“Final destination: New York!” A waving conductor yelped from the Lakeshore Limited in Chicago’s Union Station, head poking out from a small window. I quickly swapped big hugs and high fives with the band. Passengers on the platform were swarming around and past us like rapids colliding with river rocks. We hoped it wasn’t goodbye, but it probably was. I boarded and the quiet was sudden.
Reserved / Reserved / Reserved / Reserved
Row after row, small hand-written signs hung from headrests—Reserved. But there was no reserved seating on the train. Had I missed something? Folks around me looked confused, too. I slid into an open seat anyway, and waited to get the boot.
An elderly woman approached me biting the edge of her index finger, cautious eyes and head on a swivel.
“Sorry to bother, but do you know if this train stops in New York Penn Station?”
“It does,” I attested.
“Phew, okay, do you know if I can sit here?”
“I don’t even know if I can sit here," I confessed. "But seats are typically first come, first served.”
“Do you mind if I sit next to you?”
“Of course not.”
“Do you know where we put our bags?”
“Our bags, do they go under the train?” She added.
I smiled and pointed to the storage overhead at her eye-level, offering a hand.
“I’m sorry, this is my first train,” she admitted, hoisting her own duffel.
To be sure, this was Beth’s first train, not just her first Amtrak. She was straddling her seventies and never left Wisconsin. Never drove out of state, never touched the skies. Born, grew up, married, had kids, grandkids, and remained—an uncomplicated existence. She works in a hospital and carries a bible.
Every year, Beth’s friends plan a weekend in the Big Apple, a Times Square hotel, dinner and a show. But year after year, she declines the invitation. Whatever she has to traverse logistically, traverse in herself, she has refused fervently with the weight of an abiding fear. But with retirement on the horizon and her husband already in New York on business, she mustered the courage and got on the train.
I imagined the Sightseer through Beth’s eyes. Whom she might meet, how she might feel. That sliding door whooshing open for the first time, knocked out by a bucolic and human aquarium. But I lapped the Lakeshore Limited to no avail—Amtrak had pulled it for service during the pandemic.
There is a beautiful Welsh word of Celtic origin, hiraeth: A nostalgic longing for something never had.
For some twenty hours ahead, save for mediocre shut-eye, our abutting seats were something of a shared confessional. "Oh, dear..." she'd say uneasily. "Oh, dear." A response to my tales of death and adventure. It's the questions that drive us, and questions beget questions that shape an examined life. But the very act of questioning anything, Beth declared explicitly, was something she had never done. Her life, a script, acted out with precision.
Her proclamation I took to be insurance against what she learned of her seatmate, migrant and contrarian as he was. But maybe, too, a part of her was raising a hand, hungry for perspective. And so I treaded lightly—one must be benign to press God with a devout Christian.
To my surprise, she was enthralled by new ideas, but in a mien that suggested she seldom confronted any, like a toddler’s first ice cream cone on a really good day.
There was an intermission of silence and I looked out the window, a rolling vista of the Great Lakes. “I’m going for a coffee,” I said. “Can I get you one?” Sounds nice, she added, and thanked me.
When I returned from the café car and sat down, she was looking at her phone, eyeglasses at the bridge of her nose. I saw her texting a friend and couldn’t look away.
I met a very interesting young man on the train. Did I make the mistake of never leaving home? Have I done this all wrong?
I let out a gentle sigh and looked back out the window, divining what feelings an immutable regret might give rise to. But Beth’s story also gave me a disorienting pause, whispering the mystery and paradox of an examined life. By default, she had family, friendship, belonging, faith, fulfillment, stillness, nature and love—and I recalled to myself, do sweeter fruits exist? She had never known the long and lonely road.
As the Lakeshore Limited hustled south down the Hudson Valley, Beth contemplated the bright chaos of New York City—would it be intoxicating, world expanding? Would she find a taxi?
I gazed out onto the Hudson River bleached with golden hour sunlight, the familiar topography of my home state. This cross-country journey was coming to an end, but it felt like we could roll on forever, pulled apart from California horizon by horizon.
A few days later, I heard from Beth on her way back to Chicago. A lovely weekend she had, experienced a totally new side of herself. She missed her family, but had never felt this alive. Something deep had shifted and I wondered where she'd go next.
“You know,” Beth said curiously, “I’ve always wanted to see San Francisco.”
“Well," I replied, "the train runs daily from Union Station. Just keep heading west with questions in the back of your soul.”