Crawlspace

“As long as we get to where we’re going, it doesn’t matter how we get there,” Lee said as he threw his bag into the luggage compartment. I was in Europe, it was the summer in between my junior and senior year of college. I didn’t really have a plan, but I’d spent the past three years saving up for this two month Euro Rail train ticket, one of these unlimited type passes that was supposed to get me on any train in any country.

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Of course there was a lot more to it than that, but I hadn’t done any research at all. I bought the ticket through this online travel agency, it came in the mail, I set all of the paperwork aside, but kept them on the top of all of the other piles of papers and forms that had accumulated at my desk, almost like I was challenging myself to see how long I could keep it alive in my consciousness, this idea of knowing that I had these papers that I should look over, but never really finding the right moment to sit down and figure out the details.

I’ve since lived in like five or six different apartments, so that’s the only reason that I know for sure that those papers aren’t still there on that desk. But no, I never wound up going through them. I just kind of showed up in Europe, wandered over to a train station and hopped on the next train departing to Brussels. When the conductor came over I just handed him my ticket.

“What is this?” he asked.

“It’s my ticket. That’s my Euro Rail pass.”

“Yeah well, you can’t just show up on a train. These things sell out. You still need a ticket.”

“What?”

And that went on for like five minutes or so before I had to cough up fifty Euros, money that I didn’t really have to be wasting on additional train tickets. And so yeah, I learned fast, the ins-and-outs of riding the trains, how even though the system was mostly similar from country to country, each nation definitely had its own train subtleties.

I was in Italy when I fell in with this group of American backpackers. I mean, I was backpacking too, but these guys all had that experienced backpacker look. And so I wound up following them around to all of these really cool smaller cities and coastal towns that I never would have thought to explore on my own.

There wasn’t any structure to the group, people came and left along the way, but Lee was definitely the de facto leader. He wasn’t the kind of guy who laid out an itinerary or anything like that, but I don’t believe that he was just winging it either. My thought was always that he had some sort of a larger plan, routes and destinations selected three or four sites in advance. But such was his leadership style that he rarely had to do any actual directing. People just kind of talked to him one-on-one about where he thought about heading next, and he’d always give these non-committing responses, like, “I was thinking bout checking out Brindisi,” and word would just spread through the rest of us.

But I started to question his motives as we headed further South into Italy. That was when we were at the train station, when Lee said that whole thing about not mattering how you get to wherever it was that you’re going next. See, the train was overbooked, which happened pretty often. A lot of the time the train companies were either trying to get us to shell out more money for seats, or they wanted to shove us into the crappiest seats possible.

Again, I had no way of knowing that, but Lee was an experienced traveler. He stood there and kind of rubbed his sun-bleached beard with one hand, telling us that most of these overbooked trains had plenty of seats. We agreed that Lee should take all of our money and he went to collectively bargain for us, not at the ticket booth, but right with one of the conductors.

And then a few minutes later, Lee came back around to where we were all waiting, we followed him as he threw his backpack into the cargo area, and then the we started following the conductor toward the back of the train, where he was pointing down at what I thought was the wheels.

“Wait a second,” I said, “What’s he saying?”

It was crazy. On this particular train, all of the seats indeed looked to be fully occupied, and there were bodies crammed even into the aisles, so standing up wasn’t an option. But Lee had done his negotiating, insisted with the conductor that there had to have been some space – apparently he knew enough Italian to, from my perspective at least, engage in an Italian-sounding conversation – until they came to an agreement and led us to the back of the last car.

The conductor bent down, at the very bottom of the car, and he undid a latch. There was a flat cargo area, a very small space in between the floor of the car and the base of the train. It was almost a joke, this little area was only like maybe a foot, a foot and a half tall, and I could only assume that it ran the entire length of the car.

Some words were exchanged in Italian, and then Lee said, “OK everybody, this is us.”

“What do you mean this is us?” one of the other backpackers said.

“This is where we’re riding,” Lee said.

“Are you serious?” people started hurling questions at our leader. “You want us to lie flat down there? Is that even safe? Can we breathe down there? Have you ever done this before?”

Sure, I’d taken long train rides where I had to stand the whole time, and those weren’t very pleasant, but I’d never even heard about anything like this.

“Of course I’ve done this before,” Lee said. And I was staring at him, trying to read his face. It wasn’t the most confident expression I’d ever seen, like, I couldn’t tell if he was serious, if he had done this before and just really didn’t like it, or if he secretly thought this was crazy also, but didn’t want to appear weak in front of everybody.

A few of the travelers got their packs out of the cargo car and decided to wait, but Lee warned the rest of us that tomorrow’s train probably wasn’t going to be any less crowded. And when he said it like that, I got really kind of anxious, like my time in Europe was dwindling away, that there were so many other countries that I hadn’t seen yet. I started thinking that, maybe I was spending a little too much time with this group, dependent on someone else’s idea of what backpacking through Europe was supposed to be. After all, I’d never really planned on staying this long in Italy. I wanted to go to Spain, make a circle up to Scandinavia. I started thinking about maybe parting ways with the group after we got to Rome.

Lee grabbed hold of a bar on the outside of the car, lifted his legs up, and slid his body inside the flat little room under the train.

“Lee!” I called in after him. “How is it?”

“It’s fine!” he said. “It’s padded, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

And then other people started following him in. The train was signaling that it was about to pull out of the station, so I made up my mind to do it, to just jump in. But I couldn’t go face up. I don’t like enclosed spaces at all, and the idea of being on my back for whatever reason just felt a lot more claustrophobic than lying on my stomach.

In retrospect, I don’t think that either way would have been more comfortable, and I never gave myself the chance to try it out again on my back to give myself a sense of comparison. But lying there on my stomach, my head tilted to the right with my sweatshirt under my chin like a pillow, the whole situation quickly devolved into the nightmare that any of you could imagine it was.

There were maybe seven of us back there, and while we were mostly talkative and upbeat for the first fifteen minutes or so, the crippling confines of our new reality quickly became the only thing that any of us could think about. I had thought that being face-down would allow me to be able to turn my head or pick it up a little bit to see in front of me without feeling like I was trapped in a little box, but there was nothing to see. The vents at the far side of the train were visible, but only as thin white lines in the distance somewhere.

And I don’t know how I didn’t think about it beforehand, but the bumps, they were so much more pronounced down there. The train’s suspension did a decent enough job at preventing us from lifting off the ground, but that was about it. It was like I could actually feel the wheels going over the rails.

As people started to freak out, asking questions like, what if there’s an emergency? Or, is there any way to signal to the conductor if we need help down here? Lee did his best to keep everyone calm. But even our mighty leader soon enough fell unhinged from his strong nature as the confines of our circumstance caused pains and kinks in our necks and back, pains that caused our bodies to every once in a while tense up automatically, as if there were any room to roll to our sides, or, in everyone else’s case, to try and sit up, to the point where, after a couple of hours or so, the only sound that interrupted the sounds of our soft whimpering was the occasional dull thud as someone’s head made contact with the padded roof.

The train would come to a crawl every two or three hours, apparently they were making some local stops along the way to Rome, but nobody ever came to check on us, despite our screams. We were all ready to get out, right there, wherever, because the enclosed nature of the ride was progressively getting worse. I had to go to the bathroom. I was thirsty. I just wanted out.

I lost track of time, but it felt like eight or nine hours later when the little slot at the end opened up, the conductor hurling Italian words at us. I tried to look for something in his voice, like was he happy? Had he ever really put people down here before? Did he find this bunch of stupid tourists to be a joke?

And then when I tried to crawl out, I just couldn’t, there wasn’t anywhere to get leverage, not to turn my body around, not to do a mini-push up, to try and inch my way out. That’s what I wound up doing, pressing all my body’s weight to the roof, and then I inched my toes back what could have only been maybe a half an inch at a time before collapsing. And so that’s what it was like, barely making any progress toward the exit, the people at my head were yelling at me to move faster, their feet pushing against my face.

The whole ride was awful, but I want to say that those last moments were the absolute worst, using all of my strength to try and get out, but getting nowhere, worrying that maybe the conductor would close the door. I pictured him – I can still picture it, actually – shutting the door on my feet right as I’m almost at the door, him laughing at me as I scream in vain for him to let me go.

So the more panicked I got, the more my body tightened up, the more I thought I would never make it out, when finally a thick pair of hands grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me out, hard. I didn’t see that coming, and so my arms just kind of gave way, my face falling to the floor and rubbing against the padding, giving me a nice friction burn on my right cheek until, with half of my body out of the car, I swung my hands down to the ledge until I had enough leverage to lift myself the rest of the way out.

My entire body screamed with a pain I hadn’t known before and have thankfully never felt since. I looked down and, apparently I must have peed my pants while I was stuck in there. For a second, my sheer sense of embarrassment outweighed the physical pain, but only for a second, because I looked around and all of us had peed our pants. Because how long were we in there for anyway?

Lee wasn’t exempt. I looked toward him and I really wanted to be pissed off. Like come on man, why didn’t you just say something? Anything? Like, sorry guys, I’ve never actually done this before, I have no idea what I’m doing, we should probably wait for another train. Why was it OK for you to lead us inside of that crawlspace? I wanted to get in his face and start yelling, I wanted to grab him by his shirt and scream, but I couldn’t get any words out. Lee was crying, and while it didn’t lessen my anger towards him, but I guess it kind of softened it. Because I didn’t have the strength to say anything to him. Nothing at all.

We all stood there for a minute, trying not to make eye contact with each other. The conductor unlocked the baggage car, I grabbed my bag, went to the bathroom to change into a clean pair of pants, and that was it, I turned away and walked a few blocks past the station, until I was sure nobody else from the group had followed me. And then I flagged down a cab and, luckily, the driver knew enough English for me to tell him to take me to a hotel I had circled in one of my traveling guides.

And that was that, you know, in terms of traveling with other people, I’ll never do it again. Not like that, not where I just assume I’m being led around by someone who knows what he’s doing. Because man, even though that was a long time ago, I still have trouble laying down on my stomach, like even if it’s just in my bed, not every time, but once in a while, I’ll fall asleep for only a second or two and it feels like I’m right back there, rolling along on the ground, trying to get myself to move, but I can’t, I’m stuck.

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