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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