Good Morning America, How Are You?
(an unwanted column)
Rather than fly or drive, I boarded an east-bound train. I was leaving California behind for a while, rolling on home to tend a young vineyard on the land where I grew up in Saline County Kansas. I took the train because I want a slower brand of living, because in my heart I know that traveling a mile above the earth while sitting in a seat designed by Mengele next to an obese sales representative for a syringe factory is lunacy, and because I wanted to interrogate the western landscape-make it give up its secrets.
As the California Zephyr chug-a-lugged from town to town, one difference between following old rails and driving the four lane interstate highway was immediately apparent-no businesses were designed to cater to us. On the interstate, each exit is a corporate shipwreck encrusted with barnacle-like gas stations, fast food joints, and budget hotels. Often these conveniences exist as islands of their own, without even the name of a town to add color to our journey. We cannot wholly escape the terrifying beauty and chaotic variety of America in a car, but somehow four lanes of traffic hurtling through space at seventy miles per hour dominate the horizon. The sameness of modern human civilization inures us to the majestic sweep of creation, and the miles are just notches on a playboy’s bedpost. It is a black mark against humanity that gawking at mountains, canyons, rivers, buttes, deserts, and prairies has not cost a greater number of lives.
There isn’t a lot of wealth in the railroad business these days, so our little passenger train was forced to share the tracks with freight trains, rolling over meek as a kitten as those sooty, graffiti-tagged tomcats strutted by. The little towns we moved through were all freight train towns, having hedged their bets for prosperity on having their place on the line. A partial list of the resources and goods provided, past of present, by these pastoral pit-stops runs thus: water, hydroelectric power, lumber, coal, peaches, pears, apricots, cherries, “minerals”, uranium, cantaloupes, watermelons, steel, copper, cattle, wheat, sheep, corn, ice, and nuclear weapons. The Vulcan coal mine near New Castle, Colorado blew up for the second time in 1913. Beneath the mountain, the mine is still on fire.
Prosperity and contentment are not the lot of these freight train towns. Many are ghost towns, and the spectre of death hovers over most of the others. They had the advantages of natural resources and lines of commerce, so what went wrong?
The railroad often runs along the edge of what was once downtown and is now merely what remains of the town. Any profits that a nearby highway might provide are invisible here, and at any rate the McDonald’s and the Shell station at best provide minimum wage employment for a handful of residents. The real money is sent far, far away. Similarly, whatever resources these towns might provide, the primary benefits are shipped down the line.
The depravity, despair, and depression so often associated with rural America are generally explained in blameless terms. Who can resist the glitz and glamour of the big city? Technological innovation leads to increased urbanization. History! Zeitgeist! Progress! The strength of the Nation! All these explanations imply that the use and subsequent emptying of our small places is something that happened naturally and irrevocably-like the displacement of the Native Americans. But the exploitation of that realm in which humanity directly encounters the natural world—rural America—is not something that happened, it is something that was done with full knowledge, intent, and at great profit-like the displacement of the Native Americans.
During my train ride, the West gave up a few secrets. I heard a tale of sound and fury, but signifying something. I heard the roar of untold millions feasting out of rural America’s trough. I saw the gluttony of modern life gut its places of natural riches, then throw them aside. I heard the rattle of chains and slavery. Resource theft and exploitation is not limited to the second and third world. It is happening throughout rural America today. Distant fat-cats and global lines of commerce exult in their power and wealth, while the country-side that provides it withers and dies. For a tour, next time you travel, just take the train.