Terry Pindell, Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1990), 399 pages, a few maps.
A few weeks ago, ironically just before Castro's death, I attended a poetry reading at the Savannah’s delightful Book LadyBookstore. Featured that evening was Virgil Suarez, a Cuban poet who lives and teaches in Florida. The reading was enjoyable and I purchased and read through his collection of poetry, 90 Miles: Selected and New Poems. But my real find that evening, in the book store was a used copy of Making Tracks. As I am drawn to travel stories and especially train one. I purchased this book and quickly devoured it. Years ago, I had read Pindell's book, Last Train to Toronto (I don't know what happened to that book and it may have been a library one). In it, he tells the story of the Canadian rail system as he rides over much of the lines (some of which were being discontinued). Now, a quarter century later, I have come across another of his books (and after some research, learn that he has yet another rail book about Mexico).
In 1985, Pindell took a train from his home in New England to Florida, to visit Disney World. That trip sparked an interest in traveling by train. After the death of his father, Pindell decided to make his dream a reality and in 1988, he spent the year riding Amtrak around the nation. In four trips, mostly loops covering large sections of the country, he rode approximately 30,000 miles on iron rails, riding all the major Amtrak lines (including a couple of lines that longer exist such as the Desert Wind (Los Angeles to Salt Lake) and the Pioneer (Salt Lake to Portland and on to Seattle). Having ridden almost all these lines (I have two major missing links: the Sunset Limited from San Antonio to New Orleans and the Southern crescent from Atlanta to New Orleans), I found myself reliving, while reading, many miles and days I've spent on the train.
As he shares his experiences of riding the trains, Pindell weaves in the history of various rail lines and their signature passenger services. He also provides some of the history of towns around the tracks as well as the politics that went into the track’s development. The building of the transcontinental lines are especially interesting. A southern route would have been the easiest to build but the upcoming Civil War stopped that. Some of the railroads fought with Native Americas while others (such as the Sante Fe) hired natives to help build and maintain the lines. One of the last line built, the Great Northern, who originally operated the luxury "Empire Builder," runs just south of the Canadian Border. While riding this line, he stops at Essex, Montana where he stays at a lodge next to the tracks for a few days. As he explores part of Glacier National Park, we learn about a passenger train caught in these mountains in an avalanche for a week and how they survived. Another story is of a derailment of corn cars on this line. The corn spilled out on the ground and what couldn't be salvaged was buried. A few months later, train crews began to notice strange behavior of bears in the area and they learn that the bears have been digging up fermented corn and were essentially becoming drunks. One also learns where phrases like "wrong side of the tracks" came from (Dodge City, Kansas), and about the railroad robbery industry that developed in the 19th Century.
In addition to stories on the rail lines, Pindell tells about the people he meets traveling. There are those looking to see America and who want to slow down. Others are in search for sexual encounters or appear to be running drugs. In riding the rails so frequently, he often reunites with crew members from one train on another train a few months later. One of the running theme through much of the book is his grandfather, who was an engineer. He stops in his home town along the railroad in Illinois.
There is a political element to this book which was written at the end of the Reagan era. There is no doubt he has a liberal lean in his politics. He jokingly referred to the old Pullman cars which Amtrak received from the railroads as Republican cars as most were only stainless on the outside and had rusted so badly underneath that they were no longer safe and had to be rebuilt or replaced. However, the Budd cars (which he suggested were Democrats) had stainless insides and were still rolling strong 30 and 40 years after they were manufactured.
If you like trains, I'd recommend this book. Unfortunately, it is no longer in print, but used copies are available on Amazon. Pindell entertains us with great stories. There are a few places where he has his facts mixed. He speaks of the Southern Railroad buying North Carolina Railroad (this they wanted to do, but didn't and the line is still owned by the state even though it leases the right to run over the line to Southern Railroad). I also questioned his interpretation of the Mormons being run out of Illinois based on Joseph Smith's revelation of polygamy. Although polygamy was practiced in Illinois and led to their departure, the "revelation" didn't become public knowledge until the 1850s, long after they'd settled in the Salt Lake Valley. But these were small mistakes and didn't distract my enjoyment of his stories.