Scenes from the train trip across country -- Montana to Chicago

Posted by on May 4th, 2006

Morning coffee happens in Whitefish, MT. The train station is close to a new, interesting-looking school. There's the usual morning hubbub of children arriving, parents and teachers talking, and vehicles coming and going. The town has a crisp, prosperous look.

We've missed most of the Rocky Mountains. The many switchbacks as the train climbed through the passes registered in our bodies as John and I woke several times, had nightmares, and generally thrashed around in the small dark compartment. The narrow mattresses are about an inch thick, and our books, backpacks and bags are awkwardly stowed in nooks and crannies. Our large suitcases are stored on the rack downstairs. We're traveling heavy, especially me, weighed down with lots of pink clothing, four pairs of shoes, my pillow, and the books on Iraq I bought at Powell's bookstore in Portland.

I wash up and shampoo in the tiny shower in the hall, then join John in the observation car to watch our winding through Glacier National Park. It's an immense landscape of sharp peaks and sudden deep valleys, but fewer glaciers now in the age of global warming. A magnificent wooden lodge beacons as we step outside for a fresh air and stretch break, otherwise known as a “smoke break.” The smokers huddle; John and I stretch our legs, desperate for exercise. I think about putting Code Pink flyers in the women's bathroom and decide against it, as it looks scarcely used.

Traveling by train is like time travel into the past. The stations have long wooden benches, passengers are met by friends and family right at the tracks, a genial, relaxed atmosphere surrounds us from state to state, no one's body or bags are scanned, and the signal for boarding is the unamplified human voice calling “All Aboard!” It comes faintly down the track from the conductor, standing near the engine, and is repeated by the car attendants. We step back on the train and it pulls slowly out toward the open plains of eastern Montana.

The spaciousness and brilliant light of the northern plains are revelations. I have dreaded this part of the trip through what I thought of as “the Flat Part”, but it turns out to be fascinating.

The newspapers in this part of the country feature the story of a group of German-Americans who were labeled and harassed as “enemy agents” during World War I; their descendants, after decades of advocacy, have finally earned posthumous acknowledgement that these hard-working immigrant farmers were loyal naturalized American citizens. Every war drags a long chain of aftermath and consequences, I think, amazed that a war that finished in 1918 is still making the front page in 2006!

What unimagined consequences from the war in Iraq will the people of both countries have to deal with a century from now? Far more even than the “War to End All Wars,” I fear. Depleted uranium alone will make the aftermath long and tragic.

In one small town, a billboard with a big waving flag proclaims that “Jeremy” has returned from Iraq. No mention of PTSD, or whether Jeremy still believes he brought freedom to the Arab heartland. At least he made it back. Even one young man's death would be a blow to this Montana community. I hate the triumphal nationalism of the image, however.

This part of the country is sparsely inhabited. John draws my attention to an entire ghost village, uniformly gray with age and neglect. The church's tall spire points to a vast blue sky. What economic cataclysm emptied this town? Who had hopes here and had to leave them behind for jobs in a larger town, or for a hobo's life, riding the rails? It looks unspeakably forlorn, and I express my wish that the town could be torn down and its lumber used in new buildings, the land restored to open bird habitat.

Not only buildings are abandoned here. Around farms and in small towns, I see collections of rusted out old cars. No economic incentive to recover the metal and other resources exists, I suppose. Part of the history of our dependence on the combustion engine and its oily fuels is written in these wrecks no one bothered to fix up or collect. Our continuing dependence is displayed in the ribbons of black highway that parallel the tracks and the huge trucks hauling food and other products over vast distances.

At the wine tasting that afternoon, John and I are seated with two women I'll call Alaska and Pennsylvania, as we never got around to introducing ourselves. Pennsylvania is a pleasant, blue-eyed, gray-haired retired teacher; Alaska is a tribal leader from a native group between Fairbanks and Anchorage. The two women have been talking earlier and have a rapport. As we sip our wines, Alaska talks about the wines she makes at home, from blueberries, blackberries and elderberries. Pennsylvania tells me the mountains we can still see, far to the southwest, are called “The Bearclaws.” We talk geography for a while, then earthquake experiences in Alaska and California. Pennsylvania listens with restrained horror, especially at Alaska's experience of driving during a 7.9 earthquake, finally asking us, “Is there any warning?” We 3 of the Pacific Rim chuckle a little at this. “In a way, we have decades of warning,” I answer.

I tell these women about my journey to DC for Code Pink's Mother's Day vigil and month of actions. I am surprised by how emotional I feel, telling them about Julia Ward Howe's original vision and the Mother's Day proclamation. I talk a bit about the connection between 19th century feminism and women's response to war. They are warmly appreciative and clearly opposed to the war. Sam would be working to get them to DC. For me, it's enough to hear their encouragement.

Alaska is on her own mission to DC, her trip of ferries from to Seattle, then train rides across the continent dwarfing even my long trek. Small planes are fine for her, but she can't bear large commercial flights (“I know, flying coffin travel” I commiserate) and she is willing to make a trip of over a week for two days of intense lobbying and other work in DC. One of her objectives is to try to arrange for the repatriation of human remains of ancestors of her tribe from the Smithsonian! We cheer her on, and wish her all the best for all her work. I think with loathing of the drawers and boxes of human bones in the Smithsonian. This eloquent woman, quick with a funny story or a vivid description of the subarctic forest of her native land, is part of the recovery from that terrible history of conquest and attempted genocide, and an agent of transition into a period of greater autonomy and power for native peoples in North America.

On this trip, I see traces of native presence, from the long wooden fishing platforms jutting out over the Columbia River, restored after long struggles with Bonneville Power Company and who knows what else, to the place names on signs, to the tall man in “Western” (modern versions of American Indian) clothing, including a black “cowboy” hat and turquoise jewelry who boards the train in North Dakota. The longest and most devastating war in US history – the war against the original inhabitants of the continent – has, nonetheless, not gained that supreme and final victory I was taught about in grade school. The “Vanishing Indian” never really vanished, and is coming back strong, at least in places.

Our dinner companions are a mother, Genevieve, and her 4-year-old son Elijah. They are traveling from Missoula, MT to Minneapolis. Elijah is grumpy after his nap and shy with strangers, and Genevieve coaxes him, into sitting still, eating a hot dog, and gradually interacting with John and me. As I watch her motherly arts, the combination of direction (“Say ‘thank you', OK?) and generosity, the warmth with which she encircles him, the words of the Mother's Day Proclamation come to my mind, especially the part about “to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Genevieve IS teaching Elijah, her every word and caress a way of guiding him, both consciously and unconsciously. Her love, so matter-of-fact and "ordinary", creates a sense of security for him. By the end of the meal he is telling us jokes and smiling a lot, a little dimple appearing in his soft round face. His brown eyes are gleaming as we laugh at the punchlines of his jokes about numbers and letters of the alphabet.

“This is what I'm going to DC for,” I tell myself as I watch and listen to them. “This beauty. That this beauty be honored and not destroyed.” The way Elijah nestles against Genevieve's shoulder and breast is the foundation of all other loves of his life.

I tell her about Mother's Day vigil and month, about reclaiming the original intention, and Genevieve is interested and supportive. I do not ask, of course, if she ever worries that her son will be caught up in this war, one that Bush has recently predicted will NOT end with his presidency. But I think about it. And although I stop the images almost as soon as they arise in my mind, I think also of the other dear little brown-eyed boys -- of Iraq -- who I know only from photos of atrocities, not smiling, not telling jokes anymore.

John and I manage another 6 hours or so of sleep and rise to sit through a long weary slog through Wisconsin. Milwaukee looks dreary and bleak. The train tracks are heavily littered. We can't wait to pull into Chicago.

End the war in 06,

"Democracy isn't something you have.
It's something you DO.
-- author unknown

"Take your face out of your hands
And clear your eyes
You have a right to your dreams
And don't be denied
-- Ben Harper, "Better Way"
from "Both Sides of the Gun" CD