Romantic TenaciAn Ode to the California Zephyr

ty: Hani Warith, University of Pennsylvania 

Journeying from coast to coast across the United States is, above all else, deeply romantic.  Today, traveling across the American expanse between the oceans requires covering the land many have accused Cosmopolitan Americans of forgetting about altogether. The sweeping fields of Illinois, the deserts of Nevada and the Canyon lands of Western Colorado separate the orchards of California from the Eastern Seaboard.

I traveled by train. Obsolescence surrounds you on a long train journey today. The trans-continental railroad was once the subject of great intrigue; a symbol of industrialism and the burgeoning industriousness of a booming United States it has since been relegated to a curiosity. Getting to California by train has lost both its efficient and romantic legitimacy in the eyes of many. Even ignoring the emergence of more affordable air travel, high speed rail has not yet revolutionized passenger train travel in the United States. Those who want to see the country from the ground today opt for road trips these days. Perhaps that is why everything about the Westbound California Zephyr seems somewhat faded, starting with the passengers – largely a coterie of retirees. The trains themselves are over 20 years old.

Yet, making the 52-hour traverse was a pilgrimage of sorts. When trains made the journey the Zephyr now makes daily one hundred and fifty years ago, they revolutionized the United States’ conception of itself. They suggested possibilities of expansion that dwarfed individual’s imaginations about federalism. For the first time in history, a concrete political context was proving that a nation need not be a state with a coherent and singular ethnic character; by the time the transcontinental railroad was completed immigrants from places as far flung as Argentina, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Middle East were making their way across the country and calling themselves American. While most Irish, Eastern European and Italian immigrants chose to remain in New York, largely for financial reasons, German immigrants were populating the Midwest. Much of this settlement was made possible by the expansion of the railroad system.

When the Liberty Bell traversed the country by train in 1917 the country was awestruck. While respect for and dependence on the railroad has depreciated today it has historically been a pivotal field of nation building for the United States. Today those same states which were once the subject of great migration have become home to some of the nation’s disaffected voters. When I got on the California Zephyr, a teamster from Chicago lectured me about the decline of the city’s south side. He was fixated on how much the city had transformed in his lifetime; neighborhoods that he remembered fondly had now become shockingly dangerous, he said.

The narrative that the election in 2016 was driven in large part by blue-collar white disillusionment in the face of globalization has certainly been overstated, it ignores the great non-white, largely urban and sometimes even industrial poverty that exists on the Eastern seaboard and across the country. Being on the train, however, forced me to come face to face with those dissatisfied white voters of whom I had heard so much. I was sure that the teamster I was talking to epitomized a demographic of voters who had for the first time voted Republican, choosing Trump over the Democrats who had simply left the considerations of the blue collar working class behind.

I was one of the only non-white people on a train forging westward through very red states.  I experienced racism explicitly, being called “boy” by one of the attendants on the train. I felt uncomfortable even being a traveler on the train and it made me realize what a task any kind of political engagement with particular parts of the country might be going forward. Engagement seems naïve when clearly some of the citizens of the country view me as a child rather than an adult because of the color of my skin. While I was privileged enough to bear racism minor enough that I could overlook it, I will never forget the discrimination I experienced that day. Along with the stunning vistas of the Rocky Mountains and the sweep of the Colorado river, the charged racial conditions on a train in 2017 will remain a significant educational and personal experience.

Also fixed in my memory are the warm stories relayed to me by an historian I happened to meet about his adventures traveling across the country in search of research. His studies brought him to the train because of the revolutionary role it had played in the crafting of this country. I could not stop myself from thinking while listening to him, and then for the rest of the journey, about how the comfortable trip I was embarking on had been completed by so many families on foot. The awe inspiring struggles to make this union possible must be treasured. The trip allowed me to appreciate deeply the striking work undertaken by the citizens of this country to bring it together – and the daunting work still left for us to do.