We medievalists are an odd bunch. We love knights in shining armor. We love Tolkien, Mysticism, and sampling rare cheese. But our favorite thing is the (boringly titled) International Congress of Medieval Studies that takes place every year in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
OK, nothing sounds more dull than that – I know – but bear with me. This was the most fun I’ve had as an academic and it’s really the highlight of every medievalist’s year – more than 2,000 of us show up from all over the world. (Why? More on that in the next post.)
I wanted to fly, but tickets are expensive and the tax man really took it out of us this year (I’m not bitter). So, I had to travel on something less distinctive than a jet plane:
It was my first time to take such a long trip in a domestic train. It was a 24 hour trip to Chicago followed by a three hour ride from there to Kalamazoo and that’s a long time for a tall guy to be in a seat. Fortunately, I was in luck. Riding the Amtrak is actually pretty fun.
The first thing I noticed was the leg room. There was more leg room than I would find in a first class seat on a plane, and every seat in my cabin had electric sockets for laptops. Not bad, but it’s still a long trip. The monotony is easier to bear than it would be on a plane, however, because you get to walk around the many carts, including the cool observation cabin where you can lounge in cool chairs and mingle with folks. But I spent most of my time catching up on Sherlock Holmes stories. I hadn’t read for fun in a very long time, and I had forgotten what it was like to stay up at night getting to the end of a good story rather than forcing myself to finish a chapter because it was homework.
Riding a train is all about the people, and I met a very colorful cast of characters on board the Amtrak; here are a few of them:
- A mentally unstable man who pulled the emergency brake in the middle of the night and tried to escape out the window because he believed that the conductor was kidnapping him. I’m not sure why, but the passengers felt a moral obligation to talk him back inside. (I thought we should let him go.)
- A magician on his way to a magic conference. We agreed that Chris Angel is terrible, Cardini is a legend, and Lance Burton is a true gentlemen and one of the few living greats.
- One man stopped me as I was walking by to tell me that he was a Muslim (a Sufist, to be precise) who didn’t care for the book I was reading (Ignatius of Loyola’s autobiography), and that he was a terrorist sympathizer who proudly didn’t have a problem with the 9/11 terror attacks. It made me wonder how many people on trains happen to be on the No-Fly List.
- There was a wonderful fellow named Bob who had dinner with me. He was traveling the country visiting his many children and grandchildren, and we discussed our love of books and speculated on religion and philosophy. “It would appear that there are no accidents – that the world has a Design.” “True, but what does that mean?” “I don’t know. I can see the Design, but what is its purpose?” “Agreed, the purpose is elusive. Perhaps it is enough to simply discern from this the evidence and presence of a Designer.” “Agreed.” (Alas, our amateur philosophical speculation could take us no further.)
- A doctor on her way to a convention. I told her I was a medievalist and she asked me if I was chasing down questions from The DaVinci Code. After I explained the problems with Dan Brown for 20 minutes she promised not to bring it up again.
This ride wasn’t bad. In Missouri we picked up a snorer who sat behind me and sawed wood all night, so between him and the lunatic who pulled the brake I didn’t sleep much. When the train stopped, I was in Chicago’s famed Central Station.
I didn’t get to do much there, because Central Station is just about as much fun as sitting at the bus stop with everyone in the world. I finally boarded the train to Kalamazoo and set off on the last train ride of the journey. For some reason it seemed longer than the first one. I think it’s because some guy in front of me screamed on his phone the entire time. First he would call his girlfriend and curse at her loudly. Then he would call his friends and complain that not enough girls would sleep with him and that he couldn’t imagine why this happened. I could have told him.
The train station is a few miles from Eastern Michigan University where the conference is held. Outside of the train station I met some guys who were trying to find the University, since I had plotted out the walking directions before I left I told them they could come with me. (Which is good, because the map they were looking at was upside down – I did not feel silly pulling out my compass.)
I was happy to walk so much after more than a full day in trains and waiting rooms. The three of us discussed medieval history all the way to the conference site. I knew I was with the right people.