There is no Trans-American Railroad as such. It is a name I coined for the two-train network connecting the East coast with the West coast, America’s Atlantic seabed with the Pacific one. But to my knowledge, nobody uses the “Trans-American” name to describe it. For good reason, too. It is not one single line like, say, the Orient Express from London to Istanbul.
We cannot compare it to the other grand train travel par excellence: the Trans-Siberian, in either of its three branches. The original Trans-Siberian of Tsar Alexander III is the Moscow-Vladivostok line. Then there are the two other Trans-Siberian trains to Peking: the Trans-Manchurian, entering from Russia into China through Manchuria; and the Trans-Mongolian, which crosses into China after two or three days through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
In the summer of 1993, at Moscow’s Kursk Station (if memory does not fail me: I can check on the web but search engines are rendering memory useless, so I will not) I boarded a train that for seven days and seven nights took me to Peking. By its very definition, this was travel across a continent, from the edge of Europe to the Far East. Then you felt it, too. But it was not only because of the distance or the diverse landscape. We were traveling across old civilizations.
We rolled past the Urals, the Volga and Lake Baikal, the onion domes of Russian churches and the gers, the tents where Mongols lived in the Gobi Desert, and two Mongolian horsemen galloping in the distance, in their traditional costumes and tall fur hats, indifferent to the only modern presence in the void they were traversing.
And then, on the seventh day, we saw a line drawing on the mountains in the distance. “What is that?” we wondered aloud. As the Trans-Siberian Express approached it, the line came into focus in all its magnificence as the Great Wall. A dense jungle of concrete constructions and splendid pagodas with upturned roofs welcomed us into China’s capital that evening, in the light of dusk.
For all the rich geography and the people of the Trans-American railroad, there was no sense of depth to it. It was grand travel on a continental scale. That is the beauty of train travel. A former colleague of mine decried air travel. “The body arrives before the soul,” she wrote. Both travel in pair on land and water.
Yet America was the country of standards. Shapes, weights, and measures are uniformed to fit the system and move the country forth. Most settlements we crossed from New York to Los Angeles – be they towns, cities or junkyards – could easily be Anytown, Anywhere, U.S.
The skyline of Los Angeles drew in the horizon on the morning of the fourth day. It had been preceded by monumental car wrecking yards, full of crumpled samples of Detroit glory that I loved –I caught glimpse of a rusting Cadillac El Dorado. There were also Japanese cars. Enlarged golf carts picked the train passengers up and carried us to the station’s main hall. At the Starbucks a young woman approached me to charge her iPhone by plugging it into my computer.
While I waited for the other sockets to free up, I realized they would not any time soon: they had been taken up by two homeless patrons who were charging their smart-phones. But her phone was draining of battery life my computer. And this girl initially put me off talking to me in almost sign language, assuming at first sight that I would not understand what she wanted. She was Colombian herself, but had been living in the States since she was ten.
In a sense, she was homeless too, working the telephone to find somewhere to crash in until she figured something out. Even though she was being evasive at first – we were strangers – she finally opened up. A friend kicked her out from her home in Santa Barbara, unmaking an arrangement they had made. Then she asked me where I was coming from. “Man, I love Italy.” She had never visited Italy, though.
Then she said something that I was not expecting. According to this girl, in the States it was all about money, not about life. If that was so, it may come down, I told her, to choosing between a happy life with little money and no job in Italy, or a miserable life with good money and a job in the States. “I have made my choice,” I told her. “Yeah, me too,” she responded. “But I need to make some money first.”
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This is the twentieth and last 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:
The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”
“On the Road”
Where Trains and Cars Come To Die
The Jumping Devils of Glorieta Pass
Lunch with the Amish as we Cross New Mexico