On Trains. On Theroux.
I’m giving you a parallel post today: a photoblog with captions describing the differences between this Viewliner train and the Superliners I usually ride to the west coast; and a text discussion of the merits of Paul Theroux, travel writer and train connoisseur.
Consider this a “you pick” story. If you don’t have time or aren’t interested in Theroux, you can just view the train photos and read the captions and you have the day’s post. If you do have time or are more interested in the discussion about a famous travel writer, read the text.
Some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet are only riding the rails, and each time I fly, I’m a little sad to imagine the conversations I’m missing 30,000 feet below. I would like to tell you I’m stereotyping, but if you meet a seasoned train rider, ask her to tell you about just one person she’s met during her travels and I’ll bet you get stories of dozens. There are exceptions, of course, but generally people on a train feel a connection to one another, if only through our mutual love of riding the rails. Of course there is also the time factor. In a sightseer lounge, or in a dining car over breakfast, lunch and dinner, it often becomes a strange version of speed dating, and we find ourselves paring down our lives to compelling bursts of information, until we strike a common chord.
On the Capital Limited I met a cellist who recently created a new type of rosin for string instruments, and on this train, the Lake Short Limited, I met a string instrument player who mastered the Nyckelharpa. (I’ll tell you all about both of them in a future post.)
But I wanted to tell you about another happy surprise for me, especially since I’m riding this train to a writing conference, where I’m eager to go to panels over which some of my favorite authors will preside.
You may or may not remember about my love/hate relationship with Paul Theroux. He is often considered arrogant or snobbish. I say love/hate, because despite that cynicism bleeding onto the page, there are so many times I agree with his words, and I love to read about the places he has been, despite the approach. And maybe even (sometimes) because of it.
I’ve not ridden this train (Lake Short Limited) before, and despite being exhausted from a long layover in Chicago on only 4.5 hours sleep, I went to the dining car for free cheese and wine. I’m glad I did, because I got into a conversation with a couple from the west coast (Sandy Ried and Sam Swan) about trains and my eagerness to take the train from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. It was one recently listed as one of the top 10 train rides in the world, and I’m determined to sell a kidney to take the trip while we’re living in Sotuh Africa. In response, Sandy and Sam looked at me quizzically, surprised there was such a trip, because they hadn’t read it from the train traveling expert: Paul Theroux.
There was no love/hate in the opinions expressed, and it was wonderful to hear how well read Sandy and Sam were on Theroux’s various books and expeditions. I had to admit that my love/hate relationship was only from limited exposure through his editing and foreward in a Best American Travel Writing book, and excerpts from In Patagonia among others, which we had to study as part of the Travel Writing concentration in my MFA program.
As I listened to Sam talk about the various books with the purity of a truly ardent fan and close reader, I realized that for me to honestly decide if I love or hate Theroux (or if my opinion will remain ambivalent) I should read his entire canon.
Of course, the manuscript revision is first priority, and preparing for South Africa second, but it’s on my list now, thanks to a random train encounter with an ardent Theroux fan.
P.S. Reminder! Tonight at 5pm is the deadline to try to win the signed hardcover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s easy to enter and you can have up to 5 entries. Just click this link to get the details.