Photograph by Ricardo Wang

My Country, My Train, My K-Hole

There are plenty of good reasons to ride a train cross-country, but for our correspondent and his attention index, hitting the rails has one purpose: to escape the merciless internet.

The train from Chicago to New Orleans passes through Kankakee, Homewood, and Yazoo City; names that evoke images of wagon trains and episodes of Dr. Quinn. I don’t know most of this country.

Were I to draw a map, the Northeast would be ponderously detailed; Chicago would float in limbo; and California would consist of San Francisco and L.A. smooshed together between beaches and pot farms. The rest would be a mess, cartography by way of Cubism.

I’d like to say riding the train taught me something about this country; that my seatmate (probably, to ensure maximum movie potential, my elderly, black, female seatmate), told me about growing up on a farm in Yazoo City, or the first car to come to Homewood. But she slept most of the ride, and the only words we exchanged were a cordial “Have a safe trip,” when she got off at Jackson.

The train cut through towns at dawn and dusk. I saw dirt roads and business districts, stretched my legs in Memphis, and watched the moon rise through the snack car window. Sans context, without my mythical seatmate’s ur-narrative of rural childhood, the Mississippi—that long north-south axis of Americana—sprawled alongside me, meaningless.

Just the way I like it.

I don’t love trains because they teach me about America. I don’t love them because they connect me with a country I have never known. I love them because they disconnect me from everything else. When the train pulls out of the station, it’s like a plug being yanked from a socket. There is a moment of psychic tightening, as the invisible tether of responsibility pulls taught.

WAIT! I should be online! Connected! Accounta—

A silent snap, and I’m free.


* * *

Pop Quiz!

If you read the above carefully, absorbed each word, didn’t skim or skip a single line, you read 286 words (or 285.5, depending on how you count “accounta—”). Over the course of those 286 words, how many times did you check your email? Look at Facebook? Send a text?

Divide those two numbers, and you’ve got your attention index. Mine is measly. Even while editing my own writing, I got distracted 4 times, which means I can pay attention for an average of 71 words. That’s about as long as the chorus of your average pop song. Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” perhaps the current definition of pop song, comes in a little long at 81 words, and an uncountable number of auto-tuned noises. One imagines those extra words enable her to get across the post-modern Derridean influences she mentions so often. “Out in the club / and I’m sippin’ that bub / and you’re not gonna reach my telephone.” Take that, you hidebound structuralist motherfuckers.

Over the course of those 286 words, how many times did you check your email? Look at Facebook? Send a text?According to a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 4.1 percent of American adults have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Yet according to an informal survey of People In My House (PIMH), 100 percent of American adults claim to be “totally ADD” all the time. Don’t dismiss PIMH because it consists of three stoners and a mouse. I think they have a point.

Like money, attention is something we must pay. Perhaps the 4.1 percent of us recognized by the NIMH are simply those who exist below the attention poverty line. The rest of us have more, but rarely an inexhaustible supply. Our wallets bulge and thin depending on the day, and we use Adderall like a game show lifeline. By choice or accident of birth in the contemporary U.S.A., most of us are living far beyond our attention means. The blips and bleeps of our phones and computers, the necessity of working far from home, the number of people we know or, in the case of celebrities, feel like we know—we pay for all of it.

I am as profligate with attention as I am spendthrift with money. I am a freelance writer, which means I am constantly hunting for the next story, the next job. My necessary evil is networking—that vile word that calls up whitened teeth in bad suits, executives drinking expensive wine and orgiastially congratulating themselves. Also, I move constantly. In the past year, I’ve resided in three different places in New York City, three in Puerto Rico, one in New Jersey, and one in New Orleans. I’ve also gone on eight road trips, lasting between three days and two weeks, during all of which I’ve worked on my laptop, on my iPhone, and (in moments of true desperation) on paper. Currently, I’m packing to move back to New York. I might be the extreme end of the curve, but I’m not alone. According to a Census Bureau report in 1993 one in six Americans moved every year.

Focus is something I experience mostly via its absence. On a daily basis, I mine the furthest extents of my mind for a little bit more. When it comes to paying attention, I’m like that person on line at the grocery store, trying to buy toilet paper with pennies. I am a dry well, a clear-cut forest, an overdrawn checking account.

A long train ride is the equivalent of being in debtor’s prison. There is no internet, and for vast swaths of the country, no cell phone reception. Changes of scenery are limited. I went to the bathroom to put on pajamas and fart before bed. Around sunrise, snoring drove me to the lower level of the snack car, where my only company was the woman who sold coffee and the man with whom she was flirting. She called me “sugar” and “honey” and “baby,” all within a conversation that couldn’t have lasted a minute. I basked in refracted endearments while a sullen teenager wandered in, looking for a dark place to play her Nintendo DS. I watched an old woman walk a colicky baby back and forth through the cars; one full lap took about 10 minutes. That was the extent of my world, a limited set of choices as lulling (in its own way) as the rhythm of the wheels beneath me.

The train is a liberating K-hole, a moment of suspended animation where it’s entirely acceptable to not answer phone calls, not check your email, not speak to anyone, not go outside, not finish that proposal, not order new checks, not call your father, not work out, not shower, not change.

There are an endless number of things you can not do.


* * *

Some time in the night, the woman in front of me turned and tapped me on the knee.

“Do your sockets work?” she asked. Every seat in the train comes with a pair of electrical outlets, another way in which trains are infinitely superior to cars or planes. Except in this case, my outlet was dead. The entire car was without power.

I was seized with panic. Stalking electrical outlets is the closest I get to regularly hunting for sustenance. Access to electricity is a necessity in my life. I move through the world with a portable shackle, always looking for the next place to tether myself.

Then I realized that for a rare day, I didn’t need to plug in anything. Not even—or perhaps especially—myself. Let my computer die, my iPhone power down. The world wouldn’t end simply because I couldn’t read about it on Facebook.

The three, or four, or six hours it takes to traverse the country by plane simply aren’t enough to quiet the desire to multitask.So between Chicago and New Orleans, I read a book. It was a silly, poorly written piece of science fiction, but I read the entire thing from start to finish. I read my way through Kankakee, Homewood, and Yazoo City, from Illinois down through Tennessee and Mississippi. I took a few breaks: to nap, to start this essay. Mostly, however, I just read. Pages slowly drifted by as some passengers exited and others boarded.

For the first time in a long time, I never once stopped to question who a particular character was, or why they were calling their mother. I never needed to flip backwards to find the spot where my attention had drifted. With every page, it felt easier to keep my focus in one place. The lingering desire to respond—to my phone, to my email, to my surroundings—dissipated. Nineteen hours drifted by slowly. No, “slowly” isn’t the right word. “Leisurely.”

I’m no Luddite. By the time I landed in New Orleans, I was desperate—desperate—to check my email. Given the option, I have the internet close at hand 24/7, to keep up with friends splashed around the world, jobs with no physical location, and Lindsay Lohan’s every move. Which is why I need those places where I have no choice, to limit the lizard-brain that wants constant stimulation. The three, or four, or six hours it takes to traverse the country by plane simply aren’t enough to quiet the desire to multitask. For city-dwellers like me, there are few other moments in life when we are outside the option of cell phone or Wi-Fi service—an option that feels more and more like a requirement every day. Having your phone off is seen as a moral failure, an antisocial tendency that is suspect at best, if not a downright indication of psychosis. I live in fear of the day I get reception on the subway. I dream of the Orient Express, of Atlantic steamers, of camping trips in remote forests—places where my reserves of attention can be filled, so that I can return refreshed to Twitter and Facebook, the subway and CNN, all 14 of my magazine subscriptions and the innumerable blogs in my RSS feed.

I leapt off that train like a Vegas rookie, pockets bulging, ready to be fleeced. Without a doubt, I’ll soon come crawling back, twitching, Tweeting, and bleeping like an epileptic robot desperate for respite. The train will be waiting to pull my plug and set me free.

Hugh Ryan is a freelance writer and full-time wanderer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, The Daily Beast, and other places. He is a nonfiction reader for the literary journal A Public Space, and he received his MFA in Nonfiction from The Bennington Writing Seminars. More by Hugh Ryan