We are en route to Denver, Colorado. The sun is setting over the desolate Nevada mountains. Simple red dirt and sage brush. The landscape is wiry, stark. The peaks are far away. I want to run to them.
The sky is huge. Casinos and motels and RV camp sites appear as soon as you leave the High Sierras of California. We descend.
My train mates discuss tours of duty in Afghanistan and one, very young, clearly addled, is named Travis, broke and headed back to Laramie, Wyoming. He tells me how his wife, whom he met in the military, died in an ambush driving a truck, and she was two months pregnant. He’s off to the barren old fields of North Dakota to get rich and get loaded and get screwed. He was supposed to be on that truck in Afghanistan. Seven dead. And then there was the other tragedy – more murder courtesy of our warring government. And another death. And another, in Baghdad and Reno and Laramie. So we play cards.
“Screw the Taliban, and screw the USA,” he says.
This, after viewing the Southern Cascades, in Oregon, at sunset last night. So lush, talking to a demure, young PhD student-boy who writes about how organic farms perpetuate climate change, and is looking to get hired a Wesleyan. So different our country is, here and there, just some miles in between.
I’m en route to South Dakota, via Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Trains and buses. Do you want to know America? Learn your turf? Spend three days on a train and two on a bus. You see it all. You also make friends with other lost souls.
This morning, at the Sacramento, California, train and bus depot, I saw scores of homeless men and women. I know it’s more amenable on the West Coast for the down and out, and I guess I am now one of them, for a few days, or rather they are me. It’s warm. The soup kitchen in Sacramento is notorious for being lush and huge, because they take in those fleeing the ridiculous expense of San Francisco – if something goes wrong, lose a job, lose a wife, lose health care, you are welcome at the soup kitchen in Sacramento. It’s famous.
The way I make friends on the train is by begging for wireless hotspots. “Hey, can I hitch for 5 minutes?” I met an Olympic medal skater and a writer for The Guardian.
But, then, there is the woman sitting next to me, traveling across the country, with three kids between the ages of three months to eight years old. Why is she here? She is stout and proud, lips pursed, more insecure than bitchy. I’m sleeping next to her daughter tonight, who colors diligently in her Disney Princess book. What are they fleeing? She tells me that she had to leave her husband and move from North Carolina to California with only the clothes on their backs. She left a house, two cars, a day care business, and an abusive man. She’s on the train to Denver to attend her grandma’s funeral.
Why can’t our nation take care of its women and children? Why is the USA so proud and independent?
And so I endure Polack jokes, discussions of the supreme dimensions of porn stars, and snoring kids on this train halfway across the country. I’m learning card tricks. I’m hearing about what is really going on in America, not in the urban hipster fortifications of “Bernie Sanders” bumper stickers on the Prius, anarchist theory, and “sustainability“ – words that mean nothing in the real America, of Shell Stations and Motel 8s.
Welcome to Elko, Nevada. The highway lights, the bill boards, stain the horizon. And then we move on, east. To what? To where people are fighting tooth and nail against suicide, poverty, theft, hatred, and pain. Against going to war, loaded with three guns in your satchel and 18 years old in the desert, a half a world away, quaking from losing your friends, with your lover dying in an ambush, and then shooting meth in the bathroom to cope.
I respect the kids I’m meeting on the train. They have endured tragedies, their stories are too much for me. It has been a wake-up call to me after years in the urban enclaves of Seattle and Portland and Vancouver, Canada, and recognizing my own sanctimony and selfishness.
I’m headed to another place. Things are happening on Pine Ridge Reservation , among the poorest places in the USA. Teens are building houses. Direct action camps are up and at it on nearby Rosebud Reservation, to keep Obama from expanding the pain and depression that is occurring on the Plains due to this nuevo-Gold Rush, the oil boom, which is a cousin of our nation’s warring in the Middle East.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is still considered a POW camp by the United States government. Occupied territory. What part of the USA is not occupied now? Either by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? By Fox News and MSNBC? By fear and, eventually, I hope, love.
I’m playing poker with some old guys fresh off the oil fields and a feminist grad student from London on the train from Elko, Nevada, to Salt Lake City, Utah. I’m bad at poker. Free me up to live honestly in America and maybe I will win a hand tonight. Or I will just bluff my way through this.