On Travelling Backwards in a Train

I do not like it, for several reasons. First of all, I am very susceptible to motion sickness. Basically, I can get seasick in a bathtub so I’m always very careful to make sure I secure a seat facing forwards whenever I travel by train. (I try to avoid travelling by bus, because buses sway and bounce almost as much as boats and for some reason I can’t read on a bus or in a car without becoming ill, but I can read just fine on a train. Planes make me queasy, too.) Anyway, I was waiting for a train at a tiny rural station in Wales, which I reached by bus, unfortunately, because it was a Sunday and normal train services had been suspended. The train pulled in and I climbed aboard, selecting a seat facing in the same direction in which the train had been travelling. I was settling in, disentangling the cord of my iPod, hoping no one would sit next to me. Then the train pulled out and, to my dismay, started travelling in the opposite direction. (This was apparently one of those tiny rural stations in which the trains go out the same way they come in.) So I was now travelling backwards in the train, wondering if I could manage my nausea for the duration of the 35-minute journey. As I watched the rolling fields and flocks of sheep flee from my window, I realized there’s another reason I hate travelling this way: It feels unnatural to see the landscape receding from instead of rushing towards me.

Obviously, when you are travelling you are travelling to some place, and you want and expect that place to come out to meet you. You want to see your destination prefigured along the way. It could be the first glimpse of a city skyline in the distance, or the first glint of sea through the hills. Wherever you’re going, you are looking forward to a proper reception and part of that reception involves sneak previews of your destination, whether it’s your own front door or some strange new town. That’s part of the pleasure of travelling: enjoying where you are and looking forward to where you’ll be. But you are denied all that when travelling backwards in a train. You never really see where you are; you just see where you’ve been receding in the window. And you never see any prefigurements of where you’ll be; all the anticipation is taking place behind you. Travelling backwards in a train just doesn’t feel right.

The B&B where I was staying was on the banks of the River Wye, and my room looked right out onto the thick, swollen river. It had been raining for days and the river was bloated and brown and moving very fast. Periodically tree branches and other debris were swept past, so you could really see how fast the current was moving. Travelling in a train is like being swept up in the current of a river. Heraclitus wrote one of the best aphorisms about rivers, perhaps even one of the best aphorisms about anything:

One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water in which you first stepped has flowed on.

Travelling backwards in a train means not even being able to step into the same river once, because you only see the landscape after it has passed; you don’t feel the water swirling around your toes, you just see it disappearing downriver. I don’t want to have my back to where I’m going. I want to meet my destination head on. I may never pass this way again, so I want to enjoy the moment and I want to see it coming from afar. You get just one chance to dip your toe in the river; might as well make a splash. Floating backwards with the current would just make me sick.