Railroad Bridge Over the Grand River

This is a gem of a bridge I discovered on one of my frequent random walks through Grand Rapids.  It is mere blocks from heavy pedestrian traffic–close enough to stumble upon, but far enough away to seem forgotten.

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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.

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.

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.