Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

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This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

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So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.

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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.