Train Ride and Good Advice
Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
260Trip End Ongoing
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My grandfather loved trains. My entire life, he had surrounded himself with them, and he came to represent them, and them him. I remember sitting in his living room on one of our last visits and listening to his wall clock, which still chimed the hours with train whistles. It seemed like the perfect time to ask him to once again tell me about working as a brakeman and conductor when trains were a primary means of tourism and transport, and when hordes of men still rode the rails by sleeping in boxcars. He knew actual hobos. Canned beans and handkerchief on a stick kind of guys
The idea of traveling for a living captivated me, and the train in particular was analogous to exploration. So it’s fitting that while I don’t remember the last thing he said to me, I recall exactly the last piece of advice he ever gave me. And it was better and more versatile than he could have possibly imagined, because I haven’t been on a journey since that I didn’t consider it.
His advice came as a single line in a Christmas card just before I left for Peru, 6 months before he died. He mentioned my trip to South America and said, "If you’re wondering if you should do something, just ask yourself if I would enjoy it – if the answer is yes, then your answer is yes."
This might seem limiting, considering he was 93 at the time and, in stark contrast to me, had been a responsible family man almost all of his life
So his advice has carried me from place to place since then, always reminding me that I should do something exceptional while the opportunity is there. He went to work every day and raised 3 kids – a life he loved. But at the same time I know my limited responsibilities often mean unlimited opportunities. As a result, I have a responsibility to take advantage of that.
In this case, we were in Indonesia, and there was a train that ran once a week from outside of Bukittinggi to an old coal-mining town a few hours away. We read that the views were spectacular, but so were most of the views we had been enjoying. At the end of a trip, we often start doing more lounging and reading than wandering and exploring. Traveling for two months or two years instead of two weeks demands a certain physical, mental and emotional endurance that isn’t always easy to come by.
Still, there is no better example of something that my grandfather would have loved: a train ride along crater lakes and through lush mountain jungles just miles from the equator. It was clear the answer was yes, so my answer was yes.
We woke up before dawn to ride a motorbike to a small town to catch the train. It’s amazing how often the best journeys start just like that. Finding the train station wasn’t easy. We knew very few people did this trip anymore, and the strange stares we received along the way confirmed that foreign tourists didn’t venture this way often. But we eventually found the station and the train, and we had it all to ourselves.
There was not a single other passenger on the 3-car train, so we got to jump from seat to seat to get the best views on both sides, and we even convinced the ticket guy to leave the train doors open so we could have an unimpeded panoramic view of the Indonesian countryside. So I sat on the steps at the door of the train as we crossed over rivers and canyons and through rice paddies and villages. I was 10,000 miles from where my grandfather spent most of his life, and 5 years removed from the last time I saw him, but I felt as close to him as I ever had
So I’ve gone to places that are hard to get to, because I think he would have enjoyed seeing them. I’ve taken long train rides instead of short flights. I’ve hiked to the top of mountains just to get a glimpse of a view he never got to see, but that I know he would have wanted to. And most importantly, on days when I’ve been on the road too long, and I’m feeling uninspired and unambitious, I consider his counsel once again, and I force myself to jump on a motorbike to see dawn some place far from home. I am always rewarded by exceptional moments that I would have missed if not for a single piece of advice from one extraordinary man.