On a brief walk on a beautiful afternoon last week, I noticed three jet vapor trails in the sky, each headed in a different direction. I found myself wondering where everyone is going and why aren’t I going, too. I couldn’t actually see the jets except as quick glimmers of reflected sunlight, but the vapor trails were plain-to-see, very high, very long, and going somewhere. It was another theme to which I became attuned...another theme that echoed through my weeks.
In a day or two, my playlist happened onto Brian Eno’s “Spider and I,” a quasi-ambient tune from his 1977 album, Before and After Science. I remember even then imagining the world beyond that the lyrics evoked, hearing a hymn to a distant vision. The spider hopes to catch a fly…an emissary from somewhere, and the singer dreams of a ship going to that place, going somewhere:
We sleep in the mornings,
We dream of a ship that sails away,
A thousand miles away.
In my mind, that song is linked with Tim Burton’s film version of James and the Giant Peach (1996), where one of James’s first visions of a world beyond—he dreams of going far away to New York—comes as he befriends a spider on her web in the window, to whom he sings his introduction. It’s a fantastic scene of introduction to and definition of the character, James: a frustrated, gentle heart; a youthful visionary; a dreamer…it expresses the same theme of longing to go somewhere, with a quick glimpse to the horizon and James’s “dream balloon” sent adrift:
There's a city that I dreamed of
Very far from here
Very very far away from here
Very far away
Hearing Eno’s song, my mind drifted to a time when I visited Taormina with my family…Taormina itself a world beyond for me, a somewhere. On our first night there, we walked the main shopping street to a piazza and balcony 500 meters above the water. A masted sailing ship lay in harbor; we had noticed it earlier (everyone noticed it…it was beautiful!) as we drove in on the winding, cliff-hugging road to the hotel. From the piazza, we saw the lights outlining the masts in the blackness of the nighttime water. Later when we returned to the hotel, I sat on the balcony to relax and rest from our long travel-day; just then, the ship silently set sail and slowly, gracefully glided across the cove in front of the hotel and disappeared past the rocky point to the north…it could not have been more provocative. Who was on it and where were they going and why were they going? So silently, so darkly…had it had no lights, it simply would have vanished in the night! My trip was a bit of an escape for me, but such a ship on such a night in such a place…going somewhere.
Long ago when I was in college, the New Brunswick, NJ train station had a platform that was down at track level; today the platform is raised so that one directly enters the train at compartment level. Back then, one entered the train by climbing stairs up from the gravel-tracks-ties level. Whenever I was feeling a sense of frustration or adolescent/collegiate angst, I would go to the station and wait and watch the trains roar by. The signal lights to the south would change to vertical—train coming—and I would watch to the north as the express would come within minutes around the curve. Despite its size and power, the trains came in silence until they were nearly at the station. I could stand just feet from the track (foolishly standing on or beyond the yellow STAND BACK OF YELLOW LINE marker) and get punched by the force of air that the train drove out ahead of itself, feel the rumble of incredible mass—tons of steel at high speed. The Metroliners would rush through the station at 90 miles per hour…giving an enormous exhilaration that always dispelled the angst. While waiting for the next train, the next exhilaration, I would look down the tracks with a sense of reverie, tracks that ran straight for miles and narrowed and narrowed until they seemed to meet at the horizon. The tracks disappeared beyond the curve of the world and I wondered, where did they go and how far could they take me?
Without knowing any connection, last weekend I began reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged…I am completely enjoying it. The theme of “going somewhere” announced itself again. I came across a passage about one of the main characters’ dreaming at the images that pass by outside her train window:
“As men on a dark prairie liked to see the lighted windows of a train going past, her achievement, the sight of power and purpose that gave them reassurance in the midst of empty miles and night—so she wanted to feel it for a moment, a brief greeting, a single glimpse, just to wave her arm and say: Someone is going somewhere…”
This theme for me is as old as me. As a little boy in rural Clementon, NJ, I would hike with friends and against my mother’s wishes along the train tracks for as far and for as long as we could dare. We would leave “civilization” behind and follow the tracks through the pines and—while we were only a town or two away—we never felt that we had gotten quite anywhere, only that we were headed somewhere.