Searching for Sleeper Trains

By

There aren’t enough trains in Los Angeles. Not enough for me to sleep.

Everyone knows that this city belongs to cars, that roads and freeways construct the complex helix of its DNA. Fairly or not, we’re known for a honking sprawl and a visible smog that mires downtown in the summer. The personal vehicle holds sway over life and politics. Even if trains are specifically what you seek, they’re easily lost in the din. I notice their absence because that metal procession has always been the sound that lulls me to sleep at night.

Railroad cars dominated my hometown of Davis, California. Head on pillow, my younger self pictured locomotives blowing steam and driving into a foggy night. In my mind’s eye there was no conductor, just a lonely trail of boxes hauled through a town asleep. The whistle—always there when I curled into bed at night—gently set me free of my anchor to consciousness, relaxed me. I could feel the sounds snaking through my body and leaving behind peace and ease. I associated them with letting go.

Trains followed me to college and for years after, to Chicago, DC, the Bay Area, and even India. Before LA, no matter where I lived, I could always listen for those blasts—a mixture of short and long—that floated me off into a dream. Here, instead of riding a long whistle toward slumber, I spend many nights tossing, ruminating, and wishing for respite. There’s a particular kind of torture to insomnia, a bone-shaking frustration that’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it. It can bring you to tears, inject your brain with mist, send it in circuits, drive you mad. I’ve become familiar with the powerlessness of being unable to sleep and its effects.

Many people have it worse than me. My insomnia isn’t constant; it goes through cycles, like the regular return of a passenger train. But it’s been a consistent traveling companion, more these past few years in LA than in any other city I’ve lived.

It makes sense that the trains and the sleep are different for me here. There are rhythms and patterns and a set way of doing things that go along with the train and its regularity. The locomotives have followed me and my family along our more traditional steps through life. What I’m doing in LA as a writer is lesser-trod territory. And this is where the trains have abandoned me.

Trains and their tracks wheel through my blood. My mother’s father’s father was a Pullman porter running routes from Memphis up through Washington, DC, and beyond. He worked for a number of companies, including the now-defunct Southern Railway. While Pullman porters were overworked and underpaid compared to their white equivalents, with an uncomfortable harkening back to slavery’s servitude, the job was coveted and granted a particular social status of respectability and privilege. Pullman porters played a role in the Great Migration, as having the vantage point of travel allowed the porters to see other lives in the North and to dream of better living conditions. I imagine my great-grandfather, whom I never knew, aiding the white passengers who rode these grinding caravans along their set paths and back again.

The cherished family story is that my grandpa sent his laundry home from Howard University on the train, his father ferrying the musty cargo back to Memphis, where his mother would wash and return it via the same method. The route was a direct line to upward mobility, college allowing my grandfather to travel both physically and through social classes.

I don’t know enough about his childhood to say I understand all about his socioeconomic status over the years, but I know there were changes and fluctuations, all toward a financially stable, American-dream lifestyle that was more or less achieved. Choices were made with an eye toward practicality in what would support a family and be respectable.

There’s a lot of reason for these goals. I don’t mean to denigrate them. There’s pride in being able to provide for a family. Of winning at capitalism, however much luck is also involved. There’s the acceptance by one’s community, culture, and the general public. Within Black families, respectability and upward mobility are long-prized endeavors—though ones that are also open to critique. But I’ve never been able to orient my life solely around those endeavors.

Grandpa followed the train line, and he sleeps like a baby. I am not quite the same.

 

Those who have dealt with insomnia know the way it ravages you. Being awake and not being able to change that is one of the deepest kinds of alone. You can’t control where your mind goes and you can’t get any rest or escape from it, and you imagine that you are the only one in the world still up. Or that even if there are others, they are somehow better off than you, with more of a reason to be awake. Insomnia and self-pity go hand in hand.

When you can’t sleep, you can’t understand anything. The next day is fuzzy, and other people are irritating, and your head is mean to itself because it’s cranky and wants its rest. It’s a catch twenty-two. If you rest, you get nothing done; you feel bad about who you are and all the things you haven’t finished. If you push through and work, then you wind yourself into an exhausted state that leaves you too strung out to restore through sleep. Either way the cycle continues. Confusion reigns. I know what would help. I know just the sound that would provide enough solace to ease me into a gentle slumber. Without the trains, I’m left wide-eyed and wanting.

Being train-less coincides with stepping into my creative self, my embrace of the writing life, whether this is accidental or cosmically related. It was just after moving to LA that I renewed my dedication to applying to writing workshops and MFA programs. I started getting into the places I applied to. I don’t pretend that these changes are all that radical in the grand scheme of paths one can take. Still, they were a wholesale departure from the way I’d structured my life before, with creative writing fitting into the spaces where there was room for it, on the sides of my “real” life. Now I was putting writing at the center. Moving to LA also coincided with the largest dip in my mental health that I had ever experienced, one that had much to do with insomnia and its cumulative effects. I can’t shake the feeling that all of this is tied together.

 

Let’s go back to where the tracks begin. Those roots my mind searches for when trying to sleep.

My hometown’s Amtrak station is a burnt orange adobe building with Spanish mission-style arches. Things might have changed since the advent of COVID-19, but in my memory a couple of self-service ticket kiosks lean against the wall outside, while a rarely utilized agent languishes within the small structure. The railroad itself lies on one side of the building, the parking lot on the other. There are no long hallways to traverse, no tunnels to navigate in order to find the right train. The platform is usually full of students from Davis, going home for vacation or heading down to the Bay Area for fun. When the doors to a train open, the exchange of people is as free as nutrients passing through a molecule’s porous skin.

A typical Davis teenage experience was getting stuck while driving from one side of town to the other, watching a long line of trains take five or ten minutes to pass through a crossing. Trains were natural to me in Davis, just part of the environment’s fabric. I sensed that I could go anywhere from there.

When I went off to college, this station became essential to my vision of home. The tracks provided access to the broader world of opportunity beyond my hometown. I viewed Davis from then on as a place to come and go from, less a destination in its own right. My sense of the city reoriented; the geography a means of arrival and escape. But trains remained a comfort to calm my mind.

 

There’s a reason you sleep at night. The dark is unknown territory, the place you must venture through to become another person, the person you don’t yet know how to be, the you of tomorrow. And so maybe insomnia is a resistance, a clinging to the old.

You can’t see at night, and you can’t see when you go through tunnels. You have to believe that when you open your eyes the next morning, at the other end of the tube, that there will be a day you recognize, that not everything will have shifted, that you will still be you.

Train travel can be profoundly unsettling if you think about it enough. You’re trusting mechanisms and machinery you don’t understand and a conductor you don’t know to get you safely to the next place you want to be. You travel through all kinds of uncharted territory, places you may never have set foot in your life. It’s best to stay suspended in the faith, the gentle rocking, feeling the energy of the deep urge to get to where you’re going. That way the journey remains a quiet thrill.

 

I went to a university founded by a train tycoon, and I rode the tracks that he and other men had dominated to and from school. First, my mother would drop me off at that little Davis train station in our family’s gray Honda Odyssey. Then, I’d ride Amtrak through agricultural country and northern California’s famous sloping golden hills, through the marshlands of the broader Bay Area, down to San Jose. There, I’d hop on Caltrain and take it to campus where I’d pick up the Marguerite bus—the Stanford shuttle that infamously runs on its own erratic schedule—back to my dorm.

College always felt like too much, like I could never grasp the same zest and energy that my fellow classmates seemed to. They were bold and open in their class participation, questioning the instructors as to why a certain theory was true. They made lifelong connections right away, embraced adventure, and shamelessly displayed their talent.

Meanwhile, I struggled to get a sense of myself on a playground of suddenly endless opportunity and privilege. I felt constantly lacking—that I wasn’t speaking enough in class, wasn’t being a good enough or willing enough friend, wasn’t finding love, wasn’t taking advantage of all the courses and activities and fun I thought I should be experiencing. In short, I felt like I was failing.

Now, more than a decade later, I know that I was dealing with imposter syndrome, and that everyone, especially us students of color, has insecurities about attending a school associated with big accomplishments and uncompromising success, with the movers and shakers who are supposed to save and conquer this world. That I probably looked like I was doing it all and knew what I was doing, too. It would have been impossible not to feel like I was missing something. Despite the illusions, no single person can do it all.

Home was no longer a fit, either. Ripping myself from away to attend college, though only a couple of hours away, was immensely painful. I couldn’t make sense of my relationship to the town where my parents and sisters still lived. I didn’t fit at either end of the tracks.

The trip between the two places, the moments of being in transit itself, were some of the only times I remember feeling confident, safe, and in control. I could relax and let myself enjoy my surroundings because I didn’t need to make any decisions and nobody wanted anything from me—most importantly, myself. The self-induced pressure to achieve and make strides and be that big person that I felt I was expected to be ebbed to a low pulse, and instead I could be the ordinary passenger I knew I was inside.

It’s a wonder that the train was both to me—a symbol of needing to succeed in the ways being the descendant of a Pullman porter required and also a space to escape from that same burden. Perhaps that was the very beginning of me reclaiming what trains meant to me, of voyaging on my own terms.

 

I’ve taken a lot of train rides since those to and from college. The L in Chicago, the DC Metro, BART in the Bay Area, and far beyond. Some of these rides were easier than others. Some were smooth and quiet, while others were bumpy and wild. I remember a particularly uncomfortable journey between Varanasi and Bodhgaya in India where I perched precariously with half of my butt on the edge of a bench and used the strength of my thighs to hold my weight. Still, train travel rarely failed to hypnotize me into a delicious liminal state. And when I wasn’t on the train, I was listening for it.

Almost exactly ten years after I started college, I made my way to LA, where I’ve begun to locate myself a little more precisely. By that, I mean that I’ve started to come into myself, as a writer and a Black woman. But of course, it hasn’t always been easy. The sleep sometimes comes in fits and starts.

 

You do gather wisdom from insomnia. From the waiting and the restlessness. That same kind of waiting and restlessness precedes an adventure. Some people call dreams an adventure. Can the pursuit of them be a journey as well, if a harrowing one?

It’s untrue to say there are no trains where I live. There’s an Amtrak line here in LA that I want to take called the Coast Starlight. It runs from southern California all the way up to Seattle, and it’s a wish of mine to hop on and write the whole way, gazing out the window at the changing scenery as I move. I’ll make it a little retreat of sorts; I’ll see what kinds of stories emerge in that suspended state.

I want to reconnect to trains in my newly embodied artistic self. I haven’t given up on this way of traveling, of finding the whistle in my life. Trains are still a part of my blood, my birthright. Through them I embrace my own kind of mobility and ambition, those two valued traits in my family line, if not quite manifested in the direction I’m heading.

It’s a two-day trip to take the Coast Starlight from terminus to terminus, so I’ll get to relish in the sleep that railroad cars grant me. Or, I could allow myself to forget sleep for one night in favor of the kinds of meanderings the mind will make in the transient dark.

Maybe on this planned ride, I’ll write the ghost version of myself. The woman out there riding the tracks, fearless wind whipping her locs as she hangs half her body out the door, a sunset and fields of corn flashing by and the sparks from the train’s wheels making glints of their own. She’ll catch any which line she wants and she’ll ride it to the end, and then she’ll live a little and hop back on a new one.

And the last time she journeys, whenever that will be, she’ll go to an inn, and buy a comfortable—but not too expensive—room and lie her head on the pillow there and sleep like there were never any dreams left in her head to be had.

***

Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.


Stefani Cox is a speculative fiction writer and poet based in Los Angeles, and received her MFA from UC Riverside. Stefani’s work has been published to LeVar Burton Reads, FIYAH, and the anthology Black from the Future, among other outlets. She has received fellowships to Hedgebrook, Tin House, and VONA, and is currently working on her debut novel. Find her on Twitter @stefanicox or her website stefanicox.com. More from this author →