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“On the Road”

Third day on the Trans-American Railroad. I ran to the cafeteria in the lower deck of the observation car for a breakfast of straight black coffee and toasted bagel with cream and cheese. “What are you reading, sir?” It was a soft voice, but there was something peremptory in the tone, like a cop’s trying to sound nice but not necessarily meaning it.

It had come from a short man with bushy mustache who had his eyes fixed on me. He wore a red baseball cap, a legend embroidered in white:

 

JESUS
is my boss

“On the Road,” I responded. It was such a self-conscious choice that I was feeling embarrassed. But the man shook his head, in a gesture indicating he did not know Kerouac’s book.  “I’ll tell you what,” said the cafeteria attendant, “no kid reads these days but my seven-year-old boy just loves books.”

Then I grabbed my cardboard tray with the coffee and the bagel, and went up to the observation deck. As the arid landscape of Colorado ran past us, I turned to look what the girl a few seats down from me was reading: “On the Road.” But it was a different edition.

 

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This is the sixteenth 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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”

Iowa was just a brief interlude between Illinois and Missouri, where we were now. As the train was arriving at La Plata, the conductor had a message for the smoke deprived: this would just be a short stop. “Next official smoke break is Kansas City, the Paris of the Prairies.” We would be arriving there around 11:00 PM.

Oh this Paris obsession. Buenos Aires was said to be the Paris of South America and Beirut, where a majority of my extended family used to live until the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, was called the Paris of the Middle East. There were some six or seven Paris cities and towns in the States –including one made famous in a 1980s movie, Paris, Texas. Other than that, I thought the U.S. to be free from the Paris syndrome. Only once, in Friends, one of the sitcom characters had called Tulsa “the Paris of Oklahoma.” Then again, that was a joke.

“Go to the end of the platform and you’ll see the skyline,” the conductor told me, with a hint of pride at what was probably his hometown. He had seen me snapping shots at every station we called. Still with his kepi style hat on, he would be getting off here, where conductors would change.

Indeed, at the very end of the platform – a narrowing tongue of concrete – you would see the cityscape, quintessentially American. A compact cluster of glass and steel towers outdid each other in their sky-bound rise. Nonetheless, it was a much more modest affair than New York, with none of its forbidding architecture. One or two were bathed in a blue light. I did see Kansas City but my eyes missed Paris.

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This is the fifteenth 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

 

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The Crossing of the Mississippi

 

On the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles nobody sat next me. When Diane left in Chicago, so did the stories. It is always a blessing to sit alone on a plane these days. Yet that logic does not apply to trains. They usually go longer distances, and a second voice plays the chorus for our internal dialogues. So in a way, a trip alone on a train is half a trip.

Moreover, this train lacked another essential component to railway travel. So smooth was the ride that the Southwest Chief was missing the rhythmic clatter of older rolling stock. The first time I had woken to the clang of wheels against rails I was going from Urumqi, in Uighur Xinjiang – a Tatar province in China – to Kazakhstan in the summer of 1993. The Chinese train was traversing steppe under a low full moon. And the music of mechanics in motion marked the rhythm of the journey, like a drum announcing a mysterious revelation. Quite literally it was so, for the future is always unknown and mysterious.

I was on the Observation Car when the conductor came on air to announce we were about to cross the Mississippi. True to its name, it did feel like a watershed in the journey. With the plush furnishing of a lounge, the Observation Car is lined from floor to ceiling windows on both sides, offering as complete a vision of the territory we crossed as possible from the tracks.

We had to wait, however. The draw bridge had been raised to let a barge cross headed south. As we slowly resumed our march, the rotting remains of a half-sunk, wooden boat came into view, a juvenile egret perched on its prow.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came back in a dazzling flashback to my childhood, to the first book I read in my Armenian home in Buenos Aires, to the first America I imagined, the country of the Mississippi basin, of unrestrained nature and freedom. In 1927, a Japanese visitor to the States had wrote back home saying “Americans believe what they read in their newspapers.” When I came to settle in Atlanta in 1999, I was excited to live in the South that I had come to know thanks to Mark Twain. Only then did I realize that I believed what I read in my books.

In Land of Shadows, a movie about C S Lewis, a former student bumps on a train into the writer, played by Anthony Hopkins. As they are catching up on their lives, the former student tells him that his father had passed away: “He used to say, ‘We read to know we are not alone.” It was a phrase that has stayed with me since, that I sometimes believe I understand, but other times I doubt that I do.

 

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This is the fourteenth 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