Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Bob writing (postcards) on the road to friends

Wrote everybody
I love a

Chapter 57

My own familiar.

Now it was time to leave Chicago.
Time was up and even though we were allowed
an extra hour because the train schedule had
changed that very day — instead of departing at
six o'clock in the evening it would now roll at seven —
it isn't easy to leave Chicago since the city has
always been our gateway to the west aboard
the double-decker Superliner trains which treat the
enterprise of travel a little more seriously than they do
in the east. Overnight we will go past power plants lit
in strings of light, dusk smelled over by burned-off
petroleum impurities, large grain elevators, and
ponderous oil storage tanks; places such as Bryan,
Ohio home to the world's largest candy-cane maker,
and Pillsbury, Union Carbide and Miles Laboratories
stuck in a strip clinging along Lake Michigan to the
Erie Canal, to what is a leafing territory over and
beyond the Hudson River. Our first time through this
region fifteen years ago, on what is known as "the
water level route" because of the lakes and rivers,
we took shaky photographs that made absolutely no
sense when we looked at the developed prints back home
of Sandusky coal-shipping port and Toledo industrial
foundries beneath plumes of dense trash; walleye
somehow caught in the corrosive mingle of the
Portage River at trackside. It is so big and godawful
tragic to look at. Around those lakes that were so
wonderful and deeply blue on the school maps —
and we all became clever at drawing our own maps
with the lakes — it wasn't the country without the
lakes — what I am waking up to see is mostly pissed
over and people choking in foul air, and as if there is
actually something to be done about it? The train stirs
through late Sunday night across Cleveland's
Goodyear plant and Memorial Stadium where Susan
and I always hop out when traveling the other
direction for its patch of grass off the train yard plat-
form, a broad view to the Cleveland Indians logo
classically out of date on the high wall stadium.
Tonight has become early morning and there is
nothing distinguishable at two o'clock. I might shake
awake catching my bearings at a glance out the
window lifting the jacket used as a cover; frisking how
Carson is curled warm under a blanket on the seat
beside me and the reflection outside is off Lake Erie,
one of the smaller lakes and Pennsylvania's only
Great Lakes port for coal and iron — the waters since
polluted from industrial discharge stopped twenty
years ago. Louis Joliet would be sickened to see what
has happened to his lake, the French explorer drifting
his way west to bear discovery with Marquette of the
upper Mississippi River four years later. Joliet, LaSalle
and others have been with us all the way from
Chicago, but our immediate histories unfortunately
bury theirs. Because of the type of childhood I had,
Rip Van Winkle always captures my soul long before
we penetrate the Catskill Mountains. It is Rochester
by daylight and the dampness of clothes slept in, if
you really slept at all, this city embossed on the banks
of the Genesee River. A river that silvers regional
poems; a river chiefly local at one hundred forty-four
miles long. Because Frederick Douglass settled here
as a newspaper man and fierce abolitionist, Rochester
secured the northern terminal of the Underground
Railroad. A railway nothing like we travel nor like the
one Carson thinks occurred after studying Black
History for one week this past winter in school. A
school, Vermont such as it is, attended by mostly
white kids and a white teacher trying her best to
comprehend a "railway" which was loosely organized
to assist fugitive slaves to areas of safe haven in the free
states, or Canada. The railway was hand to hand,
home to home, at personal individual risk. Frederick
Douglass should be remembered but instead
Eastman Kodak rings a bell in Rochester. As day
brightens and the train passengers move to the snack
bar or dining car, two women across from us return
with soft drinks and donuts in flimsy cardboard trays
and later in the morning one of the women warms her
legs with the woolen body of a sweater she knits as
Syracuse, Oneida, Utica, Schenectady one at a time
materialize and go away. A breeze of utopia,
Drums Along the Mohawk, leather tanneries, carpet
factories, and almost into Schenectady, a word
meaning "through the open pines," which we can't
see, but here instead is The Shrine of Our Lady of
Martyrs commemorating eight American saints rec-
ognized by the Roman Catholic Church, killed by
perhaps the same Iroquois tribe blessing Schenectady
with its jigsaw name. No doubt the name-givers were
the Mohawk, who guarded the eastern door to the
metaphorical long house which the Iroquois League
believed all their tribes gathered within, and from the
Mohawk tribe Dutch settlers eventually purchased
the city. From here it is a seamless urban corridor
short-routed to Albany and already people have bags
packed shuffling the coach aisle. We all must
reorganize since the train divides into two, traveling
to either New York City or Boston. Ours will be the
Boston line, over the broad tidal Hudson River and
this passage raised the legend of Rip Van Winkle
who slept by this river; the headwaters drifting down
from Lake Tear of the Clouds on Mt. Marcy in the
Adirondacks, flowing generally south for over three
hundred miles as residential, industrial and rural
companion. To anyone who hasn't seen the
Mississippi River, the Hudson might be considered
our greatest river; and to many who have seen the
greatest rivers, the Hudson is one, becoming part
ocean itself when it harbors in New York City. It
shimmers and dominates all coach windows as we
boom over a trestle. And for the next two hours, going
from New York into Massachusetts with a scoot
through the State Line Tunnel, less than half that
time will pass us through brook-lit woods and small
communities and towns built around a gentle upland.
It is here you see workers in a town garage bestow
wide-door open waves, dogs fracas while the train
picks up speed fleeting a whole other picture of
brookside despite the train's cacophonous hustle. I
have always liked any town where one can see, over
the grass and near some trees, two figures pitching
horseshoes. I've seen it nowhere else on the trip and
I wouldn't disagree with you if you thought because
this place is my own familiar, that I look to find it

~ Bob Arnold, from American Train Letters
(Coyote Books, 1995)

photo © susan arnold

so closes, American Train Letters, for now