Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Seeing America sideways (from a long-distance train)

When you travel by train you never look forward, maybe a little backward, but mostly sideways. Quickly landscapes swish past, except at stations where speeds slow down.


You see the backyard of American lives, not the front meant for eye consumption.  What you see are the alleys, backyards, abandoned lots, weedy places and industrial parks far from the manicured front lawns of highways and city streets.


Bridges and tunnels provide structure and landscape channels - light or dark, over water or through rock.  Both have that sense of danger, non is completely safe, but fascinating and exciting. Better to be back on firm ground though. In the forests and swamps no people are present, their sometimes presence just marked by old, dried-out ATV ruts, a barely holding-together deer stand in a tree, or the remnants of a dock, long since gone. I imagine alligators and beavers in the lakes, but see white egrets and maybe a deer.

Through the backyards and hidden lives of Americans, from swimming-pools so small they are non-swimmable, to room extension after room extension built out back, maybe to fit ever-growing families.

Like an invisible snake  the polished train passes through, nobody, except some young excited kids that not have have learned to ignore, pays attention to the metal Amtrak tech wonder, pushed by electricity down the tracks.  Everybody else doesn't even look up, they go on with their business, be it hanging laundry, carrying groceries, running a red light, yelling at some kids, waiting for the bus with the headphones plugged in, or doing homework behind a dirty window...

Weedy plants are everywhere, covering up the empty spaces people left behind - an old parking lot, railroad sidings, ruins of factories with their hand-painted names that can barely be seen on the old bricks, and neglected yards.  Abundant green life everywhere. They are pretty, but uncontrolled - red leaves color the landscape in sunset colors in the middle of the October day.  Sumac, kudzu, virginia creeper, mugwort and tree-of-heaven... Each plant has a story and the humans have stories about it, all linked to human histories and miseries.

The train on its shiny steel tracks cuts through it all, relentless, just passing by on to distant places, different lives. Behind it are kids starting, pointing, and laughing, and maybe imagining jumping on, one day.

(Written after taking the train today from Trenton to Washington, DC, and passing through Wilmington, Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland, and over Delaware River and Susquehanna River. All photos are taken from the train, many at full speed, so they are of course blurry, and therefore accurate.)

1 comment:

PP said...

Is it because I have railroads in the blood? I guess so, but you have captured the exact feelings I have when riding a train. There is nothing better than getting the window seat and just watching the world pass. I used to go from NYC to Cleve, over 500 miles, and most of the time I was not only content, but preferred to just sit and watch. Miles of junk and garbage, industrial ruins, active industry, rural grade crossings with flashing lights and a car in the night waiting for the train to cross, a neon "BAR" sign, lights of a distant house, mile after mile of snow covered fields with broken corn stalks sticking up, mile after mile of darkness, then the WHOOSH, of a few lights then a grade crossing with flashing lights, then settling back down to a rural landscape. America's backyard...far preferable to the fake world of mcmansions and artificial landscapes.