone has a story.
What do you see when you look down the tracks?
I see Chicago. I see Union Station, that great temple at the crossroads of a nation.
And from Chicago, I see possibilities. The Lake Shore Limited to New York City. The California Zephyr out to San Francisco. The City of New Orleans to the Big Easy. The Southwest Chief to Los Angeles . . .
You can take the Empire Builder to Seattle from Chicago, book a berth on a freighter, and be in Seoul a few weeks later. From Seoul, there’s a ferry to Vladivostok, the Eastern terminus of the trans-Siberian railroad. Eight days after boarding, you could step off the train in Moscow . . .
When I look down the tracks, I see possibilities.
There is an American mythology.
- 56 Men signing a document in July in Philadelphia
- “One if by land, two if by sea.”
- Lewis and Clark
- “Four score and seven years ago . . .”
- A fragile biplane at Kitty Hawk in 1903
- “Go West, young man!”
- The moon landings
- “I have a dream!”
This mythology tells us who we are . . . and what is sacred to us. And nothing is more sacred to us than “what might be possible.”
So when I stand on the railway platform with that motley, awkward cross-section of humanity that is America, I take a moment and reflect on the possibilities. And that’s what the platform is built for–it exists so that you can take a second, look down the tracks, and think about the possibilities. It exists for the momentary contemplation of the sacred.
What is it if not a shrine to the American mythology?