The Train as Merkava

It was two days before Thanksgiving. One of my coworkers had sent out an email late the night before asking if we all wanted to cowork in Seattle the next day. We’re almost never all in the same city, so sitting in the same room for a few hours would be good. I sent a reply back that I couldn’t. I was still in Chicago and wouldn’t be in Seattle until Friday. I was hopping on the Empire Builder train at 2:15 on Wednesday afternoon. The next day as I was heading to a meeting right near the train station I got a call from my other coworker.

“Your going to be all alone on the train for Thanksgiving? I thought you bought a plane ticket… you know, we can buy you a plane ticket. You should be with family! Or us!”

I really do have just about the best job in the world. It’s great to work with people who care that much about you, but I explained to her that I’d bought the train ticket on purpose. I was going to get to spend a lovely Thanksgiving day staring out the window and pretty views! Of snow! (One of my favorite things.) Of America! (A fairly remarkable place.) Views! She knows I’m a bit strange, so she accepted my explanation and wished me a happy Thanksgiving. We’d cowork on Friday when I get in to Seattle.

What I didn’t explain to my coworker is the layered reasons that I love to travel by train. There’s the environmental reason, the fascinating and often beautiful views, and then there’s the journey itself: The Quest.

I do travel an awful lot, and some of that travel is by force in a plane. I often wonder how long we as a society will be able to keep that up, but while the planes are still in the air, I still go back and forth across the Atlantic in less than a day. That travel is far more enviornmentally expensive than the dollar cost would suggest, however, and I don’t take flying lightly. If I have a surface option that doesn’t take too long or cost too much, I’ll always take it.

Traveling by bus or train is more interesting, anyway. It may be longer, but as long as there is daylight outside, you can see the land you pass by. There are people to see, interesting buildings, animals both wild and domestic, and plants. Even in the rough deserts there are plants, and it is interesting to see what thrives in each distinct environment along the route.

Every journey can be a Quest. Maybe every journey is a Quest, and we just move through most of them obvlivious. But for me, the journey by land presents a special opportunity to delve deep into spiritual space. I sit staring out the window, allowing my mind to jump from one thought to the next, connecting the things I see to whatever thoughts they bring to my mind. Sometimes I just sit with the connections on their own. Other times I find myself exploring the meta level, trying to figure out why these things are connected and what it means.

On this journey I’ve determined to spend as much of the daylight hours staring out the window as possible, and as much of the night time hours as I can reading and journaling. I’m reading The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harron Buhner. The ideas in it are coloring my daytime meditations and the dreams that slip into the snippets of sleep I get sitting in this coach seat. As I stare out the window I try to turn off the wordy part of my consciousness to allow my consciousness to move down into my heart. Altering your patterns of cognition takes a lot of practice, and hours of train travel is as good a time as any to get that practice in.a picture taken from the Empire Builder train

As economy land travel goes, a coach seat on the Empire Builder is pretty comfortable, but what discomfort there is I use. Many shamanic states are reached through the conscious use of discomfort, and allowing myself to not only accept the limitations of travel but to embrace them transforms the experience entirely. On some train trips I have fallen asleep easily in these chairs, but this trip has been different. It’s difficult to get more than an hour of sleep in a single stretch this time. So I use that. I allow myself to stay awake until I fall asleep and then sleep until I am awake again, without any concern for the clock. I know, without even analyzing it, that this is precisely what I need right now.

About Sterling

When Sterling was 3 years old, her parents packed everything they owned into storage, put a roof rack on their ‘66 VW Bug and spent three months driving with her across the US and Canada. She’s been a nomad ever since. She’s lived in El Salvador, Guatemala, Canada, England, Scotland, Israel and several states in the US. Every place is a new spirit to get acquainted with, fall in love with, or struggle with. Her path within Druidry is a spiritual dance of learning the relationships of all the people, human and otherwise, in the context of place.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    “Altering your patterns of cognition takes a lot of practice, and hours
    of train travel is as good a time as any to get that practice in.”
    I
    Very, very true! I chose to take 14 hours from Strasbourg to Berlin on inter-city trains rather than the 4 hours by direct trains in order to have time to think and contemplate. The experience ended up being so much more than I’d even been hoping for.

    Also, I’ve fantastic memories of the Empire Builder (despite it’s horrible, colonialist name) between Chicago and Seattle. Your story of going to Seattle on that train floods back a myriad of warm memories.

    Do you find that traveling is a kind of threshold? There are all sorts of magics which require the use of thresholds and crosswalks, that state between one place and the next, one self and the next. For some reason, too, the experience of being on a train feels more conducive to it than any other method of travel, perhaps because rails are their own sort of pathway, not shared by cars and buses.

  • http://moon-in-libra.blogspot.com/ Jean Murphy

    A few weeks ago, I made the four hour drive to Monument Valley. I lost track of how many different, beautiful ecosystems I rapidly passed through. What struck me most was my inability to connect with and appreciate each area while inside a car, moving at the speed limit, and paying some attention to the road and traffic. Walking would have allowed me gradually enter and experience the different landscapes. During the last hours of the drive, when the land became (briefly) less “ambitious,” I finally began to connect, but only when I stopped the car and opened the window to pay the park fee, did I really feel as if I was “in” a place.

    Trains and buses are the next best thing to walking. (And quite a bit warmer.) I am particularly fond of Egged buses because they gave me the chance to meet and talk to people.


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