When I met Flem Flam, our train was already 12 hours late. Headed west, we killed an engine in Nebraska, picked up a freight engine south of Denver that burned out east of Santa Fe, and then coasted into Albuquerque for a four-hour midnight replacement. By Bakersfield, they rerouted us onto buses. Flem Flam spent the last three hours in early-morning darkness exclaiming the poetry of his post-Vietnam shell shock while living on Chicago’s South Side: “I was bound for business suits and conference rooms, but wound up barefoot in the snow looking for heroin.”
Using 15-day Amtrak USA Rail Passes, I crossed our country to photograph my fellow passengers, asking them where they came from and where they were heading: an 18-year-old facing felony mescaline charges, a woman returning to Madison for her ex-boyfriend’s funeral, an exotic dancer moving to Atlanta to pursue a career as a beautician in the “black hair capital of the world.”
The Amish were onboard too, traveling in big groups to Tijuana in search of medical treatment at a fraction of the cost in the US. Learning my age and my lack of a wife, Mary Ellen noted, “Well, it’s better to be single than to wish to be.” I wondered whether they traveled by train because the engines are still measured in horsepower.
Once a means of conquering the world by sheer velocity, the train mostly connects us to the past. As a teenager, I worked on the Laurinburg and Southern Railroad, a North Carolina short-freight line that plowed its way through the farmland of my ancestors. Growing up, I had heard stories about a private rail car given to my grandfather. Considering it frivolous, he donated it to a camp for underprivileged kids near the Virginia border. Last February, I left Oakland with the hunch that I could find this car, photograph it, and better understand this man I never knew. Like America’s sprawling rail system and the trains that traverse it, for me his legacy grew to symbolize all that was good and all that I should be.
That first night, heading east on Amtrak’s Zephyr, people en route to rehab had sex in the bathrooms, babies cried in their seats, and a young cowboy drew pregnant ladies in a piece he titled Early Signs of Depression. For the most part, I came to understand, long-distance train travel is for those of us who can’t quite reach the American dream but are determined to chase it anyway.
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