Waking Up on A Train

“At some point we look out the train window and realize we are in another country.” — David Brooks, commenting on his spiritual journey, “Lead Where You Stand Conference,” June 2022

If you take the Coast Starlight Amtrak from Santa Barbara to Seattle, you’ll board at noon and arrive 30 hours later.  You never know what you’ll see.

Traveling by train is much less stressful than traveling by air.  Seatbelts are not required.  You don’t watch an instructional video telling you what to do if the plane begins falling into the ocean.  You can walk up and down the aisles. You can bring your own food or purchase some onboard. You can choose where to be — the dining car, the café, the observation car – and, if you book a sleeping compartment, you can be in your own private room.

When night comes, the conductor makes your bed.  You get a real pillow and stretch out. Sleeping on a moving train is far easier than having to become a pretzel on a plane.

Unlike driving, you don’t have to stay alert, deal with traffic, or stop for gas.

The scenery on the Coast Starlight route is always changing.  You pass along ocean cliffs, in and out of small towns, by farms and vineyards, and through forests and mountain ranges.

If there are delays, instead of being bound to your seat on the tarmac, you are free to roam; you don’t have to plead for special dispensation to use the facility.

The conductor periodically reminds you where you are and what’s coming next: “Portland. Next stop, 10 minutes. Portland.”

But sometimes you suddenly realize you don’t know where you are.

Maybe it’s in the middle of the night and you wake up because you sense the train is not moving. You pull the curtain aside and wonder, “Where am I?”

During the day you might fall asleep, daydream, or become immersed in a good book or conversation; you find you’re looking at unexpected scenery.

Moving through life can be like being a passenger on a train.  Sometimes you arrive on time at a planned destination. Other times, you are surprised.

         I remember the first day I drove my 1963 Plymouth Valiant to high school by myself. I was short and my father had to install a wooden platform under the drivers’ seat so I could see over the wheel.  But I was licensed and independent.  I pulled out of our driveway, turned on the AM radio, and headed to school.  “I’m really doing this,” I thought.

         In my twenties, I found myself on an unexpected spiritual journey.  The faith tradition I had discounted most of my life was now calling to me, drawing me, along with my doubts and questions, like a force of gravity.  My girlfriend (who became my wife) asked if I wanted to help chaperone the church’s youth group that was going caroling. We got onto the back of a flatbed truck and were handed mimeographed song sheets with “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and all the rest.  As the group started singing, the lyrics that had been routine and familiar to me all my life now seemed vivid, amazing, and inspiring.  In that moment I realized I had crossed from skeptic to “believer.”  “When did that happen?” I wondered.

         A few years ago, I made an appointment at the Social Security office to submit my Medicare paperwork.  I gave it to the clerk who reviewed and approved it.  I walked out wondering, “When did I get to this stage of life?”

         How many times have you looked in the mirror, or at changes in society, or what’s happening to friends and loved ones, and think, “When did I arrive here?”

         Maybe what’s going on “outside” is always going to be changing. In one sense, that’s a bit scary.  But in another sense, what a mystery and privilege to be alive and watching it unfold.

         And I wonder: Will we all, at some point, suddenly find ourselves thinking “I am no longer in my body?”  Will we look out our window and realize we’re headed someplace we’ve never been before?

Top image credit: philly.com


  1. livelier13 says:

    Thank you Steve. How do you write so clearly about the most important topics in life that no one else is inspired to write about? This idea of looking out the window of life and wondering how I got here or where I am is exactly is my experience lately. With the world and friends in forms of suffering, I wonder how I got to this stage of life. And yes it is the most valuable and amazing experience to recognize where we are at any given point in this journey. I hope unfortunately enough to look out the window when it’s time after I’ve left my body. That is a lovely idea So thank you again Steve.

    And I remember the Plymouth valiant.

    Kristen Jacobsen Leadership & Change Mobile 831-818-6573



  2. Steve Cohen says:

    Made me want to take the train! thank you Steve


  3. I love this piece. Thank you Steve!



  4. Marilyn+Gross says:

    As another reader said, your piece makes me want to consider train travel. I really loved your reflections on life’s journey.
    Thank you, Steve!


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