The sun has set, leaving a rapidly fading orange sky in the west when we pull into Mendota, Illinois on our way west, the engine crying mournfully as we interrupt sparse late afternoon traffic at a grade crossing. I wonder how many other riders recognize the one citizen of Mendota the train bulletin mentions, Helen Hokinson, who created those cheerful hatted and befurred ladies with their ruffled maids for New Yorker covers. Her brand of humor, including her viewers in a world of innocently foolish privilege, wouldn’t work today; her drawings had almost no bite.
As we stop for a few passengers to descend, a lumbering Hyundai machine is dumping gravel between the rails on the next track, and I wonder if this is the reason the sleeping car attendant has warned us that we will be proceeding “more slowly than usual.”
Does Mendota have a monument to Hokinson? It seems unlikely.
“The dark fields of the Republic”—Whitman’s line—begin to unreel along the track, stretching to distant farm house lights and clumps of trees. A half moon looks like a reflection in the window as I start for the diner.
At dinner, I realize that one thing I hate about my blessed life is that I never meet anyone new. Good friends, old friends, beloved family—there’s nothing like them, of course, but their backgrounds by and large match mine, their experiences, their education, have been like mine, and they are all white and all upper class by birth if no longer able, in this economy, to afford the upper class. I am confined.
There is no way to be confined in the diner, although sometimes when I’m tired I wish there was a corner I could retreat to with a book to eat my meal in peace. But no: this is community seating, rigorously enforced, and I would have to bring three familiars on the trip to avoid sitting with strangers.
Tonight, my table companions are a large black man, a former accountant, from Detroit, and a pretty, nimble young schoolteacher from the California public school system. She teaches English and math to a sixth grade classroom numbering forty students, part of an educational system undermined by budget cuts, the federal government’s well-intentioned manhandling, and the long since established flight of well-off families to private schools.
We talk long and deep about education, federal policies, the deficit, the changes that are roiling life in the U.S., and only the accountant can still say, without irony, that this is the best country in the world.
It may take the sharp and perpetual oppression we call racism to teach us to enjoy what we have.
I would never have met these two, except on the train.
Morning: eastern Colorado is as flat as Kansas; the fields are bathed in rose-gold early light when I wake up. All night the train has been hooting, the low mournful sound that seems to mean, “I am here . . . I am here” as we pass through towns, isolated farmhouses, or nothing. The tracks seemed particularly rough through Kansas, but for me, the rocking and rolling is as comforting as the songs I heard in childhood: “Oh you take the high road and I’ll take the low road but I’ll be in Scotland before you.”
When I first heard that song, Scotland had much less reality for me than the moon, but the plaintive sweetness of the promise—always to get there “before you”—created a mood that even at five or six I understood: what could be more comforting than to see my beloved Lucy, the guardian of my childhood, waiting for me at whatever point I reached next along the road? Years later, she used to come every summer to help me take care of my little boys, riding for days on the Greyhound to reach me, and often I was “before her” at the dilapidated downtown station where she descended.
She always wore a navy blue coat, stout shoes, support hose, and carried one of those indestructible suitcases my blood relatives would never have deigned to touch. Often she’d made friends on the bus, and her curiosity about all sorts and conditions is one of her gifts to me.
At breakfast, I sat next to a fellow Kentuckian with the many names that state bestows on its sons—in this case four, ending with Junior or third, or maybe even fourth, for all I can remember. He reminded me of our shared past when he reached sturdily across the table for sugar, apologizing with a phrase I haven’t heard in decades, “boarding house reach.” The last boarding house in New York City, a massive brick on the corner of 86th and Lexington, was torn down a few years ago; that particular form of mingling came to an end long ago in Kentucky. In modern hotels and motels, even in the dreary shared free-breakfast rooms, people avoid each other’s eyes. We assume, apparently, that we have nothing in common, and lapse into that laziness called silence.
And now, as we crawl through Colorado, I see my Rockies—although no natural element is less ownable than these piercing peaks—for the first time this early winter covered with snow. The verb is inaccurate—up close, there would still be bald spots—but also because the mountains are transformed by snow, ignited by snow, so that my eyes are dazzled. How did anything in this parched landscape come to be so white?
The train ambles south and that brief vision is gone, returning with the next twist in the tracks. Twin peaks, rearing up a little closer, are coned with snow, while the distant range is entirely white and yet, at its foot, the land is drought stricken as though those snows never melted and nourished what little can be grown here in the flats.
Why am I so drawn to mountains? Mary Oliver, who makes beauty out of small pieces of nature, a rock, a leaf, might suspect me of grandiosity as a flatland native (the Appalachians were never part of my Kentucky childhood) trying to escape into the heights. And I will never climb these particular pinnacles, which rear up sixteen or seventeen thousand feet. I will be content with the lower range that faces my home town, Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristos, and when I see their snowy tops, later today, I will be excited, too. The Vermonters I met yesterday at dinner—or was it the day before? time has blurred—will be skiing these Colorado mountains or their like later this week, but I am happy to leave that to them. I can see, after all, and seeing those peaks gives me a better understanding of my twenty years in New Mexico.
Now we are hooting out way down to Trinidad. Then comes Lamy, the abandoned hulk of the great hotel, and my dear ones waiting. Yet when the train pulls out without me, heading for Los Angeles, I feel, for a moment, lost, as though reality is riding away from me in Bedroom B.