Experiencing Hidden Worlds by Train

Kirsten Kirby
Nov 30, 2019 · 5 min read
Amish Farmer Tends His Crops — By Bob Nichols | Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Whether riding the train is part of every work day or you do so only on rare occasions, we all have a tendency to focus more on where we are going and distracting ourselves to pass the time. Having commuted by train for most of my career, I sometimes fell into this trap. When I put my phone down and began to look out the window more, I realized that the train was bringing me through hidden worlds. I had the privilege of getting unique glimpses into ways of life and art that I had never seen or thought about until then. While I knew I would only ever pass through these places, they had a lasting impression on me.

The Amish Way of Life

At two points in my career, I commuted by Amtrak from the Philadelphia suburbs to central Pennsylvania. Bustling cities and towns gave way to wide expanses of farmland. The train slowly went past many Amish farms, which afforded me the opportunity to observe elements of their daily lives.

As I made my way to work each morning, I saw the small children walking to school with their lunchboxes in one hand and their other hand holding onto their siblings or friends. Sometimes they would break into a run and would laugh when their friends would try to catch them. This unbridled joy always made me smile.

Depending on the time of year, I witnessed men driving the mule and draft horse teams to plow the fields. The horses’ muscles would ripple in the sun and they each had a specific role in keeping the plough steady. It was also common to see the buggies everyone pictures when you mention the Amish. I thought it was ironic to see hitching posts for horses and buggies at gas stations but I guess everyone needs to pick up random items from time to time.

Since each farm had animals beyond just horses and mules, I saw different ways they interacted with each other as well as their owners. One moment that really stuck with me was watching a kid (baby goat) trying to play with a lamb. There was a pyramid-shaped wooden structure with a platform at the peak and the kid easily bounced right up to the top. He kept looking down at the lamb and cocking his head to the side as if to say, “Why aren’t you up here already?” The poor little lamb tried hard but couldn’t even get part way up the structure. In the end, the kid came back down and played with his friend at ground level. Both of them then ran over to one of the children on the farm as the little boy approached with a bucket of feed.

Even seeing the smallest details of the lives of the Amish was interesting. Nearly every household had a long clothes line on which every member of the family’s clothing was carefully pinned up. The father’s black trousers, button-down shirt, and often a vest were followed by progressively smaller versions of the same outfit and the pattern was duplicated with the mother’s simple dress and the dresses of many daughters. The clothes lines often stretched all the way from the house to the barn so that there was enough space to hang everything that needed to dry. During my years commuting by train, I also saw barn raisings and other community gatherings.

I recognized that all of us on that train were seeing something very special. The Amish world was one that we outsiders would never inhabit and were privileged to witness. While there are problems there just as in many other places, I felt honored to have even a small window into a life I will not experience first-hand.

Graffiti Art

Having also commuted in and out of several cities, I witnessed spectacular art that only train riders ever see. Big, bold letters in vibrant colors, large-scale murals, and other graffiti art was visible throughout the journey. At points along the way, artists had tagged abandoned train cars that were permanently parked on closed down tracks. In other cases, they had painted the underside of railroad bridges and other spots.

There were certain spots that artists seemed to battle over and it was common to see different tags and murals go up every few weeks. Several large-scale works remained untouched by other artists but were slowly affected by constant exposure to the elements. Some of the most striking places along the journey was where nature had begun to reclaim the space on which the art had been made. Vines punctured through cracks in the brick walls of decaying former factory buildings, color from rusting metal hinges made its way into art, and the images themselves began to fade slightly. It was a reminder of the beauty of impermanence and how the effects of time can change an original item in surprising ways.

As with the Amish, I knew I would not be part of the graffiti art world but found it fascinating. I marveled at the artists’ skill with the different kinds of paint and their sense of color and shading and also that they must have felt such a sense of urgency to create these works that they were willing to break the law to do so. I would never get to meet the artists but I could admire their work on my way to and from my own job. I began to look forward to the stretches of the journey where this art was located and I pictured the artists thinking about where they might do their next piece and what it might be.

My train commutes have meant I have observed places over time but even if you are just on a train journey once, you can still have amazing experiences by watching worlds go by outside your window. You will likely see things you may never witness again. Allow these images to linger in your mind and to spark reflection. Sometimes it is through glimpses into other worlds and lives that we find clarity about our own.

Kirsten Kirby

Written by

Walking bag of contradictions who is endlessly curious about the past, present, and future

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