I’ve traveled over 10,000 miles on trains all over America this election year, the majority of these miles were with my mother. I’ve felt pressure to write about this, because as a writer I know there are stories in here. I see the arcs, the characters, plus the whole trip has novel scenery. I’ve experienced the huge swathes of this country that lay in neglect and ruin. I’ve met people whose lives will always be worse than mine, no matter how much harder than me they work. In this election year I’ve seen the part of America that people claim not to understand. Trump’s America. I’m part of the other America. I’m the liberal elitist who experiences train travel through the rust belt, and then gets to go back to a sunny apartment in LA and type about steel and coal and make cliches about movement and travel like I learned something. Give me a fucking break, right?
I met a teenage girl on her prom night who made a duct tape prom dress in order to get a scholarship. Her fiancee works for a trucking company in Ohio and she hadn’t seen him in weeks. I met a Navy Vet in his 60’s who wore a hand-made shirt that claimed he was the “Original Ho-Dad”, he learned how to surf when stationed in Pearl Harbor and he never stopped. I met a drunk Brit who drives trucks in America, I met a woman in her 90’s who still skied competitively (much to her daughter’s chagrin), I watched the Orioles beat the Athletics at Camden Yards, I met a NASA technician going back home to Houston, I met a woman escaping her abusive boyfriend and hoping that he would take better care of their son if she was gone, I met a couple who met and fell in love in their retirement. They held hands and made goo-goo eyes over a cheeseburger as we crossed New Mexico, giggling like two teenagers at a drive-in. I’ve seen America’s glaciers and deserts and forests and rivers and lakes and swamps and mountains and prairies; from my government subsidized perch I saw where Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said, “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
What did I learn? What did I find? I learned not to pigeonhole people, that you can meet staunch Republicans from Burlington and vicious Democrats from suburban Charlotte. I found that what America needs, now more than ever, is to talk to strangers. The art of being polite and pleasant to people we disagree with is disappearing in an age when we are rarely in the same room as the people we argue with. We have much more in common than not. I learned that every American wants to belong to something greater than themselves, but we’ll settle for belonging first.