Tag Archives: southern crescent

Some people have a bucket list — of extraordinary experiences they would like to have before the final extraordinary experience. My bucket, however is already full, in fact, it runneth over. 

It is probably much the same for most people. By the time you reach the age of 70, you can look back on a lifetime of extraordinary and satisfying adventures. Perhaps you have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but there are no doubt things you have done that brought your own life to its full. 

I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; and been charged by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

I was an idiot — I took the picture

I see birthday number 71 coming up next week and realize that translates to 852 months, 3702 weeks or nearly  26,000 days. They have gone by very quickly, picking up speed as they progress, like a train leaving the station. They are now barreling along at the speed of an express. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

From the rear of that train, I can look back and say I have seen the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; the menhirs of Brittany; seen Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle live twice; made love surreptitiously in the North Carolina legislature building. 

Menhirs at Carnac, Brittany

I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They don’t really have those anymore.

Mediterranean Sea

I have done other things that now seem quaint and ancient. I have twice crossed the continent on trains, once from North Carolina to New York on the Southern Crescent, from New York to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, and then from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. Amtrak never had the cache of those earlier routes. 

Years later, under the shrunken Amtrak banner, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami. 

Each of these things is stamped and notarized in my cerebral cortex.

Given the sum of those years, it is hardly surprising that so many things were seen, done, felt, tasted, smelled, heard. You turn the pages of the book one by one, and sooner than you realize, you are on page 852 and something has happened on every page. 

Chartres cathedral

Been to Chartres four times; and to Notre Dame de Paris half a dozen times; to Mont St. Michel; and to Reims, where French kings were crowned; and climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. 

Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Been to 14 countries, including Norway and Namibia. Been to all 48 contiguous United States and all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island, and to the Yukon Territory. Alaska made 49 states (still haven’t been to Hawaii).

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Been to Lascaux and to Font de Gaume to see prehistoric cave paintings; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun; to all the major Civil War battle sites, and across the Old North Bridge. Stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”). 

Mt. Greylock, from Melville’s piazza

Three times I have walked Monet’s gardens at Giverny and seen the great waterlily murals at the Orangerie in Paris.

Giverny, France

I have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids). 

Once, I stood at the top of the raging Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge and stupidly jumped across the cataract, rock to rock, to get to the other side of the river. I’ve also climbed to the top of Pilot Mountain in the Sauratown Mountains of Surry County, N.C. (a climb that is now illegal). 

Linville Falls, N.C.

Hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Been to the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the Kitt Peak observatories southwest of Tucson. 

 When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.

And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times. 

Glacier Bay, Alaska

But it isn’t just geography. There are cultural touchstones I count, experiences that have breathed oxygen into my soul. Not only Wagner, but also I heard Lenny Bernstein conduct La Mer with the NY Phil; heard Emil Gilels live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; heard Maurizio Pollini play all the Chopin Preludes, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. I heard Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in the same recital: That is like climbing Everest and Mont Blanc on the same day. Itzhak Perlman play the Strauss violin sonata — and made it seem like one of the most important sonatas ever. That was magic. Heard the Matthew Passion live twice and Haydn’s Creation. And, of course, twice heard Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach suites in a single program. 

I’ve seen a dozen Balanchine ballets with live orchestra, including my favorite, Apollo, five times, once by the NY City Ballet at the Palais Garnier in Paris. 

I’ve seen the full Angels in America four times through, including its original Broadway production. 

Remnants of shell craters, Verdun, France

These are all gifts, and made my life ever richer, and informed my growth, emotional and intellectual. I can say, they made me a better human being. 

I can’t count the art shows and museums I’ve visited that gave me rare treasures. The first I can remember was in high school when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 to see “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” It yanked the rudder of my craft and steered my life in a new direction. 

“Blue Poles,” Jackson Pollock

I also grew up with Picasso’s Guernica. I visited it over and over and never expected it would leave me for a new home in Spain. But in return, I never thought I’d get to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which had been sold to Australia; it came to New York in 1998 for the big Pollock retrospective at MoMA. 

I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to. 

But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

factory 2
Italy has its Colosseum. Cambodia has its Angkor Wat. And South America has its Machu Picchu.

They are all the ruined monuments of empire. Vines grow through the masonry joints and small birds build their twiggy nests where windows used to be.catherwood 1

As Stephens and Catherwood found in the Yucatan, nature takes back what we borrow. Our cities crumble and trees clothe everything once again in general greenness.

You can see the process in action from your railroad coach window, as the train passes through Toledo, Ohio, at three in the morning.

All across the southern rim of Lake Erie, factories made of brick under the harsh midnight illumination of security lights begin to metamorphose back into clay soil.

The train moves slowly through the back lots of rust-belt cities, where the tracks themselves groan and rattle under the weight of the bogeys, and the whole urban backstage is like the rough inside of a carnival mask. From the streets along the refurbished waterfront, the city looks shiny and prosperous. It is the face the town fathers want to show. nightfactories

But from the rails, the potemkin city is revealed in its rich, resonant decay. It is the same in all municipalities, from Trenton to L.A. The tracks take us to our ruined monuments and we can see the picturesque disintegration of our urban ambitions.

I have always found these scenes seductive.

It is why I have always loved to ride the trains. It is the same thrill the theatergoer gets when allowed to wander backstage through the flies and backdrops. A bit of the mystery is explained but a greater mystery fills its place.

I have been awake all night, the passing lights flashing briefly through the window. In each Toledo or Syracuse, N.Y., we pass, the train rolls through the back yards of the inner city and shows us the unhinged screen doors, jacked-up Fords and abandoned barbecue grills. Once in a great while a kitchen light is on and you can see a man rummaging for a midnight snack in his refrigerator.

It is 3 a.m., and the Southern Crescent is pulling into Greensboro; the Twentieth Century Limited into Erie; the Empire Builder into Minneapolis; or the Sunset Limited into New Orleans.

The train crawls into the station past the lowered crossing gate with its flashing lights and clanging bells. Behind it wait the one or two trucks working at this hour. A squeal of airbrakes and the shush of escaping air and the train comes to a halt. The passengers step off the stairway at the end of the coach, hanging on the thin metal rod that counts as a handrail, looking for the relatives who have awakened in the middle of the night to meet them.

While we wait, the brakemen walk back and forth under the passenger windows checking the journal boxes with their flashlights.factory 1

Then the car jerks forward with a rattle and the train picks up speed. Out my window, I see a junk yard surrounded with a tornado fence topped with coils of barbed wire. It is followed by an empty five-story brick factory. A thousand windows face the tracks and not one has an unbroken pane of glass; what is left is a tracery of empty mullions. The roof has partially collapsed and what was once a loading dock is now a tangle of wire, iron and tatters of tarpaper.

It is a world of oily soot collected as a film on steel I-beams, a world of concrete rubble and red bricks turning back to powder.

What is garish in the electric light disappears in the inky black and the clack of the rails rises by a tone and opens wide as the train begins to cross a bridge. On the other side, the train leaves the city, entering the suburbs that are unlit and fast asleep.

Up front, the airhorn sounds its warning and the slow burn of sunrise is faint behind us.

At one point, we pass our companion train, headed in the other direction toward the sunrise from which we came. The two trains slow as they pass each other in a kind of railroad pasodoble, and I can see dimly into the passing coaches.
birdswarm 1Most passengers are sleeping, their heads drooped back and their mouths hanging wide. But every so often you see another face looking back at you.

A rising cloud of blackbirds rotates into the air, roused by the train. As we pass, they settle again into the bare winter trees.

Who can sleep in such poetry.