Cross-Country Train Journey

December 11, 2008

Before I arrived in Sweden, I did a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico.  At the end of this, I decided to journey home to Boston, Massachusetts by train.  These are some brief reflections on that journey – a little catalog of scenes I saw and people I met.  I only summarized the first leg of the journey, from Lamy, New Mexico to Chicago, Illinois. I was too exhausted during the second and third legs, from Chicago to Albany-Rensselaer, New York to Boston.

I traveled across the United States by train, boarding the Southwest Chief in Lamy, New Mexico, starting where I left off at the start of my residency (when I had come by train – the same one in fact – from Los Angeles, California to Lamy).  On this Chicago-bound train, I traveled through New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois.  Unlike East Coast trains, West Coast trains – including the Chief and the Coast Starlight – have two levels – like a double-decker bus – as well as an observation car with a lounge on the top level and a café underneath.  I spent the majority of my waking moments in the observation lounge.  I met and/or overheard weird + interesting people and conversations.  On my first night, I talked about poetry with a young organic farmer from Gloucester, Massachusetts who now lives in Missouri.  He had a guitar with him and took song requests from other passengers in the observation lounge – mainly folk tunes.  Once everyone had left we talked about poetry, my move to Sweden and his farm – his farm is also a non-profit retreat for groups of adults and teenagers.  He related a story about a recent debacle at the farm when he and his wife scheduled two very different groups simultaneously – one of Christians and the other of anarchists.  The farm doesn’t use electricity nor do they own a car.  (I wrote in the margins: You never meet people like this on a plane!)

The highlight of the first leg of the journey was riding through the open desert – the high desert of New Mexico is rich with color and light.  Long horn cattle grazed at the foothills of the mountains on feathery wheat-colored grass.  Thick bundles of lavender grew wild in the midst of low shrubs, gray rock and thick shocks of prairie grass.  The beginning of the Rocky Mountains shimmered in the distance.

I watched the landscape transform in slow motion from high desert to prairie to green fields and swollen rivers.  In the early afternoon, we crossed the great Mississippi River.  I didn’t realize how massive it was.  The closer we got to Chicago, the browner and sadder everything looked.

Unfortunately, the train station in Chicago was an unhappy, rancid sort of place – like the landscape directly surrounding it.  This wouldn’t have been so bad if the layover wasn’t six hours and I hadn’t had two huge suitcases with nowhere to store them.  So, I headed for the only bar in the train station – with no windows and scary-looking people lurking in corridors.  I ordered two Sierra Nevada pale ales and made them last as long as possible.

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