GET ON BOARD
The Best Way for a European to See America? Take a Train Across It
I’m happy I chose to cross the USA by train--if for no reason other than to see the faces of Americans when I tell them.
We’re practically halfway there. After leaving Milwaukee, we’re on our way to Fargo and Rugby, North Dakota: the geographic center of the North American continent. From Happy Days to the Coen Brother’s Fargo: a culturally and climatically interesting transition.
I’m happy I chose to cross the USA by train—if for no reason other than to see the faces of Americans when I tell them. Astonishment, consternation, admiration, and compassion: all in a single glance. “Why?” After ten days of travel, more than two thousand miles of rails, and many baffled faces, I’ve drawn up a reply. Actually, a dozen of them, one for each hour of travel that awaits us today.
1. Because last year we took the train from Moscow to Lisbon, and at that point there was no more land to cross. So we just started over again on this side.
2. Because a train is a rolling theater, where the scenery and actors change constantly.
3. Because a train is a plot all ready and waiting. Comedy and tragedy; though the first is better, all things considered.
4. Because outside the windows, there’s America on parade, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes away.
5. Because every once in a while it’s nice to be a stranger in a strange land.
6. Because on a long journey your thoughts get longer, and they take on a surprising clarity.
7. Because Amtrak is a stars-and-stripes lesson in stoicism.
8. Because the air is clear, the colors are bright, the spaces are immense (the sleeping compartments, on the other hand, are small, agreed).
9. Because repacking your suitcase every day is a zen exercise.
10. Because it’s nice to be lazy while on the move.
11. Because you can talk, when you get tired of reading. And watch, when you’re tired of talking.
12. Because today we’re interviewing people with names like Rocky.
In the last twenty-four hours we’ve met a park ranger with a plush catfish in his bag, a couple from Savannah, Georgia, who are traveling by train at their doctor’s orders, a deputy sheriff who was kind enough to let us ride in his squad car, an ex-mayor who’s become an undertaker with a 1968 Cadillac convertible, the editor in chief of the daily newspaper The Tribune, who sells stationery in her newsroom, the owner of radio KZZJ AM 1450, whose sons are in the National Guard, and a young female soccer player named Bailey, immediately nicknamed Miss North Dakota.
Miss North Dakota! We like the sound of it. Bailey moved here from California, and works with her family at the Cornerstone Cafe. Just outside the restaurant, a rock obelisk announces: Geographical Center of North America. Fascinating: as long as you don’t come to Rugby ready to pick nits. There are others who claim that the exact location is in a marsh two miles outside of downtown Rugby. Others say that the center of the North American continent is located further east, near Devil’s Lake. Third version: the obelisk was erected in 1931 by the local Lions Club near a restaurant, which was moved in 1971. The proprietors took it with them, and they installed it in front of their new location. Geography at the service of commerce: Viva l’America!
North Dakota! The state with the lowest rate of unemployment in the USA. The oil boom is attracting people from all over the Union. A controversial extraction technique (hydraulic fracturing or fracking) produces half a million barrels of crude oil a day, and could give the U.S. energy self-sufficiency by 2030. Home prices have doubled, and it’s impossible to find workers in the drilling area: the McDonald’s in Williston reaches out two hundred miles away to find employees. New people are constantly arriving in North Dakota, and the economy is thriving. “Here in Rugby even the prison is thriving, after folding years ago for lack of prisoners,” Dale G. Niewoehner, owner of the Cadillac, three churches, the funeral parlor, and a patriotic stars-and-stripes tie, tells us with some satisfaction.
Rugby, North Dakota! One radio station, one motel, no taxis. A patrol car meets us at the train station and gives us a lift to the motel. They love to have visitors up here, the policeman at the wheel explains. The population is 2,879; the last murder, he informs us, dates back to 1963. I'm pretty sure we won't modify those figures: we won't settle in Rugby, we won't have children here, and we won’t shoot anyone.
We walk everywhere with our noses in the air, like the greenest of tourists. The sky seems three-dimensional; the clouds have muscles. In the winter, they assure us, it’s very cold. It’s no accident that the people who settled here in the late nineteenth century came from Germany and Norway: they felt right at home. Still today, the two ethnic groups constitute 78 percent of the population. My traveling companion, Karl Hoffmann, has learned that a Mrs. Hoffmann lives here, and he’s made arrangements to meet her. But the lady doesn’t show up, and he grumbles about the general unreliability of Germans.
We like North Dakota. It’s the illegitimate offspring of the railroad (Great Northern Railway, 1890-1970), which the name of the train that brought us here today commemorates: Empire Builder. A protein-driven, pragmatic, optimistic America, not particularly given to subtleties.
From OFF THE RAILS: A Train Trip Through Life by Beppe Severgnini, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Beppe Svergnini.