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We see faces in the mountains. An Indian chief with a headdress and war paint. Old men with long white hair and long white beards. Aliens, flat and unknowing.

Perhaps we’ve been looking for too long.

Taking the train seemed like a good idea. There would be no mad rush to the airport. No cab ride to the BART, no MRSA-laden BART ride to SFO. A bus would take us, gently, from the Ferry Building to Emeryville, where there would be no security screening process. No last-minute discarding of water bottles, no removal of jackets, belts, watches, shoes. No laptop out (in case or not?); no wondering, Smile or not? at the TSA agent holding my ID. No writhing in madness, waiting for those who have decided, at the last minute, to discard bottles, to remove jacketbeltwatchshoes, to take out laptops, to go through the metal detector again and again, removing each piece of jewelry, one by one. No full body scanner; no radiation. No “remain in your seats” for God knows how long, holding your pee, holding worse, and then waiting, and waiting again, for the drink cart, which you can see but seems so very far away.

None of that on the train.

 

Hour one. Our sleeper car makes us feel like we’re on the Hogwarts Express. I’m Ron, by the way, Ron Weasley. I’m Harry, Harry Potter. We half-listen for the trolley, mouth watering at the thought of chocolate frogs and Bernie Botts Beans.

I have great plans to write. I’ll write for hours! I’ll complete whole swathes of my novel! But I don’t write, well barely.

I daydream.

Spiral notebook forgotten in my lap, I stare for hours at the passing scenery. I dip, somnolent, under the surface, and float past trees and over mountains, over canyons, through caves, and into fields. I surface, for a moment, to jot down a sentence –

The Japanese soldiers had turned at the sound of her scream.

– only to dip under again.

 

Hour three.

Colfax, California. For some reason this name intrigues me. COL-fax. Like coal plus flax. But the name of the town has nothing to do with either.

Schuyler Colfax was Speaker of the House and Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant (one of only two Americans who have been both). He once visited Colfax (known then, successively, as Alden Grove, Alder Grove, Illinoistown, and Upper Coral) in 1865 to inspect the building of the railroad, a visit so memorable, apparently, the town decided to rename itself after him.

I like the names of all the little towns. Truckee, Winnemucca, Elko, Ottumwa. Over the intercom our tour guide, who sounds exactly like Fred Willard, tells us about the towns and surrounding areas. For a while I think, Maybe it is Fred Willard, getting in some work in between those Old Navy commercials, and I’m more disappointed than I should be when I find that it’s not Fred Willard, that he looks nothing like Fred Willard, and why would Fred Willard be giving me a tour on a train.

 

Our guide tells us about the discovery of gold and the forty-niners. He tells us about the building of the railroad, and the Chinese railroad builders who were “hard-working” and “patient,” and, for some reason this is important, ate their own food over the railroad company’s, what we’d call a “balanced meal,” and were healthier than their non-Chinese counterparts. He tells us about Donner Lake. Yes, that Donner, the party or pioneers who traveled by wagon from Missouri to California, only to be left snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Fred Willard does not mention what the Donner Party ate.

 

She had heard of the atrocities the Japanese soldiers committed in Nanjing. Murder, rape, looting. Fifty-thousand, she heard. Seventy-five. One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred thousand. Word was the Japanese ate their prisoners after executing them.

 

During meals, we’re forced encouraged to dine with our fellow passengers. We sit side by side, facing these strangers three times a day. Everyone is kind. The retired journalist who has just returned from dealing with the estate of her late aunt, a lifetime hoarder. The retired couple who have lived everywhere – New York, Hong Kong, Singapore – and have adopted daughters from the Philippines. The retired Navy guy-turned computer consultant and his wife, on their way to spend a month in the Bay Area.

We talk about same thing, again and again. Where are you going? Where did you get on? What’s in Chicago/Omaha/Denver/Reno/Sacramento? The train is so much better. We hate flying. I’m afraid to fly. It’s not about the destination but the journey.

For a while we believe this.

 

Hour eight. The Nevada desert, the setting sun.

In Xi’An, China, farmers are buried in their own fields instead of graveyards. From the road, you can see the grave markers.

 

Hour fourteen.

I think the rocking of the train will lull me to sleep. I’ve fallen asleep on the train before. From New York to New Jersey, from New York to Boston, from Kamakura to Tokyo, falling asleep so hard, I could barely rouse myself to deboard.

I don’t understand why I can’t sleep. It’s quiet: no car horns, no sirens, no neighbors stomping at all hours, fighting at all hours, yelling, “Fuck you, I hate you, I’ve done so much for you!”

None of that.

There’s only the train rumbling and rattling. So why can’t I sleep, no matter how many times I count backwards from 20, breathing deeply with each number. Envisioning the number appear as I inhale, then the number disappear as I exhale, blowing it away as though it were made of sand.

 

We wake to the Utah desert, to those red rocks (Ruby Canyon, it’s called), and the faces we see them. Colorado and llama farms.

The small midwest towns are unlike anything that I’ve known. Not like the city, not like the suburbs, not even like the small and icy towns in New England I came to know, driving with my ex, in search for exotic fish for his aquarium.

I listen:

Someday I’m finally gonna let go.
Cause I know there’s a better way.
And I want to know what’s over that rainbow.
I’m gonna get out of here someday.

For some reason, I feel like crying. I always knew I’d leave New Jersey. I knew I could go anywhere. I could leave whenever I wanted.

Perhaps I’m just tired.

 

Hour 39.

The night, I’ve decided, is hard. There’s nothing to see, and internet comes and go, an electric tease.

We wait at a station in Nebraska. All around is dark emptiness, except for a bowling alley. It’s open, its neon light proclaims, but the parking lot is empty save for one car, against which two people lean watching our train.

 

I sleep, and have two dreams.

1) The shaking of the train are my upstairs neighbors stomping on our ceiling. This is not unusual.

2) I look out the window to find a psychedelic Nebraska landscape. Lush neon green grass, a purple-blue sky, and deep blue cows, and, in my dream, I think of my friend Sally from college who was from Nebraska, who once scoffed at the idea that I, a Jersey girl, knew what a real farm looked like.

Sally failed out of our New York City school her first year and returned to Nebraska. She was smart but depressed. She slept a lot. She said she would be back the next year, but she wasn’t. She never came back.

I don’t know what happened to her.

 

Iowa, and enormous wind turbines. Mind-boggling huge and sleek, like something aliens have left behind. Illinois, and we could be in New Jersey, passing suburbs on the train.

Then, finally, the city. Out of our tiny room and off this train! In a cab, in the city, sky scrapers and the El, sidewalks and people walking, coffee cups in hand. In our beautiful hotel, with our own bathroom. Walking, walking, walking. Surrounded by people. People people people.

Two days later, I miss the train.

I miss those empty fields, those mountains, those red rocks with their faces. I miss the llamas, cows grazing, horses grazing. And later, after we go back, I’ll miss the sunny, snowy mountains, the eagle, huge and astoundingly close, flying by our window. The horses, not just grazing but rolling in the dirt, spindly legs joyfully in the air. I’ll miss standing on the sun-drenched platform at Grand Junction, eating peanuts, shells and skins falling around our feet. I’ll miss freezing in Reno, dodging the wind and snow.

I’ll miss sleeping on the train (finally: sleeping), and passing once again Donner Lake, and Truckee, and Colfax, and I’ll think, yes, the train was a very good idea.

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Angela Tung A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

13 Responses to “51 Hours, There and Back Again”

  1. Beautiful. I once went from LA to Chicago by Amtrak and though I wouldn’t describe the experience as one I enjoyed every minute of, I’ve always wanted to do it again. How does the train play tricks like that? I tend to think it’s because we’re still not really meant to be in airplanes.

    I love the images you provide at each stop and the dreams you slip into also.

    Good to see you back on TNB, Angela.

    • angela says:

      Thanks Nat! It’s good to be back. I’ve been TNB-delinquent for far too long.

      I think a 36 hour train ride would be prefect. One night, plenty of time for daydreaming.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve been to Emeryville. There was a big fat station master who was excited to meet English people.

    I’ve enjoyed two Amtrak trips.

    Of course neither was an enjoyable as reading this.

    • angela says:

      Thanks James!

      I don’t remember seeing a big fat station master in Emeryville, but our bus driver from SF decided to pretend to be new at his job and claim that he didn’t know how to get to Emeryville. Which totally panicked me since I was stressed out about missing our train. (I’m so fun to travel with!)

      • James D. Irwin says:

        Well, it was a good few years ago now. 2007 I think…

        I always worry with trains. I always panic that I’m in the wrong end of the train when it divides…

  3. Matt says:

    I love riding the train, even the three-hour jaunt from San Diego to Los Angeles. I badly desire to take that LA – CHI trip Nathaniel mentions above. It’s nice to be able to actually see the countryside go by, instead of looking at it from so far above that the landscape is rendered almost in the abstract. Train stations are nicer places, too: everybody’s a bit more relaxed (probably from a lack of security paranoia), and, in my honest opinion, the decor is much better. Airports have this secured, sterile modernity that kind of reminds me of hospitals.

    • angela says:

      Matt, your comment made me remember I had wanted to include the term “traindreaming” in my piece. Maybe that would have made a better title!

      Anyway, I agree about actually being able to see landscape, and about train stations. Some of them are just gorgeous. I thought it was such a pity the station in Grand Junction, CO seemed to be closed down. It had stain glass windows (mostly broken now), and I’m sure was beautiful in its heyday.

  4. Loved your observations of the landscape.

    My grandfather was a train engineer more for than 50 years, like his father before him. When I was eight, he and my grandmother took my siblings and me on a brief overnight trip to New Orleans. He was working while we were in a passenger car with my grandmother. I have ridiculously vivid memories of that experience.

    This piece makes me even more certain that I want to travel by train next time the opportunity presents itself. I hate flying anyway.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Oh, I love this. Made me feel homesick for eagles and spindly-legged horses and long, rough journeys. Such a treat to read your work.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    Nothing like the train. I love how you float from one thing to the next in this. From the neighbors stomping to Japanese soldiers eating prisoners to where Colfax comes from . Beautifully fluid. Nice to read you again, Angela.

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