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Train I Ride

Don Watson’s ‘American Journeys’

Cover: March 2008
March 2008Medium length read
 

On YouTube, someone has posted a lovely compilation of the many train sequences in Yasujiro Ozu's films. Looking at this clip, you realise how well the director was able to use these dreamy but plainly framed shots as markers of time itself - of its gentle surety - within his stories. Only Japan's national railways, it seems, have retained their aura of enchantment in the twenty-first century, continuing to infuse the landscape with a principle of beautiful and regular apportionment.

The allure of America's trains has always been more grandiloquent and forceful. Fifteen years ago, when I travelled from Los Angeles to New Orleans and up into New York on what remained of the country's vast rail network, there was still a sense of being part of a grand reckoning of the distances that defined the country's heart. This fantasy is now scarcely viable, according to Don Watson. Criss-crossing America by rail several years ago, he found himself instead in a strange twilight zone between the nation's vaunted freedoms and the ruthless trashing of its public infrastructure.

In American Journeys (Random House, 336pp; $49.95), the trains Watson takes are regularly hours - sometimes days - late. Freight companies own the nation's intercontinental tracks; when their drivers see a passenger train behind them, they sometimes slow down. Because of severe underfunding, carriages and engines frequently fail to appear. The Amtrak timetable is so provisional that Watson finds himself ringing its phone agents, who all seem to be "middle-aged at least and to work out of their own homes", for constant updates; more endearingly, as train travel is pushed out of the present and back beyond the stage-coach era, he finds the operators available for a chat.

A visit to America these days is increasingly defined by a sense of the divide between two countries. One is all fluid surface, in which money guarantees extreme mobility, the other a stagnant hinterland of contempt and neglect - a dichotomy now finding expression in American popular culture (CSI's and Entourage's high-gloss can-do versus The Wire's crumbling Baltimore). Even the opportunity to tour the landscape's most famous features is off-limits to a significant number of its people. The government's indifference to the pre-twentieth-century immobility of significant pockets of its population was brought home most shockingly in the lack of any real will to provide public transport out of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

Watson makes his first journey to this devastated city in the weeks following the disaster. What was a tragedy for its citizens, particularly poor African-Americans, was a golden opportunity, he soon discovers, for the faith-based groups who have come to New Orleans to help. The evangelical fatalism he so frequently encounters sets him thinking about what will become the two major preoccupations of American Journeys: US democracy and the rise of public professions of faith.

As you would expect of Keating's speechwriter and a critic of soulless bureaucratic language, Watson has a keen ear for the way America has imagined itself in the words of its leaders. Returning to the text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, he observes that while "Lincoln never doubted the rightness of his cause" and fought the Civil War zealously, he never did so as a fundamentalist: "While he despised the motives of his enemy, he did not call him wrong." It is the slippage from this more complex ideal of humanity to a Manichean doctrine of simplistically opposed good and evil that Watson most deplores in George W Bush; but he is even more disturbed by the overwhelming pace at which the relatively new fundamentalist and Pentecostal ideologies have snuck into so many aspects of the nation's daily life.

Rattling precariously through the US - through the mythical landscapes of Utah and Montana, where a "faith-based" view of the world seems almost logical, to progressive Portland and monumental Washington DC - Watson offers sharp but sympathetic portraits of his fellow travellers. Most seem to be people of strong belief; if not reading CS Lewis or reciting the story of Daniel in the lions' den to their children, they at least latch on fiercely, like the well-dressed young man Watson overhears talking on his mobile to his Parisian girlfriend, to the possibility of dramatically fashioning the self:

 

I could hear her voice well enough to pick up that she worked for Canal Plus and had a beautiful bubbly laugh. I liked her. But I did not like him. And if she had been able to see the look I could see on his face - how he did not even smile when she laughed, how his languor was an act - she would not have liked him either ...

 

Yet the strength of American Journeys is Watson's resistance to the ecstatic pleasures of disapproval with which this country has long dazzled, even beguiled, its visitors. He is as prepared to observe the extraordinary kindnesses of fellow passengers as he is to note their less attractive qualities. Alert to America's physical beauty, he often invokes it with poetic deftness: "We sped through marshland where russet grass grew between the channels and half-hid men standing perfectly still with their shotguns tipped back across their shoulders and pointing to the sky, their dogs just as still beside them." Watson's casual remarks are often the most revealing: his observation that "crockery has been withdrawn from American culture at a certain level," for example, or his description of the small-town main street's "kind of hormonal freedom to be crass and ugly".

An underlayer of research gives density to Watson's deceptively laconic travelogue, which is always interesting and often surprising in its details: that the Cherokee walking the Trail of Tears sang ‘Amazing Grace' in their own language; that the invaders of the Navajos' territory first destroyed their 3000 peach trees; that Butch Cassidy was baptised a Mormon. When you have travelled much of the same territory as Watson you realise what an achievement this is, for - in spite of the historical kitsch everywhere - these sorts of piquant details are often difficult to unearth from a scripted history that keeps injustices that seem fresh to a visitor far from the country's forebrain.

Halfway through American Journeys, Watson ditches the train for a hire car that he drives with the "guilty exhilaration of a schoolboy". Again, the extraordinary beauty of America - his descriptions of Yellowstone Park in winter are wonderful - competes for his attention with the ugly right-wing pundits of radio, typified by Rush Limbaugh. For Watson, such programs are further proof of the rise of fundamentalist belief.

But it may be risky to interpret the ubiquity of a certain type of white, middle-class religion as acquiescence, particularly when you have a liking, as Watson has, for visiting America's old roads and cafés and hotels. It is easy to mistake the astonishingly thin cultural experience available within these threadbare public spaces for the country as a whole. What looks like homogeneity may be the most accessible face, ironically, of a lack of common culture.

The fragmentation of American culture always astonishes - a point that was driven home to my partner and I when, after weeks of shock-jocks and Christian country music, we walked into the Uranium Café in Grants, New Mexico, to hear their radio playing sublime gospel. Private-subscriber satellite, the owners told us. There is a weird loneliness about such consumer freedoms. You have to know what you like before you seek it out and pay for it: the chance to educate and enrich your taste is lacking as never before. It is possible to travel - or have chosen for you - a particular itinerary, even of class or race or language, without being aware of the range of alternatives. Rather than fulfilling the demands of Christian consumers, it may be that media-savvy new churches have targeted a blankness in the public sphere.

If there is one thing missing from this book, it is a sense of the religious heterogeneity beneath America's highly visible surface: the intense world of Mexican Catholicism, for example, that brings 30,000 pilgrims out of Santa Fe each Easter to brave the green lightning of the Sangre de Cristos mountains, on their way to El Santuario de Chimayó. Or the profusion of botánicas and Santería stores in its cities. These comments are made in a spirit of engagement, for the pleasure of Watson's light-handed book is that it elicits a desire to converse with its amiable narrator.

Americans, Watson suggests, may feel they "live just the wrong side of a kind of theatrical scrim, a thin floating membrane", on the other side of which lie preordained celebrity and riches. But it might be us, as travellers, who sense that America's apparent disclosiveness is its greatest mystery. American Journeys is a thought-provoking trip through this most inscrutable of countries.

About the author Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.