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The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac

The train slowed down as we passed by the Sunoco Marcus Hook refinery in Pennsylvania. At snail pace, details that would have escaped me came into focus. A cloud of flies was hovering over the bloodied carcass of a small deer, perhaps a young female. Another congregation of flies was inspecting the dead animal’s eye.

As the train regained speed, a white oval construction rose in the horizon. The Talen Energy Stadium looked futuristic, but in an antiquated way, like cityscapes of science fiction movies from the nineteen sixties.

Shortly afterwards we skirted the Delaware river, immense in its uniquely American breadth. After a string of defunct factories, their windows boarded up or hollowed out, we came abreast of Wilmington. A blue whale mural decorated a blind wall on a red brick house, in an old compact neighborhood. Another one had been painted with a three floor tall, waving American flag. In a way, it mirrored, with local or idiosyncratic iconography, a tradition of more violent political propaganda across the Atlantic. In Belfast, similarly aged brick constructions are taken over by enormous depictions of Protestant paramilitaries or Catholic militants.

The distant silhouette of Baltimore announced our next stop, which was brief. Downtown America was variations on the same theme: a core of tall buildings and skyscrapers, hugged by highways that snaked around or through them. They looked dazzling after sunset, their electric illumination cutting against the darkening sky. But downtown streets were deserted, a succession of dimly lit lobbies and shuttered shops, occasionally manned by sleepy guards.

Then came Washington, standing out with the august white of its architecture. Yet I was sitting on the wrong side of the corridor, but it was late when I realized it. While I’m not sure that the Capitol would have been visible from the train, I only was able to catch a glimpse of the obelisk, the Washington Monument on the National Mall. Further down the tracks, one lone man was navigating down the middle of the Potomac in a small motorboat.

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This is the fifth 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