Stopping by Woods

a memoir by
MARIAN SULLIVAN | Translator + Writer

ONCE, I was taking Amtrak across Western New York to New York City. The freight trains had the right of way, so any time a freight train had to go by, we would pull off onto the side rails, and stop until it passed. One of the times this happened we were somewhere near Syracuse, going through the woods. It was late fall, and late afternoon, and all the trees were dark and bare. I was sitting next to a sort of grizzled-looking older guy in a pea green vest and glasses, maybe about sixty years old, and we weren’t talking. I had to look past him to see out the window, and I was looking out at the bare trees, when all of a sudden, it began to snow. Without a sound, of course, because snow doesn’t make a sound, but for some reason it struck me: without a sound. The snow was extremely heavy and thick, and it fell directly straight down, immediately filling in the spaces between the trees and highlighting every branch and twig.

I was so stunned by the beauty of the dark trees and the white snow that I said out loud, “my God.” And then, feeling like I should account for myself somehow, I went on and said to the guy next to me: “It’s just like that poem by what’s-his-name out there. The one about filling up the woods with snow. Robert Frost.” I’m not sure what I was expecting. I just blurted it out.

The guy next to me looked out the window. It was so obviously beautiful that I couldn’t be embarrassed for pointing it out to him. It was magical. I felt justified. We looked together. Then the guy said,

“I know what poem you mean. We had to memorize it in the eighth grade. I used to know it. It’s the one about the road, right?”

“No,” I said, “Well, maybe. I don’t really know. But no, I don’t think so. That’s a different one I thought. The one about the road less traveled. This is another one.”

“I know it, anyway,” he said, “I know the one you’re talking about, with the snow.”

“Here,” I pulled out my phone, “here, why don’t we look it up!”

I had never looked up a poem on my phone before. And I had never talked about poetry with a stranger. I didn’t even like poetry that much. But for some reason, I was suddenly very excited about this poem. It was like this one line had stuck in my head all this time waiting to get to the scene in my life that it described. And what were the odds that this stranger had memorized it once? It had been waiting for him too.

The guy settled into his seat and waited; he didn’t look away; he was all in for this weird idea. I Googled the poem. It was called “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening.” I scanned the text and saw the line I had thought of: “He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

But then I wasn’t sure what to do – nod and say, “yup, it’s Robert Frost,” and put my phone away? Read the line? Pass the phone so we could take turns reading it to ourselves? Should I read some of it out loud? I wasn’t sure. I hastily passed him the phone – he was the one who had it memorized, so maybe he would read it. He looked it over, taking his time.

“That’s it, alright,” he said, “yeah, I remember that last bit that says, ‘miles to go before I sleep.’ That’s it alright; that’s the one we had to memorize.”

He didn’t read it aloud. He passed back my phone and I held it in my hand. I didn’t feel ready to be done with the poem. I looked down at the end. One verse, I decided, I would read one verse aloud, in front of this view. I read quickly:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Wasn’t that true? I put the phone away.

A little while later the train started up again and we left the woods behind. The ice was broken, so the guy and I started talking a bit. He was a widower. His wife had died of cancer. They had a daughter; she lived with him now. She was 35. She had MS and depression.

“She’s mad at the world. She gets so she doesn’t want to go out, or see anybody. It’s really hard sometimes,” he told me. I listened. I looked away so he wouldn’t know that I knew he had tears in his eyes. I asked him questions to help when he got stuck. When it was my turn I told him about myself. I was looking for a steady job, living paycheck to paycheck. I was going to New York to see a guy. I loved him but he wasn’t sure how he felt about the whole thing. I was hoping for the best, but trying to respect his freedom at the same time.

When the conversation slowed down the sun had set outside the windows, and the fluorescent lights were on. Our window became flat and dark. The lights made me bleary.

“I think I’ll take a walk,” I said.

I went looking for a bathroom. The one in our car looked soaking wet from the doorway, so I let the door slam shut and kept walking. I found myself in the café car. It smelled like microwave pizza and bleach. I would have walked on by, but the woman behind the bar said in a friendly way, “what would you like?” and it came almost naturally to say, “two beers, please.” I took them back to my seat. I held one out awkwardly to the guy, who blinked at me through his glasses. He wasn’t a smiley guy, I was learning.

I said, “I thought, after all that talking, we might be thirsty. I hope you like Heineken.”

He took the beer. He had a bottle opener on his keychain. Like with the poem, he was quiet and easy; he made me feel comfortable, like this was normal. He was enjoying it like I was enjoying it, but he didn’t make a big deal out of it either. We drank the beers together. We talked a little more. Then we pulled into a station. It was his stop. We shook hands. We had never said our names, or where we lived. This was the end.

“Goodbye,” I said, “thank you.”

“Pray for me,” he said. And I do.

Enjoy more of Marian’s writing on her blog, A Barbarian Abroad.

Photograph by Annie Spratt