An America I’ve Never Seen

{In my friend Paul’s journal, written during his train trip to Albuquerque 22 years ago, I find a universal human story. I also get to see an America that remains unknown to me, and which I imagine remains unknown to many who were stunned by the recent election}.

Trip to Albuquerque

November 8 1994

Everett, Wash.

Beer in a small tavern while waiting for train. It seems like a small mill-town. Nice looking working-class types. I feel like an alien here, wearing my jacket and my Kitsilano yuppie round glasses.

• the whole idea of travel is to isolate and divorce oneself from one’s habitual surroundings [can meditation do the same thing?]. This leads to a heightened awareness of one’s present, rather than one’s fantasy.
• the notion is to return and be ready to live the fantasy: BE a writer; BE an artist; BE a business person; BE a graphic designer. Whatever.
• when I visit the USA I feel like an uptight Canadian. Anal-retentive and humourless, rigid and fearful. Americans seem friendlier, larger-than-life, less than introspective, sometimes dangerous. America seems more colourful, more diverse, more alive, more of the extremes.
• loading docks and shipping yards at night, raw reflections from water-pooled industrial debris, sodium vapour lights, abandoned fork lifts, pallets stacked, rusting drums, scrap and old vehicles.

10:30 p.m. Wenatchee, Wash. – Amtrak Empire Builder

• a power dam looms in the night. Everett is already a fading memory of the past.
• a snow storm sighted through the coned light of a diesel locomotive engine.
• snow storm in public works yard, a huge triangular mound of sand, a front-end loader with a dusting of snow.
• snapshots of life passing by.
• still life.
• night time on the train more focussed, intense, and interesting.

November 9

11:15 a.m., East Glacier Lodge, Montana

• rolling prairie/ranch land; oil derricks and rigs.
• Shelby, Montana. A little cowboy town; a dance hall with DANCE writ large over front of building. What goes on in there at night? I wish I could be a fly on the wall, and watch the cowboys and cowgirls dancing.
• a light dusting of snow over the rolling hills.
• passed what looked like a large feed lot, until you see it’s filled with horses!!


• winter wheat in the fields.

4:15 p.m. Wolf Point, Montana

• heavier snow here; snow melts on the ground, stays on the ties.
• Montana is huge! It takes all day to cross it (875 miles).
• [2016 edit: I spent a night in a motel in Wolf Point when travelling on motorcycle from BC to Nova Scotia in 2006. The proprietor told me that the repaired hole in the door to my room was when some previous occupant was shot. The wild west, but of course all of the US is armed now, east-west/north-south.]

3:00 a.m. Devil’s Lake, North Dakota

• snow falling more heavily.
• I want to write about the loneliness of empty spaces, and the fear inspired by tiny lights in the night.
• Night. A wet muddy ribbon of secondary road, mud-packed, parallels the track. Spanning the endless expanse from nowhere to nowhere. Occasional vehicles, old pickup trucks caked with mud, with tiny, totally pathetic lights – worm-glows of civilization in the overwhelming screaming black nothingness of nature.

5:30 a.m. Minot, North Dakota

• the town seems shut down by the snowstorm, the station in an old part of town. Main street looks so small town Main Street, beautiful old buildings, and is deserted, streetlights highlighting a heavy dump of snow, a couple of tire tracks indicating that some made it to the train station. Have to remember that for such a pretty town, this is a major USA nuclear missile site. Hope the Ruskis don’t attack before the train leaves.

5:00 p.m., somewhere in Minnesota

• thinking of Irwin and his obsession with credentials, plus an overheard conversation. A bachelor’s degree doesn’t matter fiddlesticks to a real writer/artist.
• a black guy on this train watched videos on a portable TV for the entire trip; seemed to be mostly violent (kick boxing, WWF wrestling, etc.). Seems like an odd way to spend a beautiful trip, passing through constantly changing beauty.

6:35 p.m. Chicago

• train pulling into Chicago, through a misty rain, fog, scabrous abandoned factories looming out of the fog, also giant freeways packed with cars, enormous working factories making god knows what, looming industrial wastelands, cesspools laden with nameless chemicals, wending past miles of peeling 60 year old houses, then BOOM, right out of the fog and factory land is downtown – enormous, unbelievably riveting, too big, too bright, too striking to be real, like the set from a Star Wars movie, or something.
• sighted on the train: a lot of sexy-looking, middle aged (35-45) women, some single and with a come-hither look in the eye. My excess weight incapacitates me in this respect, I know that my life would be more intense, more interesting, more of the flesh, were I less afflicted in this way. Even lacking a satisfying relationship, a permanent one, I might have some briefly pleasurable affairs of the flesh, as I once did 20 years ago.
• Life passes me by, and I continue to hide from it in this state, hide behind my fat, my eating, and my drinking.
• I’ve begun to make the change – continue this when I return.
• belay that last statement – continue to effect the change in everyday life. That means NOW, WHEREVER. On the train, on holidays, in Albuquerque.
• All of the above written in Chicago Union Station.
• nice to meet people on the train, like Roger, but inhibits writing.

November 10 – the Southwest Chief

• train attendant Patsy Hall – pretty blonde woman, later 30s.

8:00 p.m. Joliette, Ill.

• in Canada (Vancouver, anyway) many Chinese, few (hardly any) black people. In Illinois, the reverse.
• nice people around me on this train.

9:45 p.m.

• a woman with teased blonde hair, white, suggestive sweater, jeans nicely overfilled, gold lamé high heels. She turns me on. Why? I wouldn’t want my mother to meet her.
• she kisses Vietnam vet type of guy, grey hair, pony tail, tractor hat. Has me feeling inadequate.

November 11

8:00 a.m. Hutchinson, Kansas

• Kansas. Flat, ochre fields, a lowering sky filled with wispy clouds that look ready to spawn tornadoes. Towns of solid, 2-storey sandstone buildings, built by solid small-town merchants, white painted false fronts.
• Kansas looks just like a set for “Wizard of Oz” – appropriate. It’s near the end of the tornado season, maybe a good thing. However, I wouldn’t mind visiting Oz. It might beat the present reality.
• colours of ochre, rust, and red.
• a solitary tree in a field.
• heavy rain streaks the windows at 90 mph, almost obscures the view. The train is going screamingly fast in this flat country.
• some oil around here, pumpjacks working in the fields
• starting to look like the west, for the 1st time since, maybe, North Dakota.
• looking at Hutchinson, Kansas, I start wondering about small-town values, small-town virtue, and would I really fit in, were I to move to one? [2016 edit – I live in a small town on Vancouver Island today, but that’s a whole different ball game than small town Kansas, I think.]
• overheard conversation in the lower level of the train – two bigots, older men with south/western drawls, discussing religion (Praise Jesus!). Quote the bible, chapter and verse, smug, self-assured assumption that AIDs is God’s message to gays.
• these are scary people, one in a western style suit, the other looks like Arnie Palmer, with a neon yellow tractor hat advertising some gambling destination in Las Vegas (American flag on shoulder).
• it’s LITERALLY middle America around here – exactly half way between New York and San Francisco.
• some guy is going to Arizona because he sees religious apparitions. (Why Arizona? Can’t you see apparitions anywhere?)

La Junta, Co.

• getting back towards the mountains, into the first hint of foothills here.
• beautiful country, silted streams wandering through scrubland.
• sitting in the bar car, non-smoking section, drinking a Bud. Horrible beer, but this ain’t your fancy brew pub offering craft beer.
• you can’t get away from them here! The religious nut has found another one, and they’re discussing the Apostle Paul’s attitude to sex. Seriously! Spare me from these people!
• 250 people on this train, and there’s room for only 16 smokers, seated. Ridiculous! I don’t smoke, but this is stupid.
• I just look at this religious nut, and I feel antagonism. I don’t even want to think about having any sort of conversation with him.
• sitting downstairs for the 1st time in the bar car. I guess I feel like one of those incredibly inane train conversations.

11:30 a.m. Colorado somewhere

• passing through snow covered grasslands, clumps of sage & mesquite, small pines (Pinõn? Juniper?).
• on hearing an English accent, I become aware that I feel intensely more comfortable with English people than with Americans – less threatened.
• signs of low mesas showing up.
• Black people. Generally speaking, I don’t know how to relate to them, beyond the most basic, polite, surface, level. Watching them relate to each other, I become aware that they form a society from which I’m totally excluded; laughing, joking, jargon-laden; especially young, jive-talking blacks. I feel like a space alien beside them. However, I like them. That’s a generalization about black people of course, and just a surface train ride observation.

Trinidad, Colorado

• long, written conversation with a deaf-mute, name of Paul, from Richmond, Va. Very frustrating and difficult, as handwriting notes takes forever. He’s really happy to have found someone who is willing to take the time and effort, which makes me feel good.
• Next stop Albuquerque. Looking forward to seeing Mike and his family. I love train travel, but I’ve had enough for now.

2 comments to “An America I’ve Never Seen”
  1. I like Paul’s journal! Excellent descriptions, far, far better than any I could have or should have written about my train and bus trips across this vast country. Made me remember some things.

    • Thanks, Michelle. Perhaps the best travellers straddle the worlds of looking inwards and venturing forth. The one allowing us to notice, the other providing something to see.

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