Taking the Train to Charlottesville


Our Correspondents


Amtrak’s Great Dome car.

Every year, I take a Northeast Regional southbound to Charlottesville to visit two dear friends and their pair of gorgeous, sweetly neurotic German shepherds. I went once in the spring after moving to New York, but two years in the city had made me susceptible to Virginia pollen, teary-eyed and wheezing every time I went outdoors. So now I visit in autumn when the air is crisp and the leaves have just turned.

It’s a seven-hour train ride through the changing colors of the Delaware River and the Shenandoah Valley—just enough time to read the paper and shake myself of my daily accumulations. Last weekend, I sprawled out across two seats, fanning out a collection of fresh magazines and books that might have looked pretty on Instagram had I bothered to pull the cell phone out of my bag. Instead, I let its periodic, muffled pings blend into the low hum of wheels turning. I spent most of my time staring out of the window anyway, watching buildings grow smaller until they were just slight, white homes punctuating long stretches of green. You get dreamy on long train rides—you don’t waste time as much as you drift on it. 

My friend Abby picked me up at the station, throwing my suitcase in the back of her car, and we laughed when we saw that we’d cut our hair the same, in messy chin-length bobs. Unlike the relationships embedded in one’s day to day, developments on either end of a long-distance friendship are more apparent. Each year, we drink less and worry more about our skin. The dogs have become more subdued. Our conversations now progress in large arcs; our individual philosophies have time to wander and bloom in our time apart.

I have watched Abby and her husband build a life together that looks quite different from mine. They’ve accumulated a community, a down payment on a house with a yard. I can’t help but envy the loveliness and stability of the home they’ve made, while, back home, there’s always a looming rent hike on my sunken little apartment, always a fat capsized cockroach waiting to be discovered. Yet somehow we always seem to be pondering similar questions when we meet, and our discussions feel bright and unexpected.

“Let’s play a game,” Abby said last Saturday, pulling down The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. “We’ll each read a poem and try to decipher what it means.” I called out a number and she turned to the entry and read it out loud.

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee;
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for my soul.

We read the stanzas through a few times, debating each line. “Won an all” is such a strange phrase, and what is it exactly that hundreds have lost? Abby noted the funny voting motif—“Angels’ breathless ballot”—and we chatted for awhile, taking turns with our stabs at what Dickinson might have been getting at. “Who knows,” I said finally as Abby passed the book and we decided on a new number. It was less important to fully understand than to feel, perhaps, like we’d sunk for a moment into Dickinson’s inner workings.

It’s a relief to remember that your version of events is not the only one. That there are infinite, parallel experiences of a thing. On the train home, I started to make a phone call but was immediately shushed by another passenger. Funny how easy it is to accidentally wind up in the quiet car, given how arbitrary its placement seems to be on any given line. If I had to choose one car to ride for the rest of my life, it’d be the “Ocean View,” an antique crowned by wide, curved windows. The Great Dome car, as it’s called, is the last of its kind still in service on Amtrak. Built in 1955, it recently completed a tour on the Adirondack line through Hudson Valley to Montreal. If you search the Train Magazine’s archives, you’ll find reports of “AMTK 10031” being pulled everywhere from the Chicago’s Pere Marquette Railway to the Reno Fun Train in California. I thought of the Great Dome car interloping between different lines, observing red foliage for a few weeks up north before swinging west for falling snow and white-tipped pines.

Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.