Amtrak Resident: Lucile Scott
Saturday morning, I wish Vinni, my tiny dog, a pleasant week and scurry out the door, already running just a few too many minutes late for total comfort. But despite my rush, as I settle onto the 2 subway train, en route from my Brooklyn home to New York Penn Station, it washes over me suddenly like a whoosh, a warm ocean, the feeling that I am, once again, on the road. And boom, like that, I relax, sit back, abandon pretensions of control—as I know is requisite to successful road life.
Because you see, this summer, I spent 2.5 months driving 14,000 miles in a MINI Cooper with Vinni, the aforementioned geriatric miniature pinscher, meandering through our highways and byways and interviewing people from all walks of life—a journey I dubbed #SearchingForPurpleAmerica on social media. Yup, just a girl and her tiny dog driving around this great big country in a tiny car with New York plates.
My purpose? To find commonalities, evidence and reminders that we are all still in it together as a thing called Americans, in this election year depicted in the media as red v. blue death match. And if you are wondering, yes, I did indeed find the purple I set out to find. But that’s another story.
And that story ended Labor Day, when I pulled back into Brooklyn on a sunny 85-degree day. Now, it’s late October, the final days before we hit the polls, crunch time, and my car, Misty Rivers, has moved on to a new home. And I’ve moved on to the rails, where I plan to write while pondering America’s landscape and occasionally disembarking to visit swing states
It’s the first time I’ve left town since my summer of perpetual itinerancy. And as I board the Amtrak train to Pittsburgh—that I thankfully arrive in plenty of time to catch despite my tardy departure—I realize this week on the train is kind of travel hair of the dog—a small dose post the summer travel binge that can help me wind back down to normal.
The writing project I have assigned myself is to complete the book proposal about my summer journey. For inspiration purposes, I bring a copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, by that bard of American itinerancy and politics, Hunter’s S. Thompson. And out here, back in the world of perpetual motion, the famously peculiar mindset of Hunter S. starts to seem peculiarly rational.
Home on solid ground, I, and I think most of us, live like strings on a board, connecting back and forth to the same points, etching grooves of habit and discipline in the mind. But in itinerancy, you just flow, embracing whatever you drift into, and that habit and discipline suddenly seem as rigid and silly as life without narcotics and Wild Turkey did to Mr. Thompson.
And as the whistle blows, and we chug through the tunnel and away from the place where my habits reside, I feel myself shaking off my New Yorker Teflon, that honed Gotham reflex to deflect and control, to open myself up to, well, whatever the rails may bring my way.
I creak out of Pittsburgh before dawn, crouched in the seat of the sleeper car that I have just boarded after a sojourn in that former steel town, rising technology hub of 300,000. I watch forms out my window slowly take shape in the predawn morning, the screeching and creaking of the train on the tracks and the whistle feeling oddly primordial, as things often do in that hazy hour or two before first light.
As I watch the world slow fade from dark to light, somehow the drama of sunrise feels amplified here on the western side of the train, facing away from the light show heralding the new day. Instead, it’s more like a slow, incremental fight. And when it’s done, and day has fallen on a wide Pennsylvania creek twisting through an autumnal-hued glen, it somehow feeling like a tiny victory for the world. The mother f*ching sun rose! Bitches! I guess in this election year I’m taking any positive I can get.
I head to the dining car for breakfast, watching picturesque Pennsylvania Dutch barns and fall trees—with a strangely beautiful preponderance of neon orange leaves—roll by, the aging steal train cars in front of me arching gracefully around the bending track into the foliage. We pass from these rural areas to urban ones, where warehouses are littered with graffiti, including a particularly lovely portrait of a woman who I believe to be Amy Winehouse.
The people, their faces, clothes, you name it, revealing the story of America in 2016, its contrasts, a nation divided between rural areas—economically gutted and feeling left behind and filled with rage—and cities—some capital rich and oblivious, others struggling, all filled with a different rage at different failures in the system. But everywhere, regardless of population density, the people I have talked to are losing faith in not only our system, but the very idea of us as united states.
But here, looking out the window at rose-tinged America, riding on tracks like those that first connected her shores and helped make her, for better or worse, a super power, I want to grab the whole darn country and hug it so hard it mushes back into a cohesive whole. And it could be done. Though of course not by me. But when you talk to people, sit down, really chat, not just request sound bites and knee jerk reations, you find that while they may have different ideas on how to get there, we really do agree on so much. And a Congress or media that could start there, at the nexus instead of the height of the divide, well it could…
At breakfast, I dine with Sue, from South Carolina, and Paul, who lives on the Jersey Shore, both retired, both excited to share their Amtrak itinerary and adventures. There is a real solidarity among long-distance Amtrak passengers, traveling for days, weeks, or months on these tracks, as they discuss their adventure, thrillingly new in its antiquity. And the attendants are also a part of the ride and solidarity, enthusiastically telling you the history of the various train stations you stop at or that they, in fact, read the writings you are reading by Hunter S. Thompson when they were first published in Rolling Stone back in 1972, before you were born.
On the highway, it’s just you. That rugged American individualist, alone on that vast open road. Here, you are part of community, traveling down the track as an interacting, overlapping, occasionally obnoxiously drunk, but otherwise very polite, whole. Is it any wonder places where people tend to rely on public transit more than automobiles tend to vote Democratic?
I have decamped from my sleeper car to spend the day in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a small once thriving, now struggling, post-textile and -tobacco town. Turns out Hillary Clinton’s husband had the same idea, arriving on his Stronger Together campaign bus to exuberant cheers and Katy Perry. And I manage to shake his hand. Well, actually I shake it twice. He does not skimp on the hand shake portion of events!
When discussing the event, everyone in town said to me some variation of, “Bill Clinton, here in little old Rocky Mount,” with equal measures of disbelief and pride. And standing there beneath the bright October sky, I think, I love Democracy. The nitty gritty of it. The whistle stops and door knocks and minutiae. The idea that this, each and every one of us pushing a lever, exercising our rights, being involved in a million little ways in a million towns and cities, is what it is in fact all about—here in little old Rocky Mount and everywhere. And that at the end of the day, the sum of all those tiny actions are much bigger and more powerful than the news and on all crap the on it. Hence, I’m shaking hands with our 42nd President.
After the rally, lunch with new friends I made in town, and a touch of canvassing, I hop back on the rails for my first actual overnight train experience. I’m concerned the sleep might be less than restive, but soon the steady rocking of the train grows lulling, the sounds soothing, like the sea, and I sleep like a log, to rise (fairly) bright eyed at 6:30 a.m., as I arrive in Jacksonville, Florida.
From Jacksonville, I make my way down this state protruding from America’s southeast corner like a handgun or male genitalia, depending on who you ask, to West Palm Beach, land of the Flagler mansion and hanging chads.
When I arrive, the town is having a fall festival and dozens of wee tots, of all races and creeds, dressed as goblins and super heroes and princesses are flittering about like little beach-front All Hallows’ sprites, taking hay rides beneath the Palm Trees, as a live band covers ‘90s songs, and tents offer up barbeque and pizza and the like. It’s a very international and diverse place, West Palm.
And down there, on the tip of America’s most prominent Peninsula (or hand gun or male genitalia), is my final stop. Next up, the meditative portion of my trip, during which I will ride from West Palm, just an hour north of Miami, all the way to Brooklyn, a 25-hours trek that will offer plenty of time to ruminate, write, and watch America glide by.
And that brings us up to date. Right now I am somewhere near Orlando, watching the dense and rangy marshland give way to a town with Spanish moss and shot gun houses. And now, I will sign off to return to my book proposal and wrapping my mind around this crazy summer of our discontent.
Thank you Amtrak for all your hospitality, beauty, and excellent adventures! And America for your incredible generosity, stories, and local treats! Despite it all, in this tumultuous year of 2016, I’ve seen you by road and rail, from sea to sea and top to bottom, and gotten to know your people from across the nation and all walks of life—most longing to end the rancor and discord. And as a result I, if only I, have faith in you still. And so, in closing, I shall say, peace out America, may all your fights for greater freedom and the liberty to pursue your happiness blaze on.