During breakfast I drop as much food on my lap as my grandchildren because, despite my disappointment that everything outside appears to have been dunked in a vat of gray paint, I cannot tear my eyes from the windows long enough to look at what I’m actually doing with my fork and eggs. I wad up my incriminating napkin so clear-eyed, plump-chinned Charlotte won’t telegraph Slob, Row 5, to the other stewards. Meanwhile, fat drops of rain streak diagonally across the train’s ample windows, gravity wrestling with velocity. The transoms become dense with moisture. For a while we see only a dull green haze plastered to the windows, a blurred cheap mural, and I am so disheartened I want to cry. I stand and reach as far as I can to wipe the panes with a shredded tissue, and the steward hurries off to adjust the ventilation. Soon, we can see.
And can we see!
The gray cap of sky is tipping toward blue and the clouds are fading, fluffing, retreating. I stagger (I discover it’s not nearly as smooth walking as sitting) out the back of the coach, greedy to remove even the glass barrier from the display, and stand with feet widely spaced on the small platform that joins two swaying cars. The clackety-clack of rails is loud and fast out here, and the air is rich with decaying wood, musky earth and the clean sharpness of pine. I check the latch above the boarding gate I’m leaning on to make sure it’s secure, and thrust my head out from the shelter of the train. A fierce rush of wind and mist slaps me breathless and agape.
Ten thousand foot peaks stretch away in serrated relief, their jagged tops cloaked in living, creeping glaciers. Silver threads of waterfalls straggle like an ancient crone’s hair down the wrinkles of distant crags. Tree lines of balsam and fir hem the limestone skirts of the highest summits, marking the boundaries of unseen, life-sustaining nutrients. Reluctant pockets of cloud cling to notches between summits, and a single smooth scoop interrupts an otherwise sharp mountain spike, as though a giant has taken a bite from the stone.
The train slows going uphill and I lurch to the other side of the platform where the trees slouch away from us toward a boiling churn of translucent teal hurtling down the mountain. Droplet upon droplet, turn after turn, flow follows the easiest path, as do these rails, ensuring waterways racing alongside us since we embarked.
The engine throttles back further and we glide with the grace of a skier through a glade of hemlock giants, whose colossal spreading boughs are incongruously trimmed with sienna cones the size of thimbles. Evergreens’ bark and branch are nearly in arms’ reach and I have to resist an urge to stretch out, to touch, to caress, to possess. The titans gradually surrender to a high alpine rain forest thick with ferns, grape ivy and moss; myriad firs give way to cypress and cedar and spruce. The scenery doesn’t feel outside me so much as inside. I am beyond transfixed or transported, more like transduced, transubstantiated. The minerals of the mountains are in my bones; carbon of coal and shale form the scaffold of my cells; veins of iron course through the stone and my blood; proteins linking generations of trees link my own past and future; molds and snails, lichens and moths share my genes. Joined in this tangle of life, how can anything really die?
We pierce a tunnel, and the sudden plunge into darkness causes me to snap my head back inside the steel shell of the train like a turtle. Ah, yes, this is how we die. Or are wounded. Serendipity. Spin of the wheel. Any body part extruding from the railcar barreling into the blackness instantly and pitilessly destroyed. Like the nerves of my mother’s legs when the virus ravaged her at nine months of age.
I slide the carriage door open, return to my seat. My husband has moved next to the window. Stay, I say. Despite the incomparable scenery and the pleasure of having my parents near, I can no longer keep my eyes open.