AMTHRAX: Train Travel and Historical Recursion in The United States of America
by E.W. Wilder
10:14 a.m. and we're finally leaving Cleveland. After delays and washouts—mechanical, physical, climatological, personal—we're pulling away.
It is a Sunday, and the rails have begun to sing. My handheld GPS says we've finally hit 50 miles an hour, and the cool air of mid-May Ohio is something of a dream: the train supplies the breeze inside my "roomette”; a metal tray holds my notebook.
A million words have spilled regarding the death of rail.
This is a testimony to the state of national security.
Ohio, like many other "Midwestern” states, can't quite decide how rural and how plainsy it really wants to be. We'd do well to insert the cliché of American expansiveness here. We'd do well to note the massive piles of rust that were factories, once.
We'd do well here to note the chatter about the dining car, the yellow smoke that settles around the lounge car, the headlines that, compared to the promising spring sun seems like nothing, that decorate the USA Today slid under my roomette door, the headlines forming a black crown: Washington, New York, again "under attack” by epistolary anthrax.
And I am headed to DC by train.
Compared to everywhere save Russia—maybe rural India—there are no self-respecting industrialized nations saddled with a passenger rail service that is quite so loud. Relegated to non-priority status on the nation's freight lines, Amtrak is America's most perfect metaphor for the battered notion of the Common Good.
Once breathed alongside patriotic incantations of the American Way, the Common Good has become a drunken nation's favorite epithet. If all the country does could be envisioned in terms of poor, Victorian children, Amtrak is the innocent boy constantly whipped, the stepchild who comes to embody the privations and forced intimacy of life with the poorer, plainer, prior wife.
But the food isn't as bad as all that, and the service, honestly, shines, but the train's promises are shattered circumstances only a country so classically vast could mete out.
I am here as a pilot for a new program: placing writers on the rails in order to revitalize Amtrak's image—as if it ever was vital. My presence here presaged all the others due to an accident of association, and therefore won't be an official part of anything, but that, too, is the American Way.
Vitality was never really in the picture: Amtrak, after all, is the last great American compromise, a semi-autonomous business that would fill the gap created by a dying private system, the same system the same government we so despise created through pumping public funds into private hands a hundred years before, a system we committed genocide to create, the deaths of millions of natives in service of eventually melting into yet another US afterthought.
If bullets, blankets, and bacteria were the vectors of the Native genocide, the railroad was its counterpart in public health: the infrastructure of doom. These same steel tracks were laid in the wake of peoples laid to waste. They pumped the spoils back east—buffalo hides and sides of beef, beaver pelts and winter wheat—to a people still weak from the Civil War.
The same storms that raked the tracks last night and washed out homesteads 150 years ago remind us of the futility of our fight over The Common Good. Ultimately, the world doesn't care: the Providence of the Puritans be damned: we'll live or die based mostly on how we pull together after The Big One comes.
When we're in our cars, we can imagine the road as a geographical feature, and, one might argue, the rise of the SUV is an attempt to tell ourselves we need not even that; our self-sufficiency knows no bounds: we'll just throw it in 4X4 and climb through the craters of our crumbling highways in air-conditioned comfort.
Until, of course, we have to fill up.
A train, though, has no such pretenses: your lack of individual sovereignty is made up for by porters and waiters, conductors and cooks. These men and women seem to appear from nowhere and populate the train in little successive generations; the train is a polity, and we are its captive little kings.
As per tradition and the realities of service work, Amtrak's porters skew black, and as the train bores through the late morning fog, you realize it intersects history and not just surface streets. The railroads were passages out of the South, out of segregation, and porters were paid better than sharecroppers. A rail career might allow a man to settle here, in Ohio, instead of having to grind away in Mississippi until the End of Days. Even as Faulkner's black families endured, their cousins came north—to Chicago and Detroit, to Cleveland and Toledo, to factory work—perhaps just as hard as the field work they left, but far more dear. The blues is, among other things, a music of movement, and trains outnumber cars as the means out of cotton-choked Dixie.
I settle into the lounge car and a cup of okay coffee and strike up a conversation with a woman who came this way all the way from LA on the Southwest Chief, connecting with the Capitol Limited in Chicago. She's from Barstow, but from Oklahoma stock—though she only vaguely recounts the move. In her 80s now and weathered like an arroyo, she's on her way to meet a granddaughter who is graduating in biochem from a DC-area university.
We discuss the obvious—the headline that anthrax is back in the mail—and what she should expect inside the Beltway. And anyway, what's the best way to get around once a body gets to DC?
I tell her what I know, which isn't much. I'm a man in between online and organic memory, my own itinerary generated by Amtrak's not terrible website, but, sans smart phone or a decent signal, unable to call up specifics that would assure her past my own recollection: the DC Metro is, ironically, world class: clean, cheap, and prompt. It's a good deal more comprehensive a travel option than such services, if they exist at all, in many major American cities.
The woman—may I call her Sue?--is friendly enough, and so I decline from countering her notions of exactly who "they” are and why "they” hate us and why the government—which, after all, can't do anything right—can't seem to stop this terror-by-mail. Though I note internally that it's probably just another right-wing wacko, as senators and media are targeted again, and that half the packages actually arrived via UPS, that fits not our most fundamental of American self-hatreds: all elected officials are nincompoops, except the ones we voted for; government of, by and for The People is the greatest thing ever, but it also just can't seem to get anything done, and we'd just as soon it got the hell out of our lives.
I can feel it, as we move toward evening, and the land rolls more, the trees thicken.
This was the forest primeval to those early settlers, the Jacksonian frontier that we still continually re-create, through the plains, the Inter-Mountain West, Alaska. By the time the 20th Century busted all our old illusions, we had re-created the frontier in our minds, our literature, our films, our waking dreams. And frontier is still our most compelling myth: each new tract home in each successive exurban ring is us busting sod, even though the actual work is done by Mexicans seeking solace from a drug war, and even though our fescue won't ever sustain us.
As a long-time denizen of the plains, with their proximity to the Rockies, the Appalachians seem intimate, a mountain chain in miniature, and old, almost European. And it all seems so hopelessly wet. But its fog, its "smoke,” is beautiful, too, and the few, low switchbacks and tight valleys capture the imagination on our slow parade past.
It's hard, now, not to see the rails as a sickness; the desperation of industry smacks us clean in the face.
The train doubles back on itself through a switchback, and I can see the engine. As we climb, the diesel locomotive rolls coal.
I'm forever amazed at how fast the eastern mountains roll out into the flat of the Atlantic Seaboard. When we fought the Civil War, we mostly fought over a tiny strip onto which we laid all of our symbolic historical meaning. Even as it raged, the War Between the States was a war about the past, and that the North won the war is not better noted than by the fact that our current insurrectionists look back to our colonial past and an anti-mercantilist riot in Boston for its title and controlling idea. That the South won the peace is best noted in an actual accounting of the Tea Party's demands: state's rights, voter suppression, an end to all the social progress of the past 150 years.
If we're nothing else, we're a nation bound to believe quite sincerely the deep ironies that form our collective concerns.
The Monday edition of USA Today I now hold in my hand shows a picture of DC police cruisers surrounding a barricade like shoats still curious about momma pig's teats. Only we can freak out so well about incidents in which no one was infected and none arrested. "White powders” and "suspicious packages” are enough to set us off. Without the spectre of "Indian savages” to hold us captive and provide us with memoir material, it's almost like we're asking for it.
And we are.
We have, after all, placed our capitol in a swamp. We've kept "big government” at bay by electing the richest among us in order to protect the interests of a class we simultaneously admire and despise.
We are all wealthy. We are all destitute. We are all sovereign. We are all "blue collar,” and we have the tracks to prove it. At once the best-selling vehicles in the United States are the Ford F-150 and the Toyota Camry. We continue wars over foreign oil at the very moment we frack our landscape into quaking earth and seeping gas in order to pursue "energy independence” by piling wealth on top of the already wealthy as they sell our oil on the international market.
The straight-talking American unflinchingly adopts muddy-minded euphemisms like "death tax” and "political correctness” and "job creators.” The unflappable Minuteman moans audibly when he faces the chimera of "reverse racism.”
As I plod across Capitol Hill and towards a hot dog vendor on the National Mall, I consider how we've reached another miniature: the low mount adjacent to the tidal basin, the classical columns feting the apotheosis of those who gather in the name of a noble claim: doing the business of "We, The People,” in whose most sacred space they conspire, doing the bidding of the wealthiest classes, in space inundated by the rising seas, ere long.