Several weeks ago I was doing exactly this – following the yellow-marked trail a couple miles through soggy terrain when, around one bend, the trail happened upon a new, unmarked path to the left. After walking a short distance in this direction I noticed a clearing a couple hundred feet through the woods. Weaving through trees and brush I reached the open space and discovered a healthy stretch of railroad laying several miles in either direction. Even though the tracks could hardly count as secluded - you could easily see an overpass with decent traffic flow a mile or two down the straightaway - I thought my little discovery was pretty cool. But what I thought would be really cool, however, would be to watch a train ride by up close from where the woods met the clearing.
I crouched for 20 or 30 minutes but nothing came. Turning back, I decided to return in a few days and stake out a spot where I could patiently wait for a train to chug by me in the woods. In my mind, I figured this would be a neat - though admittedly romanticized - little event. It was hard not to imagine the simple amusement of hearing a low whistle in the distance as it crescendos to a blaring locomotive exploding through the quiet woods. Who wouldn’t be mesmerized by a powerful freight train speeding by just fast enough to make counting the sixty or seventy boxcars impossible? Or by the rainbow blur of graffiti screeching alongside the rusty, battered cars? With no one around, wouldn’t it be cool to imagine that, if the train was going slow enough, you could hop on up and insert yourself into a sort of Mark Twain adventure?
I thought so, at least, and a week later I set out over scattered patches of snow to arrive at the same spot looking out on the tracks. The scene was set – heightened by the sense that I was off the marked trail and possibly in violation of some vague trespassing ordinance - and I was ready to patiently wait all day for my train to pass if necessary. Heck, the longer the wait the more rewarding the payoff, right? Well, not even ten minutes passed before I heard a whistle and saw a white light off in the distance moving east-to-west. Then, not 30 seconds later, the train was barreling by. And then, just five seconds later, it was past me and gone. So much for trying to count hundreds of cars or read the graffiti or imagine all the places it might be headed or what cargo it’s taking there.
For the record, I was able to do all that but the result was pretty underwhelming: There was a whopping total of four cars, the graffiti was a neatly stenciled Amtrak logo, the cargo was probably a few dozen business suits passing through Albany and it was gone quicker than it got here. Talk about a letdown. I didn’t even get the chance to stake it out all afternoon! Plus, I was reminded how much I hate that terrible whooshing feeling you get while waiting at the subway station as the train zooms in. And I’m damn sure that Huck Finn never hopped an Amtrak. Where’s the poetry in all that?
And so, fast-forward a month and a half. I guess my biggest concern as I get ready to embark on the next two years is what if it can’t live up to the scene I’ve set in my mind? What if my imagination is so revved up that reality has no choice but to be underwhelming? If over the course of one week I can overhype an ordinary railroad track in the middle of nowhere then it’s scary what sorts of damage my mind can do leading up to a foreign experience complete with a new country, job, people, and opportunities.
I have made it a point to temper my expectations as best I can about where I will be going and what projects I will be working on and everyone that I will be meeting. To be honest, that hasn’t been as horribly difficult as you might believe. What I’ve been unable to do, however, is avoid imagining how incredible the experience as a whole might be. It’s been close to six months since I’ve known that my destination is Paraguay and that boils down to a lot of time inside my own head. I cannot wait for the moment next week when I get to erase my notion of what this experience ought to be like and replace it with what it actually is.