Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Trains nowadays are so quiet that you can barely hear the famous clickety-clack of the wheels gliding on the tracks.  You hear only the conductor’s whistle, the squeak of the joints between cars, the squeal of brakes. The train rocks you; you’re in its care and it babies you, soothes you, makes you feel safe.

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The beauty of the train is that where it doesn’t skirt a major highway, there are no gas stations or novelty shops or McDonald’s to obstruct your view of open farmland and grassland. Of course you’ll see cattle, fences here and there, farm houses and grain silos spaced miles apart, but these accouterments of humanity don’t clutter the landscape. They’ve been here for a long time and so seem as natural on the North Dakota prairies as the immense skies that hang over them.

The land opens up like a book and the railroad runs down its crease. From here you can read the text of the country inscribed in curly-q creeks, parenthetical folding hills, ruler-drawn wheat rows and farm houses that dot the landscape like periods. Moving westward through Montana, distant mountains thrust upward to punctuate a geological narrative written across thousands of miles.

The wind here deafens, though it’s only a gentle breeze. The creeks thunder, though they’re mere trickles. Here everything quiet becomes loud. Sounds blossom out of the silence and thereby reveal their full shape and texture.

I like North Dakota because here nobody screams at you. With whom can you be angry when you’re all alone? What is there to hate when you’re surrounded by grassland and bald hills? Hating this place would be like hating a shoebox: childish and useless. The landscape is what it is, but then people are who they are, too, and we hate them even so.

I like North Dakota because here people speak softly, especially when they speak out of conviction. A North Dakotan named Larry raised the possibility of busing homeless people to abandoned military bases where they could make a life. He felt strongly about this idea, however impractical it may be, but he voiced it with such a calm and mild manner that I never dreamed of entering into a heated debate over it.

Elsewhere in the country, on cable news, in magazines, on blogs, Americans are shouting and spitting at one another, whereas here the people whisper to each other across the prairie, knowing that voices carry far in this quiet land, and there’s no need to yell.

This is a hasty impression based on a few conversations and grounded in naive romanticism. I know that, but allow me my fantasies!

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Minneapolis–City Within a City

In the fall of 2009 I traveled by train from Boston to Seattle and back.  Below and in succeeding posts I share thoughts and experiences from the journey.
 
Minneapolis: City Within a City
Minneapolis in November is a busy city.  Men and women sprint to and from work dressed in suits and ties, business skirts and high heels that knock knock knock on the pavement. Mothers push children in strollers. Toddlers frolic in parks and stick their hands in fountains that fall from the sky. Here, a homeless man ambles along with hands outstretched. There, an elderly gentleman relaxes on a bench and peruses the newspaper without really reading it. The city is alive with music and laughter. Minneapolis in November is electric–inside.

Outside, the city is quiet. Still the homeless and the destitute limp along the streets, though out here more of them do so with the aid of a walker or a cane, or else they swing one leg around as if it were a burdensome piece of luggage. Poverty looks more brutal in the northern latitudes.

Outside, in the cool of fall, dried leaves tinkle to the ground and leap about like a horde of camouflaged yellow-red toads. The sun filters through a translucent layer of clouds and rains silver on the city’s gleaming skyscrapers. The city is beautiful with its metallic sky, its steel buildings and the aluminum Mississippi River flowing through it. But it’s mostly quiet out here.

Minneapolis’s convoluted system of sky-walks enables this inside/outside dichotomy. These closed walkways zig and zag through downtown from one block to another, bridging the same streets over and over again. Without setting foot outdoors, you can pass through a Barnes and Noble, a serene park, a food court, a Wells Fargo, a gigantic Target, a university, the lobby of a Hyatt, the base of an office tower, a Macy’s, and probably any other place of business that might come to mind. And you may cover eight miles en route and cross a dozen streets multiple times.

Because the sky-walks are the primary means of getting from one place to another, you’re likely to see an odd mix of people commingling. Passing through a Neiman Marcus you may see people who (like me) would never buy something at a Neiman Marcus (for want of money). Young men fresh from the gym, sporting sweat-stained T-shirts and shorts, may hurry by you in an elegant hotel lobby. And then there’s that elderly homeless man, wearing a weathered jacket and a weathered face. He’s just leaving Macy’s.

At the Dance Club: Power, Beauty, Influence, Inspiration

At an undisclosed dance club I witnessed power of a sort I had never seen before.  A lone woman in her mid-twenties wandered onto the dance floor during a brief pause between songs.  Her skin was tanned.  Her black hair gave off a rainbow sheen that shifted in the dim lights of the club.  It hung to her shoulders and swayed from side to side as she glided to the center of the dance floor.  Where other women in the club wore elegant dresses with low necklines, she wore a simple pink tank top and white shorts that revealed an athletic body with soft curves.  Where the other women wore high heels and lustrous footwear, the woman in the pink tank top wore only flip-flops.

In the idle moment between songs, the throng on the dance floor milled about, sipped martinis, laughed and yelled at a volume still adjusted to the music that had just cut off.  They took no notice of the woman in the pink tank top who had wandered into their midst.

Then, the music resumed.  Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” issued from the speakers and the woman in pink began to undulate to the song’s rhythm.  The music worked its way slowly through her, from her hips to her arms and her legs, even to the tips of her slender fingers, until the whole of her being became a physical extension of the music that pervaded the club.  Her movements rippled through the throng on the dance floor as waves of gravity through space, and, slowly at first, but with quickening speed, the dancers around her fell into her orbit.  Their movements mirrored her own.  Their bodies turned toward hers.  First one man joined her, then another.  These men flew in like comets, and like comets they soon hurtled outward after their brief encounter with the sun at the center of their solar system. 

The woman in pink danced at first with her eyes closed, lost in the music yet aware of everyone around her.  Then she opened her eyes and in an instant rested them on everyone in the club, as if every dancer enjoyed her undivided attention.  Each person felt her stare as a private linking of souls, as if they alone existed in her world.

When the music stopped, the woman in the pink tank top stopped dancing, too.  The solar system that had coalesced around her flew apart in an instant and scattered in all directions.  As she glided off the floor, as inconspicuously as she had glided onto it, some of the dancers whom she had drawn into her orbit stared after her as planets longing after their wayward sun. 

What is power?  There’s brute force power—the power to force action in others.  There’s power in beauty and grace, in movement and skill.  There’s power in doing something well and inspiring awe in those around you.  There’s power in suggestion, in planting seeds of thought and action in those around you and waiting for them to act of their own accord, influenced by your suggestion, but not forced or coerced into action.  The power of influence spreads surreptitiously.  It ripples from its source like waves in a pond, often accidentally.  Brute force bangs its chest and howls, makes itself known through volume, because in these acts lies its power.  It barks and flexes its muscles, shakes its fists, and sometimes levels blows against those whom it wishes to control. 

The woman in the pink tank top walked into a club knowing no one.  She danced with grace, skill and beauty.  She drew people into her orbit in spite of herself, not in an effort to control, but because she was herself.  She was authentic.  She was joyful.  Maybe it’s a mistake to use the terms “power” and “influence” to describe what she possessed.  Maybe the better word to use would be “inspiration.”  The woman in the pink tank top inspired a crowd of people she did not know to array themselves around her and to dance to her rhythm, to give rise to something transcendent, an organized system that didn’t exist before her arrival.  A person may play the violin to perfection; she may sculpt statues with precision or write computer code as poets craft verses.  A person may simply show kindness.  Any of these acts, done well, can inspire.

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Beyond Words

There are books you avoid because their heft intimidates you and there are books you avoid because you doubt they can possibly live up to their reputations.  Then there are books you avoid both because you fear them and because you can’t imagine a work of literature achieving the perfection so many attribute to it.  For me, ten years ago, Crime and Punishment was such a book.  Until about a month ago, Les Miserables was such a book.  And until today, War and Peace was such a book.  Now, I get it.

Tolstoy didn’t write a novel.  He created a world.  He outdid historians in his depiction of the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russia and Russians.  He elucidated the aristocratic lifestyle.  He philosophized and quested for meaning and purpose in life.  He revealed the constrained circumstances of Russian women who depended on marrying well to advance.  He expounded on the ineffability of human life and historical events.  Etc.

The powers of language are always suspect in this book.  Tolstoy writes now with precision, now with force, now with delicacy, yet from his argument–sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit–that life and history defy description emerges the idea that language itself is deficient and even dishonest.  Tolstoy takes feeble words as his tools, pieces them together, and in doing so transcends their limitations and creates something that is far larger than its constituent parts.  His underlying thesis (or, rather, one of his underlying theses) is that no essay, no historical tome, no library of a million essays and historical tomes can describe or explain a historical event, be it large or small.  You can’t tell what happened; you have to show it, and even then you’ll leave out almost everything. 

I know almost nothing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, of what it meant to be a Russian before, during or after the invasion.  I know almost nothing about who or what drives history, about who or what causes people to be good or bad, smart or dumb, brave or cowardly.  But about all of these things I know infinitely more than I did before I picked up War and Peace.  Which is saying a lot and almost nothing at all. 

I leave off with two quotes by Tolstoy that sum up his book better than I can:

“The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind.  To grasp directly and embrace in words–to describe–the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible” (p. 1179).

“What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still lesss a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed” (p. 1217).

What Just Happened?

The decision to leave Texas, change careers and go back to school was, and sometimes remains, wrenching, but this voluntary submission to upheaval and uncertainty (or possibility, to look at it in the better light) has brought opportunities whose significance will only grow with time. In the netherworld between my time teaching and the beginning of graduate school I’ve gotten to know the U.S. in ways deep and varied. In the process I’ve enriched my understanding of everything from the quirks and charms of this country’s people to the paradoxical intimacy and indifference of the American landscape. I’ve become what I always most wanted to be: a student of places, put in his place by the complexity of a nation.

There are many ways to know a “place” (a term that is awfully vague), and they don’t all involve traveling. I’ve seen the U.S. in a variety of ways, beginning with family road trips when I was a kid, but for the first time I’ve been able to combine in a four-month period ten-thousand-mile road trips with short and cheap regional excursions by bus; flights from northeast to southwest with plodding three-day rail journeys from the Atlantic to the Pacific; solo travel with family and group travel; planned itineraries with figure-it-out-as-you-go jaunts; long stays in one city with quick dips into many. In this time I’ve gone through thirty-three states, run into more than a dozen nationalities, encountered essentially all four seasons in a matter of days, and talked politics with people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. I’ve seen, for the first time, our largest metropolis, New York, and, for the second time, our largest natural feature, the Grand Canyon and the emptiness that emanates from it into five states (thinking conservatively).

I highlight all of this only because the compression of so many experiences into so tight a temporal space provides a rare opportunity for contemplation and comparison. Why? Because I don’t think I’ll ever again have so many different and ostensibly contradictory experiences in working memory at the same time. I’m bewildered by the unending nuance and vast extension of a place that claims me as a citizen. Such confusion might militate against productive thought, but then maybe confusion is the most honest starting point for understanding something that is relentlessly complicated and slippery. So to end on an anticlimactic note, I’m effing confused, but the confusion I feel is of the type that enthralls for being so obviously inevitable. It’s no wonder we Americans can seem so loony. Or maybe that’s just me.