“Where are we?” Diane was just coming back to her senses after a deep sleep, which she conjured with the poise of a sphynx. I looked it up on my smartphone’s map. A moving blue dot showed we were in Indiana, somewhere between Lafayette and Gary, rolling northward towards Chicago.
Amtrak’s Cardinal train was about to cross into Central Time Zone, one hour away from the sun of the East. We woke up with the conductor’s announcement. At that moment I caught glimpse of a white building with a big sign atop that said “Masonic Temple.”
Contrary to my deeply engrained belief, masonic temples were not secret, as I should know after fifteen years living in America. There was a massive one in Atlanta, also near train tracks, that I would see in my drive to downtown every day after work. And yet this one had something amiss, or in excess: it had windows, albeit tinted. Masonic temples, I thought, were supposed to be windowless.
Calls at Kentucky stations, Cincinnati and Indianapolis had caught me in my sleep. One of the pleasures of train travel is the sight of those stations, mostly small but sometimes big, like the Cardinal’s only stop in Ohio. If only for its name, I regretted that I had withdrawn into my dreams when we stopped and passed through Cincinnati.
While I knew that its name was associated to a colonial era aristocratic order, the Society of the Cincinnati, it still paid homage – if indirectly – to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the patrician peasant-soldier who had returned to his farm after serving pre-imperial Rome, of an era of austerity and virtue. Of my readings of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives I had only retained the impression that he was an exemplary man. Yet I was always mystified by a dark intrigue I felt for Caius Marcius Coriolanus, undone in his courage by his overbearing pride.
Cincinnati is just a name, and it is much more than that. Names define us. They are the first answer to the question of who we are. And very often, they are a metaphor too. The train was surging from Indiana into Illinois amid the plains, through towns that did not always display the enormous wealth of America in all its might. After all, these were settlements of people pushed against the rails.
And yet, I wondered how Cincinnati looked. Would there be a correlation between its architecture and the austerity that its patron layman came to embody? Perhaps there were too many, and different, United States: the hard-working and virtuous one, the one striving to live up to the ideals of its Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims, as opposed to the materialistic one of the quintessential consumer society; the one of the white tiny Protestant churches that dot the Southern landscape and the one of people who have no time for God. More likely, however, that was a fallacy. There was – not simply, but in its overpowering complexity – just the United States.
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This is the eleventh 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: