In the US, most people don’t consider trains to be a very practical way of traveling between cities. Flying is faster. Driving is more convenient. When I started to travel abroad, I was impressed by how practical trains are in other countries.
In Ukraine, I learned about night trains. The concept is brilliant: you get on in the evening, go to sleep, and 12 hours later you wake up in the morning and you’re right where you need to be! You save your days for the activities you want to do, and there’s no need to get a hotel for the night. It seemed like the peak of innovation in travel.
After I took a few night trains, I found out that it’s not always easy. Sometimes you end up in a compartment with someone who snores like a tuba and you can’t sleep. Sometimes the train sways so far to the left and right that it seems like it’s going to fly off the track. The worry is enough to keep you up all night. Sometimes it’s really cold and the winter wind whistles through the cracks in the wooden window frames and you can’t sleep.
My first winter in Ukraine, I took a night train back to Kyiv after a concert in another city. On this trip, it was cold and my bunk was hard and the train’s piercing whistle sounded like it was mounted right above my bunk.
As I lay awake, I noticed a small bump in my pocket, digging into my hip. Was it a coin? I pulled it out and looked. It was a plastic subway token from the Kyiv metro, worth 5 hryvnia. That amount of money won’t buy a cup of coffee, but it will take you anywhere in Kyiv.
I was a long way from Kyiv, though, and my nighttime imagination ran wild. What if I was not on the train now, but outside? What if I needed to get back to my apartment in Kyiv, 300 kilometers away, with only one coin in my pocket? What if I needed to get back home to America, across the ocean, thousands of miles away?
I thought of the American vagabonds who hopped trains to travel around the country in search of work or adventure, carrying only old knapsack and maybe a harmonica or guitar. I think of the 1930s and 40s as the time when the mystique surrounding these adventurers was born. During that time, a 5-cent nickel might have been enough for a cup of coffee or a bite of bread. But if a traveler only had a nickel in their pocket, they would need to rely on their ingenuity and believe in the generosity of strangers on the road.
The night train kept rumbling along and the wind kept whistling in the windows. I was shivering on my bunk with the standard issue train blanket, which is not nearly warm enough for the bitter Ukrainian winter. Since I couldn’t sleep, I got out my notebook and wrote this song. It’s called 3000 Miles To Go.
3000 Miles To Go
I’ve got a nickel token in my pocket I've got three thousand miles to go I'm heading for my home and my table The place I left so long ago I'm leaving in the heart of the night time I hope I get there ‘fore the noon I'm carrying my troubles and my worries And I'm taking all my pain I gambled all my earnings And I won't see them again I'm waiting for the sunshine It's been raining great gray railway ties from heaven I hope you'll be waiting for me, baby I hope you'll meet me at the door I want to feel your loving arms around me I want to taste your lips once more I'll make you happy in the night time I'll give you all the things you never had when I was gone I've got a nickel token in my pocket I've got three thousand miles to go I'm heading for my home and my table The place I left so long ago I'm leaving in the heart of the night time I hope I get there ‘fore the noon