Ask a railroad traveler what he likes best about the train and his answer will almost invariably include two things. “I can relax,” he will say, “and I can see the countryside.” The Amtrak trains that pass through Texas verify both observations.
Northward to Chicago on the Texas Chief (now the Lone Star) one sees the countryside change in a hundred subtle ways. Kansas and Iowa pass by in the dark. Signal lights flash past the window. If the stopped train blocks a city street, frustrated drivers begin to make U-turns. Role reversal: the day before at home I had done precisely that. Why don’t they learn a little patience? Trains put patience in context, make it a virtue again.
Morning comes in Illinois. A flatness altogether different from Texas—corn-fed, prosperous, with the look of the North to it. Painted barns and working farms appear with regularity between highways straight as a rifle shot. On a grassy slope six piglets and their parents flee the diesel monster with squeals of horror. With a lurch the slowing train switches track and glides into a small town, a community of perhaps three hundred souls, with low frame houses and deserted dirt streets. A railway sign copies into view: VERONA.
Why here, on the prairies of Illinois, should a village bear the name “Verona”? Shadows of the Castelvecchio and the Scaligeri tombs extend across an ocean to the door of the Merchants’ State Bank. The train pulls on and the mystery recedes. When travelers say trains bring them closer to the diversity of America, this is what they mean.
Highways come to front doors. Railroads, it seems, come to back doors, slipping unnoticed behind homes and stores and factories that do not expect the visitor there and so leave themselves exposed to inquiring eyes. Uglier but more honest. Passing along the back fence one knows the Wiebold Iron Works as it really is, not as cosmetics make it appear from the Interstate around in front. Oblivious to automobiles, people still stop and stare as the passenger train—the unexpected guest—goes through their town.
A trip from Chicago to Washington, New York,