As I boarded the train in Gainesville I was only looking for a ride to Reno. Instead I got so much more as I traveled through 20 states by train and van before making my way back home.
I found history everywhere that I went.
In Washington DC it can be overwhelming. The statues, memorials, and museums all tell so many stories, but the main point that they drive home is that all of these legends were real people. People who weren’t afraid to make tough decisions. People who weren’t afraid to lead. People who didn’t look for the easiest way out. People willing to put the good of the country first sometimes imperiling their own careers and lives in the process.
I saw monuments to Native Americans in the form of petroglyphs that they created themselves on the canyon walls of Utah and Colorado, in a great museum in Washington, and by two great “hometown” tributes by tree carving artist Peter “Wolf” Toth in Reno, Nevada and Paducah, Kentucky.
Sitting in the Great Hall in Union Station in Chicago I felt like I was sitting in the middle of history. I could imagine the millions of people who had passed through this incredible room. It was easy to imagine that any person who had lived in the United States in the past hundred years had passed through this room at some time. Every politician, entertainer, sports figure, or just ordinary traveler like me had probably passed through the Great Hall. I thought about all of the soldiers who had passed this way and I was suddenly aware that my mother had certainly gone through this place when she was moving around the Midwest as a member of the Waves in World War Two. Maybe she had sat on the same wooden bench that I sat on.
Talk about World War Two and men who weren’t afraid to make tough decisions, I visited both the Eisenhower and Truman presidential libraries in Abilene, Kansas and Independence, Missouri. They were both featuring World War Two displays and there’s nothing in American history more humbling than studying the Greatest Generation. I also never fail to be awed when I read Eisenhower’s farewell speech from January of 1960 where the former general and soon to be ex-president warned of the danger to the country posed by the military industrial complex. What would he think of Washington DC today?
The natural beauty of America from coast to coast could be where our soul comes from. The stunning landscape that I saw pass by truly brought the song “America the Beautiful” to life. The beauty of the eastern mountains and forests, the vastness of the plains and the deserts, the incredible Rocky Mountains and the majesty of the national parks. I watched the sunrise over Bryce Canyon and then stopped less than a mile away to watch baby antelopes running and frolicking in a meadow under the watchful eye of their mother.
I discovered that the sun is brighter in Utah than it is anywhere else. I saw bald eagles and aspen forests. I learned that deer are not unique to my back yard in Beechwood, but are plentiful in every state between here and California.
The most important thing that I discovered on my trip across the country was the incredible people that I met.
The train was a great equalizer for everybody on board. I would sit in my seat or the observation car or the lounge and whoever I sat next to or whoever sat down next to me was an immediate friend. One jerk between here and Reno and he was easily gotten rid of. The other fifty or so people who I had conversations with over my four days on the train were all people who I’d love to see again.
I’ll never forget the elegant eighty year old woman whose brother was a Tuskegee Airman and whose grandson was such a source of pride. There was the lady from California who thought that Georgia was “Gone With the Wind,” and the man from Ohio who had seen Bigfoot. There was Bob from Truckee who had panned for gold and his friend from Mississippi who had a bald eagle fly into the tree stand with him while he was deer hunting. There was Coby from Utah whose purpose in life was to provide for his wife and young daughters. There was Paul the Mechanic whose gruff exterior failed to hide a willingness to help a couple of wayward strangers from Georgia.
There were also the young people. From a pretty little three year old from Chicago with her laptop to the three goth teens that I stumbled across in the waiting room of a closed snack bar. Young people who under different circumstances would have rolled their eyes and ignored me, but on the train we talked. We laughed. We were friends. Maybe for only half an hour or so, but I can only hope that when they reached home and were telling their friends about their trip they remember that funny old guy from Georgia.
I’ll sure remember all of them.