I was definitely the only person on New Jersey Transit who had just spent four days on Amtrak, coming from Arizona, traveling by rail from southern border to northern border, almost from coast to coast.
The train from New York to Chicago got into NYC about ten minutes early, and so I was able to catch the 6:52 commuter train back to Madison, NJ, but with only minutes to spare. It was one of those split-level trains, where you enter on the same level as the platform, and then you have to either go up or down half a flight of stairs to get to the seats. The train was full. Rather than try to navigate the narrow aisle, I stayed in the alcove designated for people with bikes or who otherwise cannot use the stairs. Men in suit pants and pressed shirts watched me from the corners of their eyes, trying to maintain their dignified stares at their iPhones without letting on how hard they were judging the flustered 21-year-old woman, shining from sweat, with two giant backpacks, a guitar, and an empty sport bag. I hoisted the guitar, sport bag, and smaller backpack onto the rack, and sat, holding my big backpack steady with my knees, between two men who didn’t look up from their iPhone games for the duration of the trip.
I made small talk with the one man in business casual attire across the aisle, who asked if I had been hiking the Appalachian Trail. No, I told him, I just took Amtrak from Tucson – 4 days, via Chicago. Must have been quite the trip, he said.
I set out from Tucson on Saturday, December 1st, on the Texas Eagle, the train from LA to Chicago, which passes through Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis. It’s a long ride. So long, in fact, that it has its own song, which you can find on the route’s website. It’s a long song, and a tedious song, which is appropriate for the long, tedious route.
The Texas Eagle passes near Big Bend National Park, and through the Ozark Mountains, and St. Louis. Sounds beautiful, right? It goes through all of these places at night. The first day, passing through desert and scattered mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico, is quite beautiful – an echo of places I’d visited during the Border Studies Program. The second day – and the third day – were flat plains. I was interested to travel through a part of the country I’d never seen at eye level before, but the initial excitement wore off by hour 5. The next 40 hours were less novel, but provided me with ample time to ponder what it means that I can travel across the country on train tracks, literally watching the seasons change as I move north.
Staring out the window of the train, I have a tour of what I’ve heard described as “Post-America America.” Almost every city stop used to be an industrial area, and now it’s not, or if it is, it’s a fraction of the size it used to be. In Erie and Rochester, and through Illinois, giant buildings sit, abandoned. Most of the big buildings that look like they’re still occupied are prisons – it’s a profound statement on how and why our prison system has grown while our manufacturing industry has shrunk.
Most people I talk to about my train trip have asked if I have a bed while I’m on the train. I don’t. Had I been able to split the cost of a sleeper, I would, but it costs two or three times the price, and I actually have no trouble sleeping in the coach seats, fully reclined and inside my sleeping bag. The trickiest part about sleeping is the fact that the seat, for someone as small as I, wearing mostly synthetic material, acts as a slide, and I have to kind of wedge myself in between my seat and the seat ahead of me, so that I won’t slip off while sleeping.
You can’t smoke on an Amtrak car. It must be a new federal law or something, because everyone seems outraged about it, from passengers to the train crew. Almost every announcement is a reminder that, “Smoking Is PROHIBITED in all cars of the train. The next smoke stop is not until THREE AM in Little Rock, folks, so set your alarms if you need a smoke, because the next four stops WILL NOT be smoke stops.” You can’t smoke on Amtrak, no, but you can carry a gun.
I meet some good people on the train. A woman, sitting across from me outlines her entire model for being an advocate for people experiencing domestic violence. A mom and her two kids, heading home to Missouri, get off at every smoke stop. The mom blows the smoke away from the kids while they run around. She says she isn’t scared about them falling off the platform; she trusts them. A great-grandmother on her way to visit family sits next to me in the observation car and tells me about the five living generations of her family. An environmental chemist, on her way to graduate from her masters program, sits beside me from Chicago to Syracuse and shares my dental floss. Life on Amtrak has a much slower pace than the whirl of traveling cross-country on planes. No one is in much of a rush.
I’m visiting Vassar, and walking across campus, and I hear the train whistle. The eerie note echoing across the city reminds me of being in Tucson, and it also reminds me that I could get on the train tonight and be in Tucson by Monday. It’s an important reminder, because here, in the cold, drippy familiarity of campus, Tucson seems very far away. The past two days have been a whirl of visiting old friends, hugging, catching up on campus happenings. There has not been much room for deep conversations about the semester; only enough time to say, It was a really powerful experience. Super intense. The Border is really fucked up, maybe accompanied by a short anecdote about the Border Patrol, with a moment for us to shake our heads, fuckin’ unbelievable, before changing the subject to something easier to take on in the next fifteen minutes. Pushing the reality of Tucson plus the reality of Vassar out of my head is a fairly straightforward process – far less complicated than trying to synthesize the two right now, while this familiar face comes in for a big hug after six months apart. It is hard to even comprehend the fact that this damp, dreary city, with leafy trees and rolling hills, operates in the same time and space as warm, dry, Tucson. In Tucson, the rough edges of cacti and the Catalinas rule the landscape, and the sky is so much larger. The flat expansiveness makes it much more difficult to hide the realities and injustices of our world.
But that train whistle blows, and I know it’s the same world, same continent, same country. The two are connected, to each other and everywhere else. I won’t forget.