Travel

Below is an excerpt from the travel essay I wrote for Paul Heilker. It was written as a series of “postcards” from trains and their destinations and was intended to demonstrate how the physical act of travelling can induce a kind of mental travel as well.

Departures

18 January      Chiasso-Riva San Vitale          SBB CFF FFS

My first Swiss train is quiet. It whispers over the tracks as we bend through the leaf-strewn hills and bare branched trees of southern Ticino. The sun here is different. The mountains have stolen some of its warmth and left behind a hard, brilliant intensity. It flashes through the wide train windows and moves across the floor in bars of light like a door opening and closing. It flickers through the branches of the trees that close around us in a fragile basket. I am weaving myself through them, a strip of red-tinted bark building a nest from bits of memory and impression.

The trees thin. Behind a steaming power plant there is an old wooden barn, a tattered flag flying, a wire fence, and a dusty horse picking at the winter grass. Someone has lit a fire in the house on the hill behind the barn; smoke is rising from the stone chimney. I imagine an old man in a stained canvas coat and a woolen hat pulled over his ears to hide the last patch of fading hair that he sometime combs in the morning. He has strong opinions about politics and, specifically, the power plant, which was built without his permission and blocks the view of the mountain from his bedroom window. He likes watching people but hates speaking to them, and most have stopped trying to conduct business with him in town with any more than ten words, two of which are buongiorno and grazie, and the latter he never hears because he is out the door too quickly. He is despised and respected, and when he was a young man he was perhaps admired, though that was when he had a wife to translate him for the world and the world for him. The horse in the field was hers, and never liked him quite as much, though it has stopped trying to bite him as he passes through the barn and will, occasionally, accept a bit of apple from his hand. Perhaps it says something about him that he counts this as a significant victory.

This morning, before the sun appeared over the mountains, he woke up, shrugged his coat over his flannel pajamas, and stomped out over the crisp grass to defrost the water buckets and throw down some hay from the loft. He noticed how long it took to climb the ladder and how thickly his heart was beating in his ears, so he sat for a moment on the edge of the trap door and looked at the small picture of the world framed by the crooked window in the opposite wall. The sky was lightening and the quiet rumble of the first train echoed against the trees and the metal siding of the power plant and he watched as it rounded the bend and disappeared, carrying somebody somewhere else.

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