Tag Archives: America

Railroad vignettes: day 1 on the Southwest Chief

Train travel is the greatest, and that’s a fact. There’s none of the panoptical paranoia of flying, less of the butt-breaking vibration of driving, and abounding opportunities to meet new people, to sit down to dinner in a restaurant, and to walk about in beautiful places, all while speeding cross-country in air conditioned comfort. My neighbors are fine folks. The girl next to me introduced herself before she’d even sat down (what else can you do when you know you’ll be neighbors for the next fifty hours?); she’s headed to school in California to study nursing or education. It seems there are a lot of students headed out to start semesters across the country. May as well enjoy a vacation on the last few days of summer, and besides, the baggage allowance is great: two checked bags and two carry-ons. And really, who’s counting?

The Characters: An old man from Detroit is two rows back. He keeps making phone calls that end a few minutes in with, “Oh my, my phone battery’s almost dead. But God bless your soul, we’ll talk soon.” But from the way he keeps going, I’d say his phone battery’s fine; he just wants to gossip about the last conversation with the next person. Across the aisle is another funny old man. He’s wearing an obvious toupee over ill-disguised white hair. The woman he’s with is half his age. It’s a wonder they didn’t spring for a sleeper car. Just in front of him is a sweet little girl with her mother and grandmother. After a serious lecture to these maternal figures about her understanding of the body physics behind urination, little Cara proclaimed, “I love you my big mamma. Smell my breath.”

Thus far on the trip, the landscapes have been unspectacular. I love the Midwest with all my home-seeking heart, but with a second-floor observation car at my access, something other than invasive underbrush and Round-Up-Ready cornfields would be nice. I will say this: an (admittedly limited) observational study of Illinois confirms the rumors; increasing numbers of weed species are Round-Up-Resistant. They break up the monotonous monocultures in ominous omnipresence.

I brought along two books for the trip, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford and a GRE prep book. It’s a bad combination. The Crawford book is exploring all these wonderful questions about the nature and limits of human agency in a material world, while the test prep’s winningest line of the day was a doozie: “Plugging in is foolproof. Algebra isn’t.” Thank you, Graduate Readiness Exam, for invalidating so completely the critical thinking skills my liberal arts education has instilled in me.

We’ve crossed the Mississippi, and the sun is beginning to set. By the time it’s completely dark, I imagine we’ll have hit the plains, but I’m taking bets on what city I’ll wake up in. Think we’ll make it to Vegas? I’d better go consult my maps.

(For Drew and Liz: I’ve so far seen three women reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently they didn’t get the memo about it not being good travel reading, but I wish now I’d brought it along.)

Crossing the Mississippi

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Amtrak tales

Pere Marquette,
Southwest Chief,
Coast Starlight,
Empire Builder.

Those are the names of the trains I’ll spend the next two weeks on. Stay tuned.