Riding The Little Engine That Could

Travel Stories: What if travel writer Paul Theroux had been aboard the train journey that became a classic children's book? Jim Benning imagines the account.

09.17.10 | 10:16 AM ET

Illustration by Bill Russell

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished to be on it. Which is why I found myself on this ridiculous train pulled by a little engine painted bright red. It had a golden bell on top and a big smiling face in front. If there were ever any dignity in this journey, the little engine’s cartoonish grin had annihilated it.

Making matters worse, I was sitting next to a clown. No, really. He wore an all-white tracksuit with big green oval dots, and a ridiculous conical red hat—the kind children wear at a birthday party. His lips were fire-engine red, the same color I’d seen on the ferocious Singaporean transvestites a few blocks off Orchard Road. He wouldn’t shut up.

“Look at those trees,” he said as we chugged along. “What beautiful golden oranges! What extraordinary red-cheeked apples!”

You’d think he’d never seen fruit before. I poured myself some brandy, took a swig and wrote in my journal, “Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation; and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind.”

Nice, right?

We chugged past grassy fields that reminded me of the Mongolian steppe. I asked the clown where he’d been. He said he didn’t know.

I took another swig and wrote, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

I was on fire.

Suddenly, the train stopped with a jerk. I looked out the window, hoping to see a station or a crossing, but could see only an endless sea of grass and a few trees. A few minutes passed and the other passengers—mainly toys and dolls of questionable provenance and materials—became restless.

I flashed back to a train ride in El Salvador and a riot outside a soccer stadium.

The brandy wasn’t cutting it. I pulled out a bottle of vodka I’d picked up in Vladivostok and poured a shot.

The dolls and toys were growing increasingly agitated.

I took another shot and wrote in my journal, “Anxious toys: There are few things more odious or abrasive to the human spirit.”

The clown pointed toward the tracks up ahead.

“Here comes a shiny new engine,” he said. “Let us ask him to help us.”

The toys and dolls jumped out of the train.

“Won’t you please pull our train over the mountain?” they implored the engine. “There are girls and boys on the other side who won’t have toys or food if you don’t help.”

But the engine wasn’t hearing it. It chugged off. Then came another, prompting further pleading for help, and more refusals. It was a sorry sight.

I watched the clown beside the tracks waving his pathetic flag for help, and recalled a Chinese proverb: “A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in.”

The clown was soon in tears, his head bowed. The elephant wailed. I reached into my bag and pulled out a flask of whiskey, a gift from the Norwegian prime minister. I took a swig, closed my eyes and felt the heat hit the back of my throat.

I was about to pull down my seat and take a well-deserved nap when the clown called out, “Here comes another engine. Maybe she’ll help us.”
It was a little engine painted blue—the same blue you see emanating from the waters off the Andaman Islands. The clown waved his sad flag again, gesturing for the engine to stop.

“Please, please, please help us,” the clown said.

I thought of Indonesia after the Dutch, and of the insidious post-colonial reliance on others.

The blue engine confessed she’d never been over the mountain. “I’m not very big,” she said. “They use me only for switching trains.”

Our prospects were dimming. I wrote, “You define a good train ride by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you didn’t break down before delivering toys and dolls.” I liked the sound of it.

Yet now we were broken down, and the toys and dolls were pinning their hopes on this tiny blue engine that would be better suited to the sad tracks outside Tbilisi, up against those dreary Georgian tenements.

But to my shock, the engine said, “OK, I’ll give it a try,” and then we were hitched and chugging, ever so slowly, up the mountain.

I was sick to my stomach and feeling the brandy and vodka and whiskey. I looked out the window. The horizon was spinning.

The little engine was puffing and chugging and struggling, and it wouldn’t stop saying, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

I wanted some quiet. Please, God, get me some quiet! This noisy little engine wouldn’t last a moment in Japan, I thought, and suddenly I longed to be aboard the Shinkansen, rolling past Mt. Fuji in perfect Japanese silence. Even if the economy was in the tank and the yen was worthless, there was dignity in that journey.

My eyelids were growing heavy.

In a moment, I would fall asleep, but first, I wrote in my journal: “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”

I was killing.

Jim Benning is the cofounder and coeditor of World Hum. He pokes fun because he loves.

9 Comments for Riding The Little Engine That Could

Rob 09.17.10 | 10:50 AM ET

I thought this was funny, creative, and a perfect channeling of Theroux!

Daisann McLane 09.17.10 | 3:32 PM ET

Jim this is a hoot! So, I guess you do Lucia’s bedtime story every night, huh?

Seriously though, I recently read Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star while I was staying in India. And to my surprise—for I usually find Theroux a cranky and unpleasant traveling companion, even for just an armchair excursion—I liked it. Old age seems to have humanized him, or at least made him less of a fussbudget and complainer.

Frank bures 09.17.10 | 3:42 PM ET

I’m going to cut and paste these into our book.  The kids will love it!

Michael Hodson 09.17.10 | 5:13 PM ET

LOVE this.  Theroux is my favorite A-hole.

Jim Benning 09.17.10 | 7:01 PM ET

Thanks, guys.

Indeed, Daisann, I have been reading a lot of “The Little Engine That Could” lately. It’s a great little book, but I just couldn’t help imagining a very different version from Theroux.

And I, too, really enjoyed “Ghost Train” and didn’t find Theroux to be cranky in the least.

Tim Patterson 09.19.10 | 9:06 PM ET

Hilarious.  I really enjoyed this satire.

Chuck Kirchner 09.20.10 | 1:05 AM ET

Maybe I DO believe in channeling now.  I also believe in whiskey, vodka and brandy.

Sophia Dembling 09.21.10 | 12:01 PM ET

I love it! I have a love/hate relationship with Theroux’s books. I’m more of a Bill Bryson girl myself. He doesn’t take himself so seriously. I think you should turn this into a series.

Marcy Gordon 09.21.10 | 5:52 PM ET

Ha! I was wondering what sort of interesting bedtime stories you read to your kid.

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