The South was only a moment away from Washington, a place that Kennedy said had the charm of a Northern town and the efficiency of a Southern one. We were soon cutting through Virginia across the Bible Belt into the Deep South. All those invisible lines only existed on atlases, history books and people’s mind. These were old stories, one would believe. Then again, not quite so, reminded us Faulkner, who spoke for these lands in Requiem for a Nun and the rest of his oeuvre: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Hunger began to sting as the topography had begun to mutate, from the gentle expanses of Virginia into an untamed exuberance of vegetation and rolling hills that were progressing into mountains. The waitress sat me at an empty table in the dining car. Soon, however, she sat another passenger next to me.
My fellow diner was headed to Texas, her home state, changing trains down at West Virginia. She was now living in Denver, not too unhappily. Thrilled she was not, either. “Where are you originally from?” she asked. I no longer enjoyed the question, as the answer had become too complex even for me. Any short answer left me with the lingering taste of a lie, while the long one embarrassed me. If it did not sound pedantic in itself, the full response might leave the impression that I was so self-absorbed that I assumed anybody would care to know all the details. Yet she listened with polite silence, nodding and asking nothing else. From her expression it was clear that she knew what “Armenian” was, and knew of Argentina. And these days, it would be an insult to anybody’s intelligence to assume they had not heard of my birthplace, Aleppo.
When it was her turn I saw why she understood. Born near Austin, she had left Texas shortly after graduation. She had been living for ten years in Alaska, working in a mine more than two hundred miles inland from Fairbanks. There was only one other woman working at the mine.
During a professional crisis I had applied for a writing job at a newspaper in Fairbanks, I told her. That was around November 2004. “Winter,” she said, a little mystified: “What happened?” Nothing, I continued: they had turned me down. It would have been rough. Nature bloomed extravagantly for three warm months of sun and joy, followed by nine months of winter. “At the end of every winter you say to yourself, ‘Yes! I made it this year too!’ but I decided to get out after my tenth winter.” That was when she settled in Colorado.
Then I remembered that I had applied for another job at a different newspaper in Alaska in 1997, only to be passed up. I had just returned from postgraduate studies in England at the time. But the editor of this periodical, based in Kodiak, sent me the friendliest letter by mail to Buenos Aires, home at the time. I did not tell my fellow diner anything about it. “Everybody comes to Alaska to flee from something,” said a female character in a film set in Anchorage about a wayward detective played by Al Pacino. So it sounded to me, from what I was gathering about this passenger and from what I knew about myself.
Now my fellow diner was working on mining safety and health for a federal agency. Her employer was sending her down to Texas, for a course on health issues in the mining industry. There was a contained sadness about her. She may have been in her forties, when women usually either begin to fade past their prime or age into attractive maturity, sometimes splendidly so. Yet in the little she said there were the telltale signs of loneliness and adventures gone awry, in search of something she had not found: probably love. But I would not bet my house on it, if only because I don’t have one.
She had done an art course in Malta some twenty years ago, and you could tell she was well read. Those six months on the island must have left a mark, but she did not say. Right after the old sun and blue waters of the Eastern Mediterranean she had put away brush, oils and easel, and got a job at the gold mine in inland Alaska.
Some six years ago I had met two Alaskan women who were traveling around New Hampshire. Both were the daughters of two German friends who had settled in Skagway, a port in Alaska, after World War Two. Their fathers, soldiers in the Wehrmacht, had been captured by the Americans in 1943 and for some reason had been transferred to detention in Alaska. They had been freed at the conclusion of the war and had gone back to Germany (one of them, I think, was from Hanover), but had decided to return to Alaska. One of these Alaskan women was struggling to find gluten-free food in New Hampshire. It was the first time I heard of celiac disease.
The dining car waitress escorted a couple to our table. They were in their sixties and traveling in a first class compartment, on their way back home in Northern Illinois, after visiting their son. “He’s got a new wife,” the woman said. It was not clear if she meant a new wedding after a separation or if they were newly married. The ceremony had been in Greece, but the new wife was Italian. Then I realized that this fair skinned couple bore a remarkable resemblance to each other in almost every detail, from the snub nose and thin lips to the blue eyes and rimless glasses. Yet the husband only spoke once, when conversation between his wife and the former Alaskan miner had turned to education. The State University of Illinois, he said, was earning a lot of money from its only profitable venture, a leadership course.
As we spoke the train was crossing mountains with mist clouds clinging to them. Verdant as the territory was, there was a sense of foreboding to the dark vegetation that overflowed it with wild unrestraint. The sky was grey, and familiar. I had been here before, arriving one day before Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 elections, staying at The Greenbrier, a grand hotel secluded amid the crests and mines of West Virginia, in a town incongruously called White Sulphur Springs. I had done a falconry course at the hotel. While the falcon seemed tame enough, the badly scarred face of the instructor was somewhat unsettling.
Once again the former Alaska female miner surprised me. She knew about the underground atomic bunker at The Greenbrier.
President Eisenhower had ordered it built underneath the hotel, his favorite retreat. In case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, the President, his cabinet and some other high officials would be relocated to this secret location. By necessity, it was a claustrophobic place, which evoked the scary episodes of the Twilight Zone, the black and white series from the late nineteen fifties.
It was hard to imagine the White House entombed alive in a place that, ironically, looked like the dormitory of a Communist country university. A collection of guns was displayed in a case. Our guide at the Greenbrier bunker asked us if we knew what it was for. All visitors thought it was to repel an attack by enemy agents. “No, it was for internal policing,” she explained. “Guards would use it in case of mutiny.” The guide knew all too well.
Her husband was a member of the bunker’s secret police force for decades, but she only found out about the underground compound – and her husband’s job – when it came it out in the press. Moreover, she learned then that in case of a nuclear attack, her husband would have to report for work at the presidential bunker beneath the Greenbrier leaving his own family behind: the place could only accommodate a very limited number of occupants.
My fellow diner had never been there, but she knew how, when, and why the existence of the secret bunker was revealed. At the end of the Cold War, in 1991, government officials had leaked it to a journalist, who had run a feature story in the Washington Post magazine. They leaked it to overcome resistance by the secret bunker staff to its closure as a cost-cutting measure.
It was incredible how close we felt we had been to a nuclear Third World War in the past, I said. The other diners muttered uncomfortable comments in agreement. Then I unsettled them even more by saying there were plenty of nuclear weapons around as to cause bad mishaps if they fell in the wrong hands. This time the couple looked up at me taken aback, but the wife hummed something meant to be courteous. Right on cue, a water tank, green and on tall stilts, rose to the left in a field. While a common sight in the American countryside, this one looked like the Martian monsters in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
I was about to ask the former Alaskan miner if she was simply, and unusually, too well informed, or if she had worked as a journalist, but she then paid the bill, wished us a safe trip and left. She was getting off at the next station, to change trains for Texas. Shortly afterwards the couple returned to their berth too, bidding me farewell.
As our convoy clanged through the misty mountains of West Virginia, my seat neighbor spoke to me for the first time. A portly black woman from Philadelphia, she wore an elegant black dress and a folded headdress tightly pressed against her hair –a model that was becoming fashionable among some Muslim women, even though she never implied she was one and had a non-Muslim name. Diane, as I will call her, said something fast, and let out a short, bitter laugh. I did not understand, so she repeated it: “See these mountains?” I nodded. “You are not going to see any blacks in there,” she said. “This is Clan territory.” She mentioned a few more times “Clan territory,” her bespectacled eyes fixed on mine.
It took me a while to understand she meant the Ku Klux Klan, and when I did she let out a burp of a sad laugh again. Then I remembered that driving down the Blue Mountain Ridge towards the Greenbrier in 2008 my then girlfriend and I had been harrowed to see a large wooden cross perched at the edge of a cliff. It was the most widely known symbol of the racist group. A friend of ours had a black friend who lived in rural West Virginia. White supremacists had once burned one of those large crosses outside his house, which they had pelted with stones.
The thought that the KKK lurked behind the fog of these mountains gave me shivers down my spine, even if they were in their ridiculous white gowns and hoods. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. “Yes,” Diane said, “Jesus alright.”
* * *
Next on the Trans-American Railroad: The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
This is the sixth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below: