For some months, Amtrak was my home. It began simply somewhat unintentionally. A friend was getting married in Spokane, Washington, I was in New York, and the 45 day Amtrak pass was cheaper than rent. And so, I was on a train stopped in Washington DC. The station there is really magnificent, marbled floors to coffered halls. There’s even 36 sculptures of imperial soldiers, each with a bald eagle shield. They stand guard to an arcade of upscale shops. I stopped to drink my McDonalds coffee and read the inscription.
SWEETNER OF HUT AND OF HALL / BRINGER OF LIFE OUT OF NAUGHT / FREEDOM O FAIREST OF ALL / THE DAUGHTERS OF TIME AND THOUGHT. I was on a westbound train with father Time, mother Thought, daughter Freedom, and oh boy was I excited.
Train train, comin’ down, down the line
Train train, comin’ down the line
Well it’s bringin’ my baby, ’cause she’s mine all, all mine
Mystery Train, Junior Parker, 1953
preformed by Elvis Presley, 1955
On the train, my seatmate had a buzz cut and a US Army hat. We didn’t talk much. Then seeing my camera, he showed me images he had made with an app named something like Photo Effects Plus Pro. They told the story of his life. Once, he was stationed in Germany. He spent weekends drinking in Nuremberg and Munich. He bought EuroRail passes and while on leave traveled the continent, buying drafts in Dublin, shrooms in Amsterdam, and crystal in the Czech Republic. He knew all the tips and reminisced fondly of riding trains, drinking to oblivion, passing out on train station floors, and of promotions passed over.
He never asked me anything. I asked what it was like over there September 11th. He said he was confused because he was massively hungover. They formed up and 18 months later were deployed to Kuwait. A few months after a roadside bomb took apart his scapula — he showed me the divot in his back — and deflated his lungs. He received the Purple Heart. His ear still rings. He recovered in Germany then did a semester college in California. I didn’t know what to say and he told me more. For the last five years he’s been home in Ohio. He had a girlfriend. He works as a security guard.
I wanted to ask questions you can’t. Do you feel regret? Do you feel heroic? I didn’t know how to reconcile his witless alcoholism with his tremendous sacrifice. I fell asleep. When I awoke, he was gone and I was alone, to the flickering landscape, to Ohio’s small towns and the rusting remnants of industry. I never said goodbye. I don’t think we ever even exchanged names. Now, I was alone. Alone and free. Alone and happy. Happy and free?
As the train moved it felt like I had a destination. I had been in New York, working as a freelance web designer, kind-of. That was June, 2013. I discovered I could be a kind-of web designer cheaper living itinerantly on Amtrak. I bought successive rail passes and used policies to acquire at discount. I slept where I found myself, atop friends’ sofas, with family, in campgrounds, curled into seats of train, bus and waiting room. For some thirty five thousand miles that was my home. I liked the view. Usually, it was good.
I wrote an accompanying travel guide. Destinations, Amtrak tips and so much more!
Come October, I was staying in a hostel in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There I met a man who was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. He had a beard and a santa belly and basically introduced himself by saying, “When I was 22 back from Vietnam this trail saved my life.” Without prompt he would say things like, “Some might not say it, really we’re all Buddha.” He was gregarious and generous; when it came to other people, often he’d say, “You haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins.” I never told strangers who I was, but I told him who I was, homeless and living on Amtrak. He didn’t bat an eye, more like he’d do it too. He encouraged me to write what you’re now reading, but with caveats, that first I had to read Shakespeare and moreover I had to let people speak for themselves.
I’ve met so many, anarchists to Pentecostalists, Ivy League and Cherokee. I’ve found our diversity shocking. My fellow Americans can be incomprehensible. They say the indefensible. Do the indefensible. I think of that veteran, his struggle from party weekly to wounded gravely. And yet, he explicitly said he’d do it all again, the substance abuse, all the solo travel, the putting himself over a bomb for flag and country. I think that’s crazy. But I’m not him. I ain’t ever taken one step in his moccasins. We are a nation predicated on individual liberty and also a people wholly interconnected and interdependent. It’s crazy chaotic contradictory and increasingly I’ve found it beautiful.
Railroads were America’s first big corporations, the first great engines of interstate commerce. They incubated technologies, especially communications and also in machining, engineering, organization, and finance. That legacy is all around us, for example the ski chairlift, invented by the Union Pacific, or the Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications (Sprint), or Standard Railway Time, today’s time zones, adopted November 18, 1883, or corporate personhood established widely 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. They subsidized the buffalo’s demise and they built Yosemite, Glacier, and Yellowstone. At railroad junctions sprung towns, then cities, Chicago, Atlanta, Kansas City, Omaha, Denver. When much of America was barely American, the railroad was the needle that wove a nation.
For example, the Transcontinental Railroad. It was a transformational technological marvel that made the 4-8 month journey from New York to San Francisco into a short trip of a week. They called it then the “grandest enterprise under God” and on its completion May 10 1869 there were parties and parades, the Liberty Bell (gently) rang, a glowing silver ball dropped from the US Capitol, and in New York fireworks and 100 gun salute. And also, the Transcontinental was a lie built over theft via monumental graft that all but bankrupted President Grant’s administration, the route itself unnecessarily circuitous because Congress was paying out by the mile. It was bold idealism and ugly pragmatism.
The railroads brought illegal settlers into Indian lands and took resources out. They expressed coal and iron to steel, trees to furniture and homes. They destroyed villages and built cities, made homesteads and engineered the first suburbs. They fabricated rain reports, bribed reporters, bought politicians, and to keep immigrants settled set the return fare higher. They were careless with workers’ lives and founded civic institutions that still stand. They were loved, hated, and moreover Americans couldn’t do without because by large the railroads wrought new power to all.
In the mid-twentieth century, facing technological change, mismanagement, legendary nepotism and a regulatory straitjacket, the railroads stood still as airplanes, trucks and cars ran them over. In the 1920s, there were over 250,000 miles of track and 9000 intercity passenger trains daily. Today, though America is thrice as populous, there’s but 161,000 miles and about 300 intercity passenger trains daily. Railroads went bankrupt, some were nationalized and what remained was relegated. We turned our back to trains and embraced the individualized freedom of the automobile.
Commercial, 2013. Norfolk Southern.
(I love this video so hard.)
Yet, trains are still important. In America by weight about 26% of everything moves over rail. The BNSF railroad express trains move some 50 million packages in the holiday season. Every week American railroads move nearly 300,000 car loads. The Union Pacific has a market capitalization of some $90 billion. More oil is transported from North Dakota by rail than via the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Each year the BNSF hauls enough grain to feed a year’s bread to 900 million people. A modern train moves one ton of freight 500 miles on one gallon of fuel.
One of my joys living on Amtrak was seeing this infrastructure. You pass next to the switching yards. You see container trucks lining to intermodal shipping facilities and coal trains two miles long going off to power cities. You see the substrate of America, not just trains and rails, there’s tubes and towers too, pipes and piles, piles of tubes, piles of piles towering. In whole and part, all kinds of infrastructure, all around, you see. There’s forests of plants, concrete, chemical, power, and other plants I can’t identify. There’s oceans of corn, wheat, and soybean. Whole oceans! Road, pipe, and power — lines over line! Converge to horizon. It’s crazy boggling. Incomprehensible! An enormous ecosystem of human necessitated structure constructed, and we each depend upon it.
Amtrak is an odd artifact of history. Today, it composes but 0.36% of intercity travel. It has three customers: individual humans who buy tickets, metropolitan transit authorities who rent train services, and the United States Congress. Thus, Amtrak runs profitable trains in the Northeast, commuter trains in California, Maryland, and elsewhere, and inefficient trains across rural states that buy favor (votes) and lose money to the tune of more than one hundred dollars per passenger. A subsidy of that magnitude is completely silly and broadly affordable, five one-hundredths of one percent of the US federal budget. We decided democratically, or maybe just by default, to save long-distance passenger trains, as an echo of our history, and to maintain a national network for all sorts, marijuana salesman to Amish farmer.
Here is an Amtrak system map. I dimmed out track I didn’t transverse. Click the image for more resolution.
I remember one conversation I had with an Amish man about farming.
“Yeah, Brooklyn probably had good soil,” I said.
He paused. “How’s the weather?”
“It’s fine. Doesn’t get really cold.” (I’m from Wisconsin.)
He nodded. “How’s the rain?”
“Good?” I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to say. We both looked out the window, over the endless plains, and though our difference it felt conformable.
Later, I overheard him say he was in Montana for his nephew’s wedding. Apparently, Amish are migrating west. They have big families, the land east is all filled up, and as they don’t own cars they use Amtrak. It’s ironic. A peculiar group of Americans who choose to live apart, choosing America’s most peculiar form of transportation.
Amtrak is a window into diverse American lives, and I liked that. So I kept on, getting by, kind-of, making little web sites for clients, day to moment, taking what I fell into. I’d camp out in small towns and visit old-time friends in far-off cities. Friends I once saw daily in high school are doing all different kinds. I saw three get married. I saw some making every night a party. It turns out there’s a few ways to fold socks and even more ways to organize a dinner. I visited family, and that was important. I saw my grandpa for the last time. Then, after all that, each time, I’d be back to the road, the rails, to being anonymous.
Woo woo woo
Woo woo woo
Woo woo woo
Woo woo woo
Hobo is my game
B & O’s my middle name
I’m goin’ where that whistle wails
And that’s why I’m ridin’ the rails
Ridin’ The Rails, K D Lang, 1993
I can be quiet, probably awkward; I’m an only-child steeped in Midwestern politeness. So I had a lot of time alone, listening. I learned to tell strangers a partial truth, like that I was from New York and off to visit an old friend. I learned to ask open questions, respond with the obvious and uncontroversial, and leave every statement concluded. Never did anyone question me, except once two Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries (an unconcluded story begged a question).
Those strangers, they told me the most intimate things. Frankly, there was a lot of worry.
I talked to a woman who had made her life in Montana. “We got electrification when I was thirteen,” she said.
“Have people changed?”
“People used to care more. They took care of each other. It bothers me when women say it’s hard because they work. I worked full time! We had a garden too. Today people are lazy. Who grows their own food?”
She told me about her six kids, her bear gun, her life story. When she was young, before World War II, she worked at Boeing, in Seattle. She remembered a scare on the radio. “We thought aliens from Mars were attacking. A few of the girls didn’t come to work. I kept watching the clock but nothing happened.”
I paused. Maybe for too long. “Was that the Orson Welles broadcast?”
She looked at me sharply. Then said, “Well we didn’t know.” And later, “That’s why I didn’t pay attention to Y2k or global warming. People always saying everything will end but it doesn’t.”
We talked more about how people today are lazy, how her grandson takes money from the government though he doesn’t need it, how her way of life is disappearing, and how nobody will even remember. In the middle of a sentence, she’d turn and look out across the Great Plains, saying, a few times, “The pioneers, they were something. We wouldn’t had survived.”
As recently as 1999, 71% of Americans were “satisfied with current direction of the country.” In 2014 but 25% are satisfied, and nearly two thirds “think most children will grow up … to be worse off.” Meanwhile, they say we’ve lost trust in each other, that we’re bowling alone, that we’ve given up on our most fundamental institutions. Only 26% of Americans have “some” confidence in public schools and but 7% in Congress. They say climate change will bring catastrophe. There’s an epidemic of depression and a corresponding rise in people killing themselves.
The economic data can be terrifying. In 1960 the three largest employers were General Motors, AT&T, and Ford. Today it’s Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC), and McDonalds. The median inflation-adjusted wage of working-age American men decreased 19 percent from 1970 to 2010. For Americans with but a high school education, the median wage fell 41 percent. Those figures are incredible, straight unbelievable, and can be explained in one simple statistic: In 1970, 1 in 20 working age men did not work; by 2010, one in five men did not work. There are tens of millions ricocheting between incarceration, marginal employment, and disability / food stamps.
But also, those numbers, they measure from before the 1970s oil crisis to the depths of the worst economic recession in generations. My grandpa told me how during the Great Depression he and his brothers were hungry, and hearing there was work in orchards they walked from West Seattle to a neighboring city. They were hired, and then that same day fired for eating the orchard’s apples. So they walked back, using their shirts to carry stolen apples. Today, through this Great Recession, that kind of material deprivation does not exist. Americans diets suffer less from deficiency and more from nutritional imbalances. We have so much.
A little of the old rich glamor has worn off now, but some us but some of us still wake up and find ourselves listin for that long lonesome whistle in the night. That’s the sound America’s dreams are made of. Close your eyes and make believe just a little bit and I bet you hear that whistle blow.
Johnny Cash, 1974.Johnny Cash – Ridin' The Rails
This is a 1974 hour-long special about trains narrated and starring Johnny Cash. I KNOW.
The official poverty rate is computed as the ability of a household in pre-tax income to purchase three times the inflation adjusted food budget of 1963. It doesn’t consider what actual people buy or need nor does it include post-tax adjustments such as food stamps, Medicaid, or the EITC. If you measure poverty by what actual people have, buy, and consume, poverty has fallen 26.4 points over the last five decades. Since 1980, poverty has decreased by 8.5 points. That those figures from the National Bureau of Economic Research aren’t more widely reported is extraordinary. We declared war on poverty and we’re winning.
The $1.4 trillion federal deficit of 2009 will be $514 billion in 2014. Household debt peaked in 2008 and has been declining. Of the EPA’s six principal air pollutants, all six have declined significantly since 1980. For the third consecutive year, despite the Great Recession, the prison population has declined. Over the last two decades, violent crime has halved. From 1970 to 2010, the percentage of adults with a postsecondary eduction increased 105% and the percentage of kids enrolled in pre-k increased 400%.
This isn’t to scorn today’s problems. The world is warming. Joblessness is real. A class of Americans is left adrift, and meanwhile we’re spending more money on rich kids’ schools than poor schools. Systemic failures require structural changes. But, the point is, these are adjustments we can identify and implement.
The pioneers really did cross a continent on rough hewed wagons endure hardship brave blizzards get cholera dysentery and go on to build homes, farms, towns, cities. The catalog of past brutalities is towering. The Mormons built their wagons while state-sanctioned militias roamed to “exterminate” them. Our ancestors survived debilitating poverty and enduring endemic religious and racial persecution. There were world wars and rationing, starvation and internment camps. Some of our ancestors survived slavery. In comparison can’t we survive tomorrow? Can’t we thrive?
So often I’ve heard an anxious desperation. Aboard the train, ricocheting across my Facebook feed, online everywhere, there’s an anger almost a rage. It’s in our media. In 2014 6.88% of New York Times articles contained the word crisis, an all-time high, twice that of 1861 and 1968, three times of 1917 and 1932. Strangers telling other strangers it’s all going to end. People saying it’s fundamentally wrong, corrupted and sick. Sometimes, frankly, all that anger, it makes me angry.
Thousands of years ago it was written that democracies inevitably fail as drunk on freedom and greedy for unnecessary pleasures, rich and poor come into argument, leading to conflict and accusations of oligarchy before lasting demagoguery and tyranny. Insightful, that Plato. But also that thinking is so removed from our modern plenty. We can eat our unnecessary pleasures cake, have another two in the fridge, throw one in the trash, feed another to a dog, and yet be so rich that 97% of Americans 18-49 own a cell phone. Yeah, whereas Hermes had to run his winged feet, you press a button and your voice reaches across continents. Like Zeus you conjure light and electricity. You can fly across oceans. Where Apollo could cure, we eradicated. We have the powers of gods.
To the cynical curmudgeons and doomsday pessimists I just want to shout out, Guys we’re doing okay. We’re doing really really okay.
Maybe I’m selecting my statistics all wrong. Maybe we are heading to a trainwreck. I don’t know. I can’t see around the bend. But in the meantime, I ain’t gonna hate on this train because if I wasn’t on it I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I like this train. Sometimes it’s a discombobulated nonsensical awful ugly mess but it’s the best around and so I’m going to clean up after myself, sometimes my neighbor too, and I’m gonna enjoy the view.
Amtrak is both funky and well-maintained. Most the carriages are older than me. Some are colored 1970s brown orange, others a banal 90s grey aquamarine, and they’re all mixed together. They’re littered with abandoned intention. The double story lounge cars have a bar up-top and nearly always the bar is an open-air paper cup cupboard. Some carriages have an unused baggage section. Others a conductor’s office never occupied. Others yet a “women’s lounge” adjacent to the restrooms with an awkward couch and vanity table with sinks and stools. On some, Amtrak has updated the sign to make it unisex and frequently a citizen has updated the updated sign by crossing out the male bathroom figure.
I learned to like all that too, because it seemed so human. Worn and cared for.
1949 Dining Car Menu.
For more, go to Streamliner Memories. It’s an Internet treasure.
Each Amtrak route is named, usually inherited from railroads long bankrupt and all but forgotten. An era ago, the Great Northern Railway operated a famed passenger train between St Paul and Seattle called the Empire Builder. There were few pretensions behind that name. The dining car’s menus were decorated with images of Indians removed and the railroad’s managing engineer was John Stevens, the same guy who did the Panama Canal. Today, Amtrak operates a train called the Empire Builder and it sort-of uses the same route, but perpetually late, sometimes by ten or twelve hours, it’s a better symbol of organizational insufficiency.
Regardless, I’ve ridden its length six times and of all America’s trains it’s my favorite. From Seattle skyscrapers and Puget Sound the train toots past Boeing’s 472,370,319 cubic foot airplane factory up and up and up to Stevens Pass down the Columbia River through vineyards and orchards to Montana up more at Marias Pass across the Continental Divide with Glacier National Park adjacent through the Blackfeet Nation scooting over the Hi-Line’s oceans of wheat to North Dakota’s bubbling energy of fracking over and down to the Twin Cities past inland ports the Mississippi parallel down diagonal through Wisconsin’s $26.5 billion annual dairyland to buildings the suburbia Milwaukee nine million metropolitan Chicago. Almost, it’s too long. 54 hours, when the train is on-time.
So I got this big tub full of brass, took two of us to carry it. Put an ad out, and this big ol’ skinhead came up and bought it. Asked if I had anymore. Try’n to fight the government. Ha! Government has more than two tub a brass!
a Montanan cowboy, Chicago-bound for a woman he’d met on LDS Mingle.
Aboard, there’s all types, coastal metropolitans to European tourists to local Western folk. Listen to those and you hear a fierce Western individualism. Look out the window and you see the manifest evidence that our destiny is oft determined by commodity prices. Even the cowboy existed to drive beef to cities. Among the endless wheat fields you see abandoned crumbling buildings caused by peaking productivity. You see — you feel! — the energy that hydraulic fracturing has brought to North Dakota. Tattooed youngsters talk of quick money. “It’s so easy. Yo, I had a job like that.”
A row ahead, two women, maybe 25 and 30, chat.
“And what does your husband do?”
“He was a site manager, and got caught (something?) so now he leads a crew.”
“He’s got some Africans. They never had smores.”
“We’re having a dinner for them. You can feed six of them for one. They’re so sweet. Hard workers.”
An hour later and the woman’s phone is stolen. The Amtrak car attendant shakes her head and warmly apologizes. Meanwhile, the conductor boots a man off the train — he was smoking, say the rumors. We’re an hour from Williston, North Dakota, and even aboard the Empire Builder it’s the Wild West.
I’m back to the lounge car. The tattooed youngster is trying to impress a girl. “Yeah, we drill four miles down…” She’s brushing him off. But me, I’m totally wowed. I mean, four miles down! What’s that like?
My phone pinning anonymous Internet towers, I look it up. They go miles into the Earth, then miles sideways, pumping in sophisticated chemical blends, based on highly sophisticated computer modeling. Extraordinary. And Google says too, maybe this causes water poisoning and earthquakes, like God’s wrath actual. Outside the train, facilities of tank and pump stand brightly lit against the night. Syncopated comes distant dancing, orange flares burning. And there too, new construction. The present future building civilization destruction.
My husband of thirty five years,
he was just like my father,
and my father he was chauvinistic pig.
overheard on The City of New Orleans
After Williston, a woman dressed counterculture sat next to me. She poured a soda cognac. She looked at me. I looked at her.
“You live in Williston?” I said.
She was a hairstylist. She had moved to Williston after almost losing her home in the Great Recession. “Some people say the (fracking) boom is going to end. There’s people who want to stop it. But, you know, if we just work together, you know, what if instead of fighting we and the Indians had worked together?”
She looked like a hippie, talked like a hippie, and was using a metaphor about Indians and settlers working together to advocate for unfettered corporate resource extraction. Too much!
We talked for a good hour. She came round and round to beginning of the conversation. “If we just worked together. Think about how much further we’d be. Think about that. Think about it.”
I never said what was on my mind, that climate change will — in the short of it — raise food prices, flood homes, annihilate infrastructure, attack our civilization. It seemed rude. Call my sentiment silly, but to her inalienable personal story, to the million plus Americans with new jobs from fracking, how is a graph of projected atmospheric carbon persuasive?
A decade ago North Dakota was poor. Experts said, seriously, that North Dakota should be left to the buffalo. People’s homes, communities and history turned to prairie. Today the state government has multi-billion dollar surpluses while simultaneously doubling expenditure in education and infrastructure. North Dakota has hope. And in that hope, lies a seed to our destruction.
“Can’t we just work together,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Why don’t you tell that to Obama?”
At the beginning of the Civil War the Union had more miles of railroad than any other nation. The Confederacy was likewise on the vanguard of modernity, though half as populous, it had the third most miles of railroad. But the two were different kinds. In the North the railroads were more often publicly funded and more connected, to each other and into city centers. In the South they were built by slaves and with fewer subsidies. Indeed, the Confederate Constitution explicitly forbade it, saying, “This, nor any other clause contained in the constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce”.
The General Haupt, United States Military Railroad engine, Civil War
During the war, those philosophical differences played out. Jefferson Davis would request service, the southern railroads would look to their balance sheets, and they could and would demur. In contrast, President Lincoln didn’t ask — he ordered. Lincoln used his executive authority to induce cooperation from private railroads and mandated the US Army to directly operate more than 2000 miles of track. As the war continued, northern railroads were further integrated into increasingly large and hierarchical organizations that efficiently and capably networked the Union. Without that network, General Grant couldn’t have had his hundred thousand solderers nor the necessary munitions and provisions. The Union won in large part because of union, economic and political, made possible by technology.
After having Atlanta abandoned and burned, after bringing Georgia to its knees, General Sherman was ordered to subjugate the Plains Indians and he did. The Union grew. And as with the Civil War, the railroads projected power. In Congress, without conservative Southern votes, the Republicans passed sweeping legislation, the Homestead Act, funding for the land grant colleges, the first federal income tax, and massive subsidies for railroads. After the Transcontinental in 1869, in 1883 the Southern Pacific connected Los Angeles to New Orleans and the Northern Pacific connected Seattle to Chicago. In total, Congress gave railroad corporations 1/10th of the United States, some 175 million acres, an area of land greater than Texas. The result was total transformation.
Chicago of 1830 was “a military fort and fur post consisting of twelve habitations.” Three decades later, it was a city of 100,000. Another decade, another 200,000. In New Mexico, a thousand miles away, the transformation was similarly gargantuan. For two centuries, longer than it’s been American, Santa Fe was an outpost of the Spanish crown, of Catholicism and feudalism. In 1843 it was conquered by the United States. In the two decades after the railroad, New Mexico’s population quadrupled. Wildlife was slaughtered. Mines opened. Cities bloomed. Mary Jan Colter, working for the AT&SF Railway, popularized and largely invented what we think of as southwestern style, that pseudo-Pueblo adobe.
The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their daddy’s magic carpet it’s made of steel.
Mother with her babes asleep, go rock’n to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.
Singin good morning America, how are you?
And don’t you know me, I’m your native son.
I’m jus the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when day is done.
City of New Orleans, Steve Goodman, 1972
In the sweep of that history lie so many stories. The Mennonite immigrant who plows a farm and plants a dynasty. The Chinese laborer murdered by a drunk racist veteran who had freed the slave. The young Massachusetts woman who becomes pioneer teacher. The Lakota warrior Sitting Bull who became a warrior, chief, activist, and, before being shot and killed by police, a circus performer. He was a member to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West and he made good money. They toured America by train, and in Washington he reportedly marveled at the structures and crowds saying “The white people are so many that if every Indian in the West killed on every step … the dead would not be missed among you.”
Sometimes you hear this story that the West was a place where men were men, where destiny was what you made it. There was that. But also the railroads, mines, ranches, sawmills, banks, and even the homestead farms were capitalized from afar, often Europe via London and then New York. The railroads were built by Chinese contract labor and Yankee veterans. The railroad corporate boards overlapped with the banking and trust boards, board members often related as kin or via marriage, of New York and Boston. There was the Sears Roebeck catalog, delivered by USPS, and defended by US Calvary. Then as now, the West was a land of big business and big government.
Ambitions, livelihoods and whole cultures were swept under as one by one the booms of cattle, wheat, gold, silver and railroads went bust. I look at that history and in small I see me. As I graduated from college, Wall Street went under, and I was pulled sideways. Then as now, at each bust the financiers and executive management kept the profit. Is this the creative destruction that built? Must it be so destructive, coercive and hierarchical? Why not transcontinental railroads and great transcontinental herds of bison? Must ambition hurt so many?
In the 1970s, we voted for clean air, and the economy of Appalachia, rich in sulfuric coal, shriveled. Today, we have clean air and per captia income in Clay County, Kentucky is $12,825. Real median income is lower than in 1979, though the American economy has doubled. Is that so different than Buffalo County, South Dakota, home of the Crow Indians, where the per captia income is $12,953?
I feel lost. How do I reconcile?
Amtrak trains are frequently late. Sometimes massively delayed. It lends the whole enterprise a ludicrous color. Twice going into Los Angeles, my train was delayed more than six hours. A train delayed six hours is a crazy train. Some people get angry, others go buy beer or liquor, and some do both. It brings out the base human, best-of and worst. A woman gives away the six bottles wine for her wedding anniversary, saying “I’d rather you drink it than my selfish f–king husband.” And then it’s a party!
On a train delayed seven hours into Milwaukee, I witnessed strangers battle in jokes at one table and 9/11 conspiracy talk at another, because what else are you going to do. There was the woman drinking beer and making cardboard signs that said “rescue us”.
We did one, it’s called a booze cruise. If you like to drink — and we liked drinking — I would recommend it. What was it called. I had that tequila with a deer on it. When we got down to Carmel it was only $23. Great cruise. Got off, four hours at the bar then back to the ship… What’s it called. It’s got a deer on it.
aboard The Crescent
Passengers would ask the train crew really helpful questions. “Could they bring in another engine to push?” “Have you called for help?” Overlooking a four-track mainline with trains zipping along at 90mph, “I just don’t understand. Why can’t we get off here? I could climb over that fence.” Another passenger shakes her head in agreement and then says, “Haven’t had a cigarette in four hours. Already fix’n how to get into my pain killers.”
I’m lost again. I think about defending the simple rule “train doors only open at stations” over the “train doors only open at stations, unless you’re five hours late, then, like, whatever.” But obviously that would be inappropriate. We’re already through the rabbit hole. All that’s left is for everyone to complain together. It’s the crazy frosting to this layered crazy cake.
Once, on a train to New Orleans, probably running only an hour late, a guy showing me his collection of illegally downloaded movies told me “those guys in Afghanistan” had trained him how to “hack the Internet.”
“You know that group.”
I pause. “The Taliban?”
“The other one.”
What! Was it a joke? Don’t people who say things like that end up in Gitmo? I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t seem like a joke. I’m still confused.
Going to New York, I was sitting next to a young man attending one of America’s finer institution of learning.
“My mother is a CEO and my father is a research professor” he said.
“That’s cool,” I said, thinking I’d gather some insight or another.
“Do you know what a research professor is?” he said.
“A professor who does research?”
“Yes” he said. And then there was an awkward pause, like I was supposed to say something or maybe in my intonation he realized how crazy stupid his question had been. And yet the awkwardness still stung, like I had said wrong.
“I’m going to get a coffee,” and I excused myself.
On the big six wheeler he run his fame
The caller called Casey about a quarter to four
Kissed his wife at the kitchen door
Jumped into the cabin with his orders in his hands
He took a little trip to the promised land.
Casey Jones, traditional, ~ 1900
preformed by the The Dixiaires, ~ 1949
In the cafe car sat a white-bearded black man in a purple and lime-green robe and pointy magician-like hat, explaining to another passenger how Genesis 1 “In the beginning God created…” was a proof that God existed before creation / time, would exist after time / the coming apocalypse, and therein was our salvation. Now this was a conversation I could get behind!
“It’s coming. Utopia. Thirty years here on Earth. He’ll have children, then he’ll die.”
“Uh-huh.” His audience was a mid-forties man, glasses, white button-down shirt, South Asian.
“Now, Jesus, his real name was Easter. Did you know Jesus’ real name?”
“No,” said the other passenger.
This talk continued for an hour.
Then, “This has been really interesting.”
“Well, first you got to survive the fallout.”
The other passenger smiled.
“Man, it’s real,” he said, wearing his pointy purple magician’s hat.
The colors of crazy are vibrant. I see the banner everywhere, spangled in the rationality of libertarians, in the strength of healthy eaters, all around brilliant and bold, and it’s a flag I’ll wave because it’s me.
I was camped out in Mather Campground, on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. I was surrounded by tourists on vacations, they were all smiling and excited to be there. I was by myself. I didn’t even have a tent. Just a tarp and sleeping bag. I would take the free shuttle bus back and forth, viewing the canyon, the tourists, all while (sort of) typing code out on my laptop. Call it awkward, call it totally weird, and I guess it was, but I was loving it too.
At trailheads there are large signs warning of dehydration, others stating hiking down the canyon in one day is dangerous, and the more I saw these signs the more I considered it. 17 miles round trip? Seemed doable. Clearly a bad idea but anyways one morning I hid my laptop under some brush, went down, touched the Colorado River, had a coffee at Phantom Ranch, and was back up at Bright Angle by 3pm. I felt so accomplished. I did that all by myself. On a trail blasted via dynamite, using a bridge supported by 550 foot, one ton suspension cables that each were hauled the whole nine miles down by 42 Havasupai tribesmen laboring in a single file line. No really, I did it, it was September, it was hot, it was a mile in elevation each way, and afterwards I felt so good I wanted to cry.
That evening I sat two hundred foot down-trail, up on a rock, watching the sun set and folk meander past. They come from all over, Russia to Tennessee, spending gobs of money to gawk awing down sheer cliffs that every year a few tumble down, over a wild river a few drown in, in the midst of a vast desert that claims many more. Does that make sense. I was walking back, I was wearing a running shirt from my local running club, and a stranger asked me if I ran with that running club.
I did, I said. He asked if I knew Taeya.
I did, I said. He said they went to high school together in Peru.
We talked about the photos she put up on facebook. And of course, that’s why I’m on facebook and that’s why I bought that shirt. I was by myself in a vast desert next to an awesome terrifying canyon and it was like I belonged. Is that crazy?
I was chatting once with a veteran of World War II, the Pacific Campaign. He told me, “You didn’t want to be friends with anyone because you were afraid of losing them.” And later, “The war was inhumane. You can’t imagine.” A universe where you exist only to yourself to destroy. No. I can’t imagine.
When America was young, there were few national organizations. There was the Post Office, the Army, and a few national churches. In comparison, the railroads were of unprecedented scale and complexity. Their coming changed how Americans were governed. Whereas the Erie Canal and the Post Office were funded, managed and owned by the state, the railroads shifted such business to one of public subsidies and private ownership, governed by increasingly complex government regulations.
The Baltimore and Ohio was the first common carrier railroad in the United States, incorporated 1827 as a joint stock corporation, owned half by individuals and half by Maryland and the City of Baltimore. A railroad boom followed the Civil War, often funded in debt. Investors desire a good return. Problematically, maintenance on railroads with limited service is nearly as expensive as railroads that run many trains. In good times railroads are very profitable; in recessions they require vast savings.
In the wake of the Panic of 1873, management began to cut wages. In that era, the alternative to work was extreme poverty. Workers were left in destitution while financiers and management lived in relative opulence. Mistrust and antagonism festered. In one year, 1877, the Baltimore & Ohio cut wages, once, twice, thrice, to half of what they had been. It was too much. The workers stopped working and the trains stopped running. The unrest slowly but surely swept Maryland through Pennsylvania to Illinois and Missouri.
Militias were called out. In Pittsburgh they murdered twenty. Incensed, a quarter of Pittsburgh’s men, some 20,000, took to the streets. They cornered the militia in the roundhouse and set it on fire. The militia shot their way out, killing another twenty, as the roundhouse and yards, 125 locomotives and 2,000 loaded freight cars burned.Masses gathered in Chicago and St Louis. Downtown Philadelphia was set ablaze. Workers tore tracks and derailed engines. Seeing the states in paralysis or enacting trigger-happy massacre, President Hayes removed authority from governors and empowered federal bureaucrats. US Army regulars marched on Baltimore, Indianapolis, St Louis, Chicago and cities between. Order was triumphant, bloodlessly.
Seeing battlelines, the workers formed associations. Their aim, not to maximize national wealth but “produce republican citizens with the income necessary for independence and the leisure to devote to improvement and family.” Or, as said by George McNeill, Knights of Labor, “To engraft republican principles into our Industrial system.” Before the left was big government, it was that movement, the idea that foremost this land is not about property but about personal liberty for all. After all, was that not the ultimate aim of the Civil War? Life and liberty over property rights?
Free government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education, and support in old age… Shall the railroads govern the country, or shall the people govern the railroads?
Ruford B Hayes, President of the United States, 1886
But as more railroads were built, competition increased and profit decreased. There was less margin for the worker. 1886 brought the the Great Southwestern Strike; some 200,000 struck. It was put down, but followed immediately by some 1,400 strikes against 11,562 businesses. Civic and labor leaders called for peace, even to eschew the strike. Local workers, riled by decades of conflict, desperate and angry, were incapable of restraint and fell to civil disobedience, including blocking US Mail, a federal offense. With that justification, the very wealthy called upon their friends in government. The Knights of Labor was decimated. The American Railroad Union was destroyed.
It was a vicious cycle, abuse of power, provoking unnecessary violence, justifying some powers, ultimately creating an institutionalized culture  of conflict and hate. But to this, America watched. As farmers felt themselves cornered, as maimed workers lived in destitution, as Pinkerton agents attacked, as inept railroads over-invested creating economic panic resulting in their bankruptcy to government receivership, Americans looked to their leaders and saw them riding off into gilded mansions. And so, they voted.
In 1887 Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, the first federal law to regulate private corporations. Its powers became increasingly comprehensive. In 1893, 1,567 railroad workers died and 18,877 were injured, the railroads were not implementing new safety technologies, and thus the Interstate Commerce Commission mandated them. As many railroads cooked their books, the ICC was given authority to view and standardize all railroad accounting. As railroads were perceived to bully towns and price gouge, the ICC began to set all railroad rates. It was a triumph and a tragedy. In the 1920s, when more than 80% of everything moved by rail, the railroads were so bereft of revenue and so mismanaged that they barely did necessary maintenance. During World War I, they were so incapable yet so necessary that they were nationalized. In the decades that followed, they drowned.
In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, giving railroads back the freedom to set their own prices. In other words, it took nearly a century for the railroads to regain trust. Today any modern freight terminal is covered in the language of worker safety. Every corporate newspaper covered in figures of community reinvestment. Be cynical and call it false, but it’s unquestionably a different dialog than back then, when for example Thomas Alexander Scott, President Pennsylvania Railroad, infamously said his workers should have “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” Today there are 180,000 private employed railroad workers, more than 80% are unionized, and the last major strike is nearly beyond memory. To some extent, they figured how to work together.
I wonder, instead of 1871’s money grabbing and self-aggrandizement, what if a leader had sacrificed mansion for compassion? Where was the echo to Lincoln’s humility of by for the people?
Today you hear these new empire builders. Disrupt! They shout as like seven-olds they gleefully knock down another’s castle. The declining wages and newly jobless, they say it’s not their problem. You wonder, do they think they’re above this history? Is this not the history of 1776?
Amtrak is a funny kind of home. You barrel along and problems just jump out. Frequently I was sleep deprived. Sometimes hungry, without the foresight to bring enough food and too cheap to buy it on the train. I lost so many things, a running shoe, bungee cords, USB cords, and once my camera was stolen and it was my most valuable asset. That hurt. It still does. Honestly, maybe I just lost it. Left it carelessly. I’ve replayed that memory so many times, and I don’t even know. Yet that — jeopardy — is what made it real. But was it?
One time, I went for a jog in San Francisco. It had to be short, because the friend I was staying with would soon leave for work. I was running down Mission Street fast, I saw a foot stick out, and I tripped hard, falling onto elbow, knee and phone. I got up. I was bleeding. My phone was cracked.
“You tripped me,” I said.
“What are you going to do about it?”
I looked at him. “Are you fucking serious?”
Honestly I forget what I said. It was something like that. I was upset and yelling. He stood up slowly, I was yelling and backing up slowly, he was a lot bigger than me, and then he was coming at me slowly.
“What are you going to do about it?” he repeated.
I was wondering what would happen if I did something because what would? I’d get hurt more and then the police would come? Justice? But also I was thinking how I didn’t have health insurance and how I had to get back before my friend left for work. This was a juncture.
“You’re fucking pathetic,” I yelled, announcing it out slow.
“What are you going to do about it?”
And then, I ran away.
Except I ran only a block. I was injured now. By the time I got back, it was too late. My friend had left for work. I was locked out. My train was departing in a few hours. I wasn’t carrying any money or anything. I had but a non-functioning smashed phone. A puzzle! Luckily, I remembered that my friend would leave the back window unlocked. I had to get beyond the row of townhouses into the backyard. I found a neighbor and though I was bleeding and a stranger she led me through her apartment and then out back I climbed up around and through the window and I caught the train.
The wound festered for a few days and the skin there is still discolored. It’s those words though that linger. You’re pathetic // What you going to do // Nothing. Nothing. Nothing was even intended — we were just yelling past each other. Nothing. Because that was easiest.
Lo, soul! seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900
This other time, I was chatting to a guy a couple years younger than me, he was giving and friendly, and after I told him I was from New York he told me the last time he was in New York was to claim his niece from Child Protective Services after his brother had fractured his sister-in-law’s skull. You could tell it was real because he said it embarrassed.
I don’t believe in hitting a woman, he said.
Yeah, I said. Me neither.
He was drunk and they got in an argument, he said.
That doesn’t make it better.
He nodded in agreement, Yeah doesn’t really make it better. Then looking up, shaking his head and smiling on up high, he launched into this:
Wasn’t as bad, these two tried to rob us. One had a knife. I wasn’t going to do anything on account of my one year old niece being there and all, but my brother well he took his machete, you know the one from the Walmart? The one with the blade on one side and teeth on the other? Well he went at them. He went at them. One died three times on the way the hospital, like they had to restart his heart, and the other he scalped. He scalped him.
I didn’t know what to say.
My brother and I we’re quarter Cherokee, he said, as if explanation.
Then he offered me a drink and I said no. There are a lot of reasons to say no in a context like that. I know why I said no, because I was uncomfortable and I didn’t want to confront what was before me. I wanted to solve one of the contrived problems I had constructed for myself, like how to sleep in an uncomfortable spot or how to save $30 renting a car, and that’s what I did.
Travel is often like a videogame. A succession of made-up problems that are easy to solve. You can play on hard and if it gets too hard you turn it off and go home. Sometimes, when it’s good, when you’re good, everything is in a different light and you learn from that. An experience enlightening and life changing, they say. And what changed? At the next juncture, you choose differently?
Crossing Nebraska, I listened to two older men talking.
“Different public than it used to be.”
“Computer had a lot to do with it.”
“Probably only thing to do is move out to the country somewhere and get away from all that.”
“Get a generator, stock up.”
What made me angry, is that they said this as if this was virtuous.
We were on a cross-country train nationally subsidized. We had just passed a mile long double stack container train, tracked by a constellation of satellites, likely express from Shenzen over ocean and mountain, meditated by computer analytics from Bentonville. We were surrounded by corn fields that stretch to horizon. Corn for ethanol, to make beef, to make the syrup that fuels teenage athletes and the immigrant labor that brings organic produce to table. They spoke so righteously of their independent self-reliance using this English language, our Roman alphabet and Arab numerals. You think you can unsubscribe? You think you can stop eating and sleeping too?
I grew up with Swiss Family Robinson and the Box Car Children. The young me dreamed of that life, a life independent. I imagined new worlds uninhabited, others post-Apocalypse, and I still do. I’ll camp next to a river, dunk an aluminum pot into the river, and use that water to make rice. But despite that it’s the most abundant metal, I’ll never mine and smelt aluminum into a pot as perfect as the one I bought for $9.99. I read Harry Potter and then watched him save the whole wide world over and over and over. But that’s so silly. Actual successes aren’t a singular hero at a singular moment but regular people in multitude working together working tenaciously working working slowly steadily working working working working.
I read once that if you have a light you shouldn’t put it under a bushel but up high so everyone can see better. You share. If you take our inheritance without care without responsibility to legacy, you are not just selfish but a coward.
Those words I began with, the inscription upon Washington’s Union Station, it’s from a 1909 piece called The Progress of Railroading. You may remember, it made the claim that
FREEDOM IS FAIREST OF ALL. It goes on to say,
IMAGINATION HAS CONCEIVED ALL … TOOLS VESSELS / AND SHELTERS — EVERY ART AND TRADE ALL / PHILOSOPHY AND POETRY — AND ALL POLITIES. The last stanza is simpler. It reads, in total,
THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE. To be honest, I don’t think that’s true. Probably truth is but a prerequisite to freedom. But, it has the ring of truth, so I’ll roll with it.
The truth plain scary simple and beautiful is that we need everybody. There comes freedom. When we work together there is enough food. Probably there are plenty of things. Those Greek gods, Superman, Professor X and Harry Potter too, we define them by their powers, not what they own but by what can they do. We each have extraordinary power. Friendship, marriage, community, these exist only in our imaginations. A thing or a mountain, they’re independent of people, but those, they are oaths. You make one freely independent yet together interdependent they weave a sail of reciprocal obligation. I am choosing to embrace that power, to spin these threads that span space and time.
The railroad transports. It connects.
We were southbound.
My seatmate asked if I smoked weed.
He looked disappointed. “You a designer?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You make business cards?”
He showed me his business card. Music Specialist, it said, below the Bob Marley hemp leaf. I guided him through printing his design via an online printer. Occasionally one of his six cell phones would ring.
I went to the cafe car.
I worked, sort-of, participated, kind-of, listened, most-of.
There was a young couple. Were they a couple? Yes, five years, she says.
They were chatting to an old guy with a splendid white mustache. He had a heck of a sneeze. It was startling.
“When them young folk jump a bit, that mean I got seniority.”
This Train Is Bound for Glory, Traditional, ~ 1925
This 2012 video has humans so beautiful they appear from the 80s.
There was a veteran, Iraq, tattooed, looked 28 but probably 24. He was talking to anyone.
There a man in a booth with hooch in a sippy cup. He wore a “USA” t-shirt and once drove buses in Brooklyn. He was drunk. “This is why I take the train!”
A couple times his mother stopped in to disapprove. She was in her mid-eighties, he was in his mid-fifties, and she looked younger than him. She was in a sleeper car. He wasn’t.
My seatmate came and sat next to me. We chatted. He had some fish. He wanted the cafe attendant to heat it.
“I only eat fish,” he said. “Because it’s healthy.”
“It is what it is, it is what it is, everything got an issue!” says a woman from behind.
This sparks a conversation across the whole car. Everyone has an opinion on diet!
We’re six talking, spread across three booths. It’s an hour to midnight. The cafe attendant announces last call. In the corner sits a early-thirties man with nearly long hair and a “Hunter” baseball cap. He’s drinking beer.
My seatmate starts giving him shit, heckling, saying he’s creepy.
And, he was sitting in a corner, oddly silent. He was creepy. But you don’t say that. You don’t call someone creepy.
A quiet falls.
I don’t know what to do. I think about where I am; my past choices flash before me. I could be comfortable convincing more people to drink pepsi cola. Instead I’m on a train, a left-over of history, but witness to the least important.
But the creepy guy in the corner, he nods his beer, and smiles a good grin. Everyone relaxes. It’s okay. Everything is okay.
The choices we make as one and together, everyday million by the million, choosing to trust that the combustion engine won’t explode, that money has value, that it will work, I like the colors of that light, how each is necessary and different, how we trust more in each other’s work than ever before. It seems like the most important.
Across from me is a woman, maybe 55, dark skin and white hair cut close. She was funny. The conductor came by and she had him and everyone even the guy in the corner laughing.
We talked about nothing really. You ask where you’re going and where you’re from. She was from Washington DC. She told me about her grandkids, and about the life she lived. She asked me where I was going. I said I was going to a friend and after that I wasn’t sure. She smiled and we talked about how the big the world is. Eventually, I say I’m going back, to sleep.
“This was nice,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “This was nice.”
I walked back down the lumbering lurching train. Everyone is flopped into that, daughter into mother’s lap, person into laptop, boyfriend into girlfriend, stranger snoring sloppily upon stranger. Each to their own destination, their own nook, and we’re all going there together. I found my nook, a piece of train-floor unused. I took my sleeping bag, stuffed like old with goose feathers and wrapped in modern synthetic fabric, and I curled into it. I bunched up my sweatshirt, made of Indian cotton, produced in Vietnam and designed in New York City, and I used it as pillow. I put my ear to the steel train, to the clickety clack of track. It echoed. The track alignment has been straightened. The rails replaced, iron to steel to heavier steel. The wooden ties now of concrete. Maintained and improved, loved, I am on a vessel of generation past and it carries me forward.
Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallityy
John Winthrop, A Model for Christian Charity, 1630
I could hear the conductor’s radio. A computer, an automated sensor along the track, was talking to her. She stopped right behind me. Would she ask me to move? No, she was attending to her own business. I listened to her radio. Two zero axles zero faults, said the computer. Repeat. Two zero axles. Zero faults.
I woke up. It was some hours later. I was tired. I had a headache. It was dark. I needed water. Was that the dawn? A farm? What crop is that? Where were we? I was sleep deprived. I was very sleep deprived. Why did I wake up? That wasn’t sensible. I was tired. I should be sleeping. I was really tired.
I stumbled back to my seat, yet using the sleeping bag as a blanket. Where was my seatmate? I took the window seat. A couple hours passed. Maybe I slept. Mostly I kept to the window, watching the world go by. Cities start small. A few stray homes, then a subdivision, the intersection and gas station, an old main street, the fire station and an old church, a forest, back yards, trash piles, industrial park, the big box stores, more homes, homes, homes. Relentlessly the buildings grow, the clumpings tightening, lanes multiplying, and then you round the bend and you see it, a city skyline. We’re thirty minutes away yet aboard the train the joy is obvious, people packing their bags, even proceeding to train doors.
I stay to my seat. I still have a headache. I’m thinking of the Starbucks I’ll go to and what work I’ll do or rather what work I won’t. I’m thinking of deadlines due and others passed. Thinking yet of everything that should and isn’t. I’ve got a credit card payment due and owe more that can’t be quantified. I’m so tired. Everyone has taken to the aisle, each lining to an ordinary day, and I haven’t. I stay pressed to the window, looking up to the late morning’s light on spirals rising so extraordinary tall, to a city shinning. Yeah. It’s time to stand up.