July 3, 2011, I boarded the Caledonian sleeper train out of London headed to Fort William, Scotland, with my husband, my 21 month old son, a folding push chair, a car seat, and a formidable amount of baggage (physical, not necessarily emotional). This was a trip made in the middle of a three week vacation that would include stops off in Norfolk and London in England, the tiny remote village of Applecross in the Highlands of Scotland, and finally Findhorn, an infamous self sustaining commune in Northern Scotland where we would visit good friends and their 20 month old daughter.
I’ve always wanted to take a sleeper train. It sounds so romantic. I never really envisioned it this way, with baby and tons of luggage. I think I imagined one neatly packed carry on which would include space for a rather hefty bottle of Scottish whiskey that Joshua and I would share as we alternatively watched the scenery whizz past and stared into each others’ eyes.
Despite being different than my fantasy, I have to say, the trip from England to Scotland on the sleeper train with baby and all was, in its own way, still quite romantic. The sway of the train while we slept, the dining car, where we did actually manage to share two mini-bar sized Glenfiddichs and a toast while Harper played with the whiskey containers…
Our berth was an intimidating 4 feet wide x 6 feet long. I was relieved to find that the extensive therapy I’ve done to confront my at times debilitating claustrophobia paid off in spades and I was able to manage well. Joshua is something of a master at organizing and tucking things away in small spaces, and I am a master at stepping aside and allowing him to do so. So the room, although unbelievably tight for three, was actually quite cozy. Less cozy in actuality, although it sounded very sweet in theory, was the sleeping arrangement which had me snuggled with baby Harper onto a plank passing as a bed that had to have been no more than 2 feet wide. Sleeping with a toddler starts off all warm and fuzzy. You stroke their hair. You feel their little chest rising and falling under your hand. Feel their breath land gently on your cheek. You think “this is heaven! Why don’t I always do this?” About an hour in, you wake up to a foot in your throat and the sickly sweet smell of a sweaty baby’s head.
Joshua and I managed very well. Amidst it all, we only had three sharp and short lived pissy exchanges borne out of frustration and physical challenges. We generally enjoyed every second of it, feeling exhausted but quite accomplished when we arrived on the other end.
As I write this, I’m sitting in the dining car the morning after our equally successful, albeit somewhat less enjoyable, return trip from Fort William to London. This time the trip has been sandwiched between a 4 hour car ride and a pending 7 hour flight with no breaks in between thanks to a two hour middle of the night train breakdown that we only now found out about. Last night’s bunking with baby was much more challenging due to…I wish I knew. It’s just like that sometimes, I guess. I woke feeling ten years older. I caught a glimpse of myself in the cabin s absurdly thin sliver of a mirror upon baby Harper’s 5 am wake and cry fest and I thought wow! Will I ever look rested again? I feel ancient, brittle, saggy. After a couple more hours sleep, I feel better than I did at 5 am, but still far from rejuvenated.
But still, the view from the window is incredible and I still love the rocking of the train. And my time on the sleeper train with hubby and baby actually was quite romantic.
Ali Smith is a photographer based in New York.