Light Rafts for Flagging Spirits | Vol 7
How to Be Where You Are: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Edition "Travel is the experience of Otherness."— Emily Thomas, The Meaning of Travel
It should come as no surprise to most of you that I am a lifelong, avid traveler. This time last year, I had just returned from almost a month in Ireland where I walked 200 miles along the border that separates the Irish Republic from the North, and was getting to leave for a nearly spur-of-the-moment journey to Japan (my first) to see U2 play a couple of shows and bring some of my mother’s ashes back to the land she loved and spent a few years teaching in when she was in her 20s.
Before we were born, my parents lived abroad and traveled widely, and passed along their wanderlust to their children. Perhaps my most favorite way to travel is by train. I love it—the slowness, the rhythm of train wheels on tracks, the serendipity of table companions in the dining car, the marvelously fort-like privacy of a berth. Ahhhhhh!
I love it. And I miss it.
A long, lavish train trip aboard one of the world’s legendary railways such as Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, The West Highland Line and the Flying Scotsman, or the holy grail of train travel: The Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the longest, and busiest, passenger train route in the world.
Imagine my delight this week when I discovered, via the Psyche digital magazine, Sleepers’ Beat—an atmospheric and deeply evocative documentary short film that gives the audience behind-the-scenes, almost impressionistic glimpses of the lives of the staff of the TSRR who spend their lives on the trains, some of them for decades.
1. Sleepers’ Beat: Life on the Trans-Siberian Railway | Russia
Here is the trailer for Sleepers’ Beat by the Russian-Swedish filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova.
Below is an shorter, non-narrative montage of images from the film that features the mesmerizing soundtrack by the Berlin-based composer Ben Lukas Boysen (aka Hecq).
(Helpful Hint: On the Aeon site, it’s a little hard to figure out where the play button is because it’s white on a white background. So, if you hover the computer cursor (or your finer)over the photo that’s at the top of the web page, there between the film’s title in white lettering and the handle of the train’s window, you’ll find it.)
BONUS: A Trans-Siberian Audio “Sleep Story”
I’ve been a subscriber to and evangelistic fan of the Calm app for several years, for its guided meditations and ambient musical selections, but primarily for its range of “Sleep Stories”—fiction and nonfiction, for children and adults alike, narrated by some of the world’s greatest voices including Stephen Fry, Jerome Flynn (Bronn from Game of Thrones), Kate Winslet, LeVar Burton, Clarke Peters (Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux from TREMÉ and Dr. Carne in His Dark Materials), Cilian Murphy, Harry Styles, and Matthew McConaughey reflecting on the idea of “wonder” for 29 minutes.
There’s an entire subgenre of train-travel-themed sleep stories, and I’ve listened to them all multiple times. My most favorite is “The Trans-Siberian Railroad” narrated by Erik Braa, a voice actor who looks like (and often plays) Viking characters. His voice is so, soooooo sooooooothing.
“Tonight, we travel to the farthest reaches of Northern Russia to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express,” Braa purrs in his resonant baritone at the beginning of the 20-minute sleep story that aurally puts you in a berth on the train as it wends its way from Moscow to Vladivostok. I’ve usually reached my final destination in the Land of Nod before the the Trans-Siberian reaches its third station.
2. Field Recording: First Snow of 2020 | East Helsinki, Finland
A night walk through the first snow of the year, near the Roihuvuori water tower in East Helsinki, Finland. Recorded on November 20 by Miia Laine.
A few weeks ago, I ran across FieldRecordings, “A podcast where audio-makers stand silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields).”
It’s the aural equivalent of WindowSwap. Take a journey in your mind. Check it out.
CLICK HERE to listen to the entire recording made by sound artist Miia Laine.
3. The Lost (3+hour) Cut of Planes Trains and Automobiles
The quintessential Thanksgiving movie, the one that so many of us watch religiously at least once a year (and probably have watched sometime this week/weekend), was once twice as long as the version any of us has seen. What’d we miss?
“In my mind, Trains, Planes and Automobiles” is a perfect film,” says Joe Ramoni*, director of the short documentary film about the “lost” director’s cuts of the holiday favorite. Director John Hughes cut huge swaths footage—including several long stretches of dialogue delivered by the film’s stars Steve Martin and the late, great John Candy, as well as a few ancillary plotlines and characters before the film was released theatrically on Nov. 25, 1987. By comparing versions of the film’s script and what was, apparently, the original shooting script, and in an interview with actor Michael McKean (who plays the state trooper who pulls Martin and Candy over after their rental car catches fire), Ramoni concluded that the film with a big heart originally had even more poignancy, backstory, twists and turns (literally) that might have made it even more hilariously memorable than it already is.
Two cuts of the film—one reportedly more than two hours long, the other more than three—by Hughes, who passed away in 2009, do exist, says Ramoni who is championing efforts to ensure that the directors’ cuts at least are preserved, if not restored and released by the Criterion Collection or similar. (AFI, are you listening?)
If you love PT&A as much as I do, you’ll find this documentary fascinating. I know I would happily pay good money to see a three-hour version of this classic. Join the #ReleaseTheHughesCut movement on Twitter and maybe we’ll collectively manifest a Del Griffith-sized miracle by this time next year.
4. Wildlife Bridge | Utah
Safe travels: Surveillance video of a pedestrian bridge for quadrupeds built over Interstate 80 in Utah to cut down on the number of car-versus-wildlife accidents shows its (happy) success.
According to CNN: The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources built the bridge back in 2018 over Interstate 80 to reduce traffic accidents in Parleys Canyon—the highest point of the Wasatch Range outside Salt Lake City—caused by animals wandering onto the highway. Last week, the agency released a video of the bridge in use—aiding moose, porcupines, deer, and even bears across the busy highway.
It reminded me of a story my husband, Maurice Possley, wrote about efforts to stem the slaughter of wildlife in animal-vehicle collisions. You can read Maury’s 2007 story HERE.
5. Speaking of Wilderness: Take a Virtual Road Trip
With COVID-19 infections spiking across the country and around the globe, scientists, doctors, and many elected officials are urging people to stay home in order to stay safe. Many of us decided to forgo traveling for Thanksgiving—whether by planes, trains, and automobiles—to help limit spread of the deadly disease. For the wanderlusty among us (myself included), not knowing when we’ll be able to travel again has been a bitter pill. Thankfully, there are scores of clever, new ways to “travel” without leaving the house that might help tide us over until we can hit the road again.
The Audi Virtual Road Trip is a four-hour-video drive through Australia.
Hit the Icefields Parkway for an almost-three-hour drive through the Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Take a midnight drive in the rain
One of my vivid and inexplicably fondest memories from childhood is waking up in the family station wagon as my father spirited us through the night during a summer showers, or driving back to Connecticut from New York City, a steady autumn rain turning the cityscape into an impressionist painting of color, light, and shadows. If you feel similarly about driving in the rain in the dark (without the occasional white-knuckle stress of having to actually *drive* the car in traffic on wet interstates), this three-hour film is for you. I took a post-meal nap with it on Friday.
More options for traveling at home:
The following options are require a little more user engagement than passively watching a film, but they’re fun and might scratch your travel itch.
Drive Route 66 via Google Voyager Tour, hitting some of the highlights along “The Main Street of America,” from Chicago to Santa Monica, through Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Digitally travel Alaska’s Seward Highway via Google Street View, which takes you along a 125-mile stretch from Seward to Anchorage, through spectacular costal, mountain, and forest vistas as you move through the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Turnagain Arm, and Kenai Mountains.
6. Must-Watch Pick of the Week: Uncle Frank
A road trip from New York City to South Carolina is a journey of discovery—of the self, identity, family, and what it means to belong.
On Thanksgiving Eve, I received an impassioned text message from my best friend Kelley, urging me to drop everything and watch Uncle Frank immediately. As someone who grew up with THREE separate, actual Uncle Franks in my life, I probably would have watched the film without any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have been prepared for how wonderful it is. This new film starring Paul Bellamy and Sophia Lillis, which debuted this week via Amazon Prime, just might open your heart as it breaks it. Bring Kleenex.
7. Music for Airports and Passengers: Brian Eno and U2
Need a soundtrack that will transport you while you’re making stock from turkey bones, putting away the good china, or setting up the Christmas tree (because even for the most traditional among us, if there were ever a year to start the Advent/Christmas season early it’s 2020)? Brian Eno’s got you covered.
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Eno’s 1978 release was designed originally to be continuously looped as an art installation of sound, which was supposed to help diffuse the anxiety and tension of airport terminals (and modern travel in general.) It’s weird and wonderful and oddly comforting.
Original Soundtracks 1 (aka Passengers)
Released in 1995, this collaboration between Eno and U2 is a transcendent delight. Conceived as music for soundtracks of films that don’t exist, three of the tracks on the album—”Your Blue Room” (featuring a spoken word segment by Adam Clayton that’s just :: chef’s kiss :: ), “Miss Sarajevo” (featuring the soaring tenor of Luciano Pavarotti), and “One Minute Warning” actually do appear in the soundtracks of the very real films Beyond the Clouds, Miss Sarajevo, and Ghost in the Shell respectively. Whether real or imagined, this album never fails to take me places.
8. “I’d like to be more consistently HERE” | Five Profound Minutes with Bill Murray
How to be wherever you are:
This short clip from a much longer 2014 interview Bill Murray did with Charlie Rose (cringe, I realize, but just bracket him and try to forget he’s there), is a masterclass in mindfulness. Murray’s reminder to be present and awake wherever you are is precious.
9. This week on The Artist Care and Feeding Podcast: Fellow travelers Terri Hemmert and David Wilcox
Both legendary Chicago radio personality, WXRT-Radio veteran, and musicologist Terri Hemmert, and celebrated folk singer-songwriter David Wilcox, are big travelers who, like the rest of us, have been grounded since March. They joined us on the ACAF podcast this week.
In our far-ranging, deep conversations with Terri and with Dave, we explore the transcendent nature of art, creativity, and how they stay connected to the people and the world they love. Terri and Dave talk about the way they used to travel, what they miss, what they don’t, and what they look forward to when we can, please Universe, take off our seat belts and once again move about the planet freely.
Bonus: In our special Thanksgiving Day episode with Mr. Wilcox, he performs two of the more than thirty new songs he’s recorded during lockdown.
10. When You Go Away: A Poem by W. S. Merwin
For anyone who’s missing someone or somewhere. And for anyone who’s longing to make the journey back to either.
* An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the director of the Planes, Trains and Automobiles documentary. He is Joe Ramoni. My apologies for the error.