The most bothersome thing about travel but that makes up most of travel is waiting. We wait for the next train for several hours. We wait in line at the food shop. We wait to get into the museum. It’s fair to say that I spend the majority of my time traveling waiting for something, anything to happen.
I’ve waited in Reykjavik, Berlin, Luxemburg City, Naperville, Illinois, Arches National Park and thousands of other places. I’ve stood by waiting for camping places to open up and tours to close down. Amazing things happen when I wait and nothing at all.
I’m waiting for the Southwest Chief to take off from Chicago and deliver me home to Kansas City. People from all walks of life fill the Metropolitan Lounge, reserved for first-class and sleeper-car passengers. Mothers and fathers hold sleeping children. Kids lay around, hooked into their devices. A man sits at a table with people he doesn’t know and writes on his computer.
Some of these people are nervous and fidgety. Others, resigned to their fates, stare off into the distance. My family, Virginia and Nick just returned from the shops in Union Station and join tens of other people eating oranges, pizza, salads, the snacks available at the lounge, and a hundred different kinds of sandwiches and pastries.
They are a calm bunch, these waiters. They pay attention to each other in caring and loving ways. The father sitting next to me speaks Hindi. He holds his little girl, who has been sleeping for the last hour. Every now and then, she wakes, whining. He strokes her hair, shifts her around a little, and talks to her softly. So far, the girl has responded by going back to sleep. She’s beautiful in sleep, distant from this world and living in her own dreams.
A kid of about fourteen just walked up and asked if the armchair next to Nick is taken. Just a few minutes before, a man with a British accent asked the same thing. Nick told the kid that someone had taken the seat. I told the kid that someone had asked about it but then left. “Well,” the kid said, “I’ll move if he comes back.”
That’s the way waiting works. Seats fill. People traveling together find spots and leave single chairs empty. The travelers come and go. The Amtrak agent announces a train’s departure. People stand here and there and go to the back exits that leads out to the vast train sheds. Everyone and everything seems to wait. The people wait for trains. The trains wait for the people.
What remains immutable is the lounge, tracks, and train sheds. The station sees thousands of people, cars, and trains come and go every day. The stationary accommodates the moving. Cars drive by on the streets and the streets remain. Some of these people will die in the coming days and months. The world moves around them. Their houses and the buildings they work and live in will stand. They will wait for more people to fill them.
The absolute and the transient. That is travel. We just spent the week in the nation’s capital. I don’t know how many millions of people will visit the city this year, but it will be tens of millions, I think. The museums and monuments mean something in the vastness of time. They will change exhibits. The curators will rotate the collections. But the buildings, but for the human efforts to stave off entropy in maintenance, stay the same. They keep the rain out and the people in. They will stand for decades. The visitors will grow old and die. They will move to new houses. Their marriages will dissolve and be renewed. But the sights and monuments and museums will be there for them and their children.
Or, we hope so, since the buildings are transient in the vast expanse of time. Will the Library of Congress, whose building is 119 years old, be here in another century? Two or three? If so, then we will have accomplished what the Greeks and Romans did in their times. But I wonder if the building’s hulk will last the millennia. We don’t build the way the Romans and Greeks did. These facades hide brick and steel skeletons.
The politicians and policies shift. The law shapes itself to its time. The founding documents, while subjects of continual interpretation, remain the same. They, too, wait. Someday, a civilization subsequent to ours, may be able to look back and see that once there stood a republic that its founders established for the ages. I hope that they learn that all civilizations come and go. Ours was here for a little while and gave itself over to something else. Theirs, no matter their faith in themselves, might know that they too will stand only a little while.
The land, weather, and sky. They wait while the people are born and move and die, while the people’s institutions rise and fall, while the buildings one day fall to dust. All is waiting and it gives me in my waiting some perspective. It makes my travel and its waiting all the more urgent. My time is limited. I will only ever see a tiny sliver of this world and meet only a few of its people. I will come and I will die and my name will join those other millions of anonymous and faceless others.
Travel, then, becomes the constant, movement and transience constants. I move because I have to. Part of my movement is waiting. The Southwest Chief takes off at 3 p.m. It’s 1:43 right now. In an hour, I will be off to a new part of my life.
I sometimes look forward to waiting. It means that I’m alive and moving. When I come to rest, the waiting will be over. My time will be over. I will disappear. The land, weather, and sky wait.