The Boring State

Amtrak conductors are the only people I’ve ever seen who refer to all 50 states by their official nicknames. They are forever saying things like Good morning, and welcome to the Golden State! or Gallup will be our last stop in the Land of Enchantment. To a travel-fogged passenger whose last brush with outside geography was a barren parking lot in Albuquerque, this last statement can cause no end of consternation.

The European rail system, sensibly enough, is meant for people, and so it passes by as much interesting scenery as feasible on the way to places people want to go. However, the American one – at least west of the Mississippi – is meant strictly for corn. If you are a kernel of corn, a journey west from Iowa to California would encompass the most stimulating views your vegetable mind could handle – the backs of grain elevators, the fronts of grain elevators, an occasional cow. You would start in a reasonable farming community, and pass by many reasonable food-processing or ranching communities on your way. The fact that people occasionally use the rails as well is of no concern to you, or to anyone else in the nation for that matter.

And I might be an Iowan, but damn, I’m sure not a kernel of corn. So I began my trip in an inconvenient little farm town two hours away from anyplace interesting. On the way to this oh-so-frabjous Golden State, the train passed through the battered agricultural backends of crap farm towns, crap ranch towns, and crap crap towns – each one showed us a grain elevator, at least one salvage yard, and numerous back yards that were nearly indistinguishable from salvage yards. It was a little bit embarassing, really – I’d never seen any of these towns before, and it felt like getting to know a man by being shown a low-contrast image of his scrotum. Yeugh!

Meanwhile, the erstwhile Amtrak conductors tried to make the best of the bland scenery by talking excitedly about each passing blot on the landscape. A constant dribble of useless information fell from the public address system: To your right is the dam built in 1946 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the blockage at the heart of the Henry P. Doodlebuns Memorial Reservoir. Further on to the left is the Arkansas river, which crossed the dam that was the blockage at the heart of the Henry P. Doodlebuns Memorial Reservoir. Over there is the house that Jack built. Richard Nixon was born in this very town of Yorba Linda, California, and his birthplace and library are somewhere off in the smog to the right. Ladies and gentlemen, if you look outside you will notice that there are leaves on the trees. Leaves on the fucking trees – I’m not even kidding about that one.

After forty hours of that, I was more than ready to pay the shuttle fare back to Tech. And here I am. And it’s warm out, and nothing has changed except maybe me, because nothing on this campus will ever change, ever.

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