“Oh, the wanderlust is on me and tonight I strike the trail.”
– Scottish “Hiking Song”
A barely restrained mob converges at the waiting room door. Even as I edge forward, I wonder why we all want to be first. The train won’t leave Chicago without us, and our rooms and seats are reserved so there’s no chance anyone will have to stand up across half the country. A violet-coiffed woman runs the wheel of her purple suitcase over my foot and leverages her way past me. Her husband tags along with a hesitant step and anxious eyes. I wait for him to go by. Why didn’t they grab a ride on one of the electric cars that ferry passengers who find the walk too challenging?
It isn’t easy for any of us. It’s a long way down the platform to the sleeper cars, and by the time I find my car, my head is pounding from the stink of diesel. I wrestle my bags up and around the narrow turn of the stairs to the upper level, settle into my roomette, get my bearings. Showers downstairs. Toilets each end of the car. Another sleeping car separates this one from the viewing car, and the dining car is just beyond. I fish a bottle from my bag and pop a couple of Naproxens, then head down the car in search of caffeine. The attendant hasn’t made the coffee, not yet, so I take a short nap instead.
This small adventure began before sunrise in Waterloo, a tiny town in the northeast corner of Indiana, not far from where I grew up. We are moving, my husband and I and two dogs, for the second time in as many years. We’ve gone gypsy. A year ago we sold our house, sold and donated furniture, books, tools, and bric-a-brac. We recycled and tossed. I suspect that most of our friends and family think we are either inspired or stark raving mad. And just when their address books had caught up with us in North Carolina, we are moving three thousand miles west to the high desert of Nevada. Reno, to be precise.
The truth, as always, is more complicated, and not the same for the two of us. It has taken months of casual conversation for that to become clear. We left the Midwest for the southeastern coast of North Carolina for a slew of reasons, the precipitating one a bitter January day when the temperature held below zero throughout the afternoon and a patch of black ice by the mailbox laid me flat. Less than a year later we’re heading west. I suppose in part we do it because we can, since my husband is retired and my work is portable. We’ve developed a sound bite to avoid confusing everyone more than we already have: “We want to try living in different parts of the country.” I’ve come to like the meaning of the words, and they are true in part, but the reality is that, like many couples, we walk separate paths even when we seem to heading the same direction.
For this phase of the journey, I’m alone. My husband and dogs are already in Reno, and every night I call the home I’ve not yet seen. I have spent all of June holed up in Fort Wayne, writing and unwinding my mind after a stressful winter and spring. I’ve spent the month caring for a friend’s house and dog while she and her sister explore Michigan’s coast and photograph lighthouses. Some of them, at any rate. One hundred fifteen of the structures are strung along more than three thousand miles of coastline. I looked it up. My friends, who are in their seventies, hope to see at least one lighthouse a day. It will be a long drive.
Long drives have always appealed to me, and I had planned to drive from Indiana to Nevada. But I like trains better. Sometime about mid-month, I discovered that I could ship the car and take the California Zephyr for not much more than gas and motels would cost, and that’s how I found myself waiting on an open platform in the early light of July 3rd. I waited with nineteen other travelers who paced, checked watches, peered down the mist-shrouded track to the east, and speculated about just how late the train was this time. Barely, it turned out. In fact, by Amtrak standards it was right on time, and twenty-two minutes after the timetable promised, we boarded the Lakeshore Limited bound for Chicago.
Meals in the dining car are part of the deal, and the food is plentiful and surprisingly good. Dining partners are luck of the draw, four to a table. Mostly it works. Tonight I find myself dining with Annette and Tim from Australia and Juli, born in India, reared in Scotland, working in London. Conversation ranges from dogs to the San Francisco wedding that brought Juli to the States to books to the fun and frustrations of train travel. We talk about trains we have known in Britain, Egypt, Asia, Africa, Europe. We all want to ride through Canada. Conversation stops as we cross a trestle over the Mississippi, a long ribbon of milk chocolate slipping beneath us in the waning evening light.
Tim and Annette sock away two bottles of Shiraz and she waxes romantic about how they met in Hong Kong nearly half a century ago, how she had no interest in anything that would distract her from her foreign service career, how Tim swashed in and buckled her up and that was that. I wonder whether the tint to his cheeks is embarrassment or wine. She’s into her cups enough not to notice, or not to care. They take their leave and head to the café car for a nightcap.
Juli and I order tea. She is a barrister who works on behalf of torture victims, women mostly, and children. “There was this child, a girl, from. . . ” Her passion is tangible. Her anger. Her resolve. Most remarkably, her good humor. We talk too about my work with rescued animals, the threads of cruelty and violence and unfathomable resilience that link the two arenas. We talk about the good that people do, the kindnesses.
“It must be hard,” I say when Julie speaks of makeshift camps in desolate places. “I mean, aside from the physical conditions.”
“It is the hardest thing, but the best thing I can do. Selfish, really. It makes me feel better about myself.” We are silent for a long moment, and then she speaks. “Every time I come back I say I can’t go again, I’ll do the work at home,” she says. “And then after a few months, I know that I don’t have a choice. I must go back.” She sips her tea, then speaks again. “It’s easy to become wound up in courts and arguments and politics. Those are important, but they are just the surface. I must not lose sight of the people at the root of it all.”
Surfaces deceive. We know this, but it’s easy to forget that the shells we see around us are little more than clues to what they conceal. Travel can bring us back to this truth if we pay attention, as I will be reminded again and again on this trek west from the heartland.
In Elkhart, west of where I started my journey, a dozen women in long dresses lugged big black garbage bags aboard and wrestled them into luggage racks above their seats. They giggled and chattered in the archaic Swiss-German of their community, tucked stray hair into bonnets, smoothed long pastel skirts. Conventional luggage followed, toted by husbands, brothers, sons. I spent my adolescence in this area and often saw the buggies and un-electrified farms, the bonnets and hats and beards, yet I know very little about these people. I don’t know even so basic a thing as whether my fellow travelers are Amish or Mennonite or something else, only that they’re with me again on the Zephyr out of Chicago.
I move to the observation car after dinner. One of the Elkhart couples drops into the adjacent seats. He runs his thumbs up the length of his suspenders and she pulls a thermos and cups from her Hello Kitty tote. They smile at me, settle back, open their paperbacks. James Patterson and Jody Picoult. I’m surprised, then ashamed of myself for being surprised. What did I expect them to read? And why? I don’t ask myself those questions often enough. Who is that old man two seats back, for instance, the one with the cane in the palsied hand? War hero? Ex-con? Did he once break a heart with a single glance, or have his crushed by a careless shrug?
Night closes in somewhere just west of Creston, Iowa. I pull the privacy of my roomette around me like a shawl and think about the land. We have been traversing the old tall grass prairie since we left Chicago, though you wouldn’t know it from the tidy acres of corn and beans stitched like quilt squares across Illinois and Iowa. The prairie has given way over the past century-and-a-half to feedlots and farms, scattered towns and human dwellings, but for thousands of years this was a sea of grasses and other native plants. Their roots bound the soil to the earth and their fruits fed a multitude of creatures from western Indiana to the Front Range of the Rockies, from Canada to Texas. These prairies stretch over three provinces and ten states. These were, in every sense, the Great Plains of North America.
I gaze out the window at land I do not know personally. We are still in the “I” states, and they are not so different from one another overall. I think about what strangers see when they cross this heart of our country. Flat. Boring. So I’ve been told by people who hear that I grew up in Indiana, who think it just a long stretch of featureless road or rail between the East and Chicago. “I” for Indiana, “I” for Invisible, some people seem to think. But I grew up there, and I know better. I know the glacial lakes that sparkle just past that field of curvaceous corn. I know the cedar-lined ravines a few miles south and, further west, the rich dark loam that was ancient Lake Chicago. An “I” state is no more boring or featureless than any other place, even where level terrain does reach to the horizon. Surfaces deceive.
Night is upon us. I walk to the observation car and down the narrow stairs to the snack bar for a bag of chips. Four teenagers play cards at the other end of the car, and several older people are reading. I have my train legs now, and walk quickly back to my roomette. The doors to my neighbors’ rooms are closed, and many are dark. The attendant has opened my bed, so I stretch out, check email, call home. I read for a while, grazing among several literary magazines I’ve brought along. Lights dance in the distance, some scattered across dark stretches, others gathered into what must be small towns.
I switch off the lights in my little space and listen to the rumble and creak of the car. Tomorrow we climb over the Rockies and descend into the glowing red-rock country of eastern Utah. I doze, but sleep is a thin coverlet against anticipation. I throw it off and return to the window, following the sway of the car. A gibbous moon casts a pale net over the dark land, and the farms, visible now only in my mind, are asleep. But I have walked in the open at night, heard the scurry of life, and felt the shadows in motion just out of reach. The murky surface of night reveals little for now, but voices seem to call me to account. Pay attention, they whisper from out of the dark, for traveler, there is more.
~ ~ ~
Sheila Webster Boneham was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and lived in Indiana off and on for half her life. Although she has lived many other places as well, she is a Midwesterner deep down. Sheila has published seventeen nonfiction books and two novels, and is currently working on a book-length narrative about traveling by train. She has taught writing at universities in the U.S. and the Middle East, and holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.