On the Rails

When my daughter was eight, her teacher asked what magic power she would choose, if she could. I’d fly, of course, she said, as if, of course, what else? She wanted not particularly to travel, but to sail weightlessly, like a bird, acquiring a wide vision of her place on earth.

Not long after that, the children and I went on an extended Amtrak journey, thousands of miles, through territory we had never visited: steep and beautifully wooded West Virginia, up through the nighttime sprawl of Midwestern cities, all across the plains to the luminescent southwest.

The morning we left for a three-day leg of the journey, I braided my hair at a mirror in my sister’s dining room, wondering when I would unravel those braids, with so much yet ahead of us.

While I’d take that trip again in a heartbeat, train travel is long, encumbered to the earth with rails and wheels, grinding to halt after halt, and waiting for folks to clamber on and off, weighed down with bundles, the elderly, small children. The travel comes slow and hard-earned, in what my daughters discovered is a very large country.

Here’s a few lines about rail and America’s Great Migration in  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

… the railroads, running between Florida and New York, and the Southern Pacific, connecting Texas and California, had become the historic means of escape, the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren. It hurtled its passengers along the same route and under the same night sky as the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses leading north that had spirited slaves to freedom the previous century.

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West Woodbury, Vermont