Young American Wanderlust

From Rochester west to Chicago, and then south to Austin, the railroad tracks wind through the backyards of America. It’s as though the country’s turned its back on Amtrak.

We’re traveling to the South by Southwest Music Festival. I can hear Scott plucking on his new ukulele in the sleeper car across the aisle. This may be a long trip indeed.

Or perhaps not. Traveling by train is not cheaper than flying. It’s merely a different form of travel. One in which you choose to abandon the rush wait rush of airports in favor of being in the company of folks who want to feel like they’re moving about the country.  No one’s pissed off. You strike up conversations. You look out the window. You read. Big books. In the lounge car the first night, a young woman is reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A young guy is deep into Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He is halfway through it. I’ve brought along David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s more than 1,000 pages. But I can’t focus on it right now. Not with Scott plucking away on that uke. Is that the first song they teach everyone, “Dueling Banjos?”

So I’m looking out the window, at the highway. We’re moving a little slower than the cars out there, but not much. I don’t understand the critics of Amtrak, complaining it loses money. The Republicans keep trying to cut its funding, stomp it out of existence. But what mass public transportation makes money? Certainly not that highway out there.

Our porter – a nice, arcane idea – has just handed me a copy of The New York Times (More timeless relics are the glass insulators on the creosote-soaked telephone poles following alongside the tracks, oblivious to the cell phone towers looming in distant farm fields). One of the first Times stories I read is about the great blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland marrying the comic and one-time Saturday Night Live writer A. Whitney Brown. I think to myself: I’ve interviewed both of them.

We change trains in Chicago, with time for a walk around downtown, where some fellow selling the magazine produced by the homeless points out a sign across from the art museum that reads, “Historic Route 66 begins here.” I wonder aloud how they decided that’s where it started, rather than where it ended. From Chicago and through much of Illinois, the train follows the iconic road, symbol of young American wanderlust, before we loose it somewhere north of Springfield, and one of the most architecturally interesting state capitol buildings I’ve seen. If Route 66 is an American landmark, it is one in need of serious Federal dollars. The surface here is cracked and cratered with potholes. Few cars are on this stretch of 66, preferring the much smoother road running parallel to it.

Amtrak gives you a little brochure with information about the communities you see passing outside the windows. When we arrive at South Bend, Ind., our brochure eagerly points out that it is primarily known as the home of Notre Dame University. “To others,” it tells us, “it is virtually defined by the Studebaker Corporation, which started making wagons here in 1852, came to prominence, and finally ceased auto making here in 1963.”

A few miles down the rails from South Bend, I am sad to read in the Times that the great contrarian folk singer Jack Hardy has passed away from lung cancer. I saw Hardy play at my friends Rick and Monica’s house concert about 1½ years ago. He wrote protest songs, political songs. I’ll bet he was a fan of rail travel. The Times points out that he was born in South Bend. His full name was John Studebaker Hardy.

I’ve heard critics of Amtrak suggest that public rail systems are un-American, that they’re socialist programs that train the population to think in lockstep. Actually, I think the authorities fear anything where people gather and have time to read books and play musical instruments and exchange ideas and complain about the authorities.

I stare out the train windows, looking into the back yards of Americans. I see their kids, their gas grills, the places where they’ve buried their dead pets and the American Dream. It is this way everywhere. Not too many rich folks live alongside the tracks. One year, during an early-morning train ride up the California coast, I saw a naked man standing on his back porch, watching the train as he drank his coffee. These Americans tend to fill their backyards with broken major appliances, stacks of warped lumber, abandoned dog houses, collapsed tool sheds, children whacking each other with sticks and rusting car fenders tossed aside like corn husks.

Deep in Texas, while sitting in the observation car in a late-afternoon sunshine, we speed past a woman taking her laundry down from the backyard clothesline. In the yard next to her house, I spot something big lying on its side, legs sticking out like a child’s plastic toy tossed aside. Rigor mortis has set in. “Oh my god, A DEAD HORSE!” I shout. Shriek, actually, like a little girl. It was the first dead horse I’ve ever seen.