I’ve done that thing again.
That thing where I look at plane tickets, look at train tickets, enter all available data into an elaborate equation (something like, Value = Adventure / Cost + Adventure x Time + Cost/Environmental Cost) and decide to take the ten-hour train.
You see, adventure counts twice in my calculations… and I value my time a bit differently.
So I’m sipping on free hot water (having exhausted my ten-hour snack supply in just over seven hours), watching an obstinately rainy day pass me by—all the way from Vermont to Philadelphia.
It’s not a bad day for a train ride, I have to admit. The sky is a study in gray. Wisps of cloud catch in green hills, blur the horizon, put me to sleep.
I wake up quickly; I think my feet are getting frostbite. I set up camp in the cafe car. Consider diving into a pile of work. Think the better of it. Return to staring out at the nondescript, along-the-tracks landscape.
I’ve taken so many absurdly long train, bus, and ferry rides, keeping count lost all meaning a long time ago. Barcelona to London: Why go in two hours when you can take two days, via Paris and the Chunnel? Tangier to Barcelona: What fun is the plane when a thirty-hour boat ride gets you 100% there? Stockholm to Turku: Thirteen hours and no regrets! Goa to Kolkata: In hindsight, maybe forty hours was a a bit long…
A love of slow travel, a desire to lighten my footprint whenever possible, and a stubborn resistance to doing things the easy way all feed into these choices.
But I realize that whiling away an entire day—or more—on a train doesn’t come without practice. I haven’t forgotten my astonishment at my fellow passengers in Nepal, where I took some of my first twelve-hour bus journeys. They put me to shame, doing nothing for the entire journey, never complaining, and maintaining perfect serenity during the hours of touch-and-go traffic leaving Kathmandu Valley.
And so, if you have a ten-hour train journey ahead of you, or another trip just as daunting, I’d like to offer a few of my favorite activities to help you pass the hours:
- People watch. This activity could, without exaggeration, occupy all ten of those hours, especially when coupled with eavesdropping. The man in the seat behind me telling another passenger how he never learned how to read words, only concepts. The woman across the aisle discussing, at length, a petty workplace drama. The endless procession of human faces, voices, expressions—mundane and extraordinary at once. Yes, one could certainly people watch for ten hours.
- Crochet, or otherwise make things. When I traveled from Philadelphia to Miami by train in 2013, I spent about four hours of the thirty-hour odyssey crocheting a hat for a particularly odd and impressively drunk character sharing the cafe car with me. Activities that occupy the hands but leave the mind free to wander are ideal for long trips.
- Read. Bring a fresh book you know you’ll love. The longer the better. This time I brought The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, and it enthralled me. If you’d happily sit on the couch with a good book all day, you can stop reading right now; your ten hours are sorted.
- Write. Whether or not you’re a writer is beside the point. Write down observations, stream of consciousness, the funny things people said while you were eavesdropping. These words may serve some purpose later on, or you may never look at them again. Also not the point.
- Make lists. If you can’t think of anything else to write, there are always lists. I happen to love lists—the way they sit uselessly on my desktop after I make them, their satisfying list-ness, the irrational sense of efficiency I feel when writing them. Maybe you’ll be equally entertained by this activity… or maybe not.
- Eat. On travel days, I drop any preferences or pretenses I usually have about food. Today I feasted on cherries and leftovers, but sometimes it’s chocolate and chips. While normally I wouldn’t advocate for eating out of boredom, long train (or bus, or ferry) rides are a special exception. Entering a liminal space, free from the normal constraints of time and metabolic physics, is one of the advantages of traveling this way after all.
- Work. Just kidding—travel days aren’t work days! Be it a lack of reliable wifi or the soporific rattling of tracks, these journeys don’t usually support much work. But if you need to get things done, there’s certainly time.
- Do nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. Stare out the window and daydream about mountains that hold up the sky. Close your eyes and turn the rocking of the train into music. Lean back, put your hands in your lap, and just sit there. I think we could all do with a little more nothing in our days. A ten-hour train ride is a good place to start.
Additional uses of time that may inspire you: listening to music, meditating, talking to strangers, walking up and down the aisles, stretching, deleting old files off your phone, gobbling fresh air in the areas between coaches…
Think that just about covers it!
How do you pass a long journey? Please share your favorites with me!