The Crossing of the Mississippi


On the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles nobody sat next me. When Diane left in Chicago, so did the stories. It is always a blessing to sit alone on a plane these days. Yet that logic does not apply to trains. They usually go longer distances, and a second voice plays the chorus for our internal dialogues. So in a way, a trip alone on a train is half a trip.

Moreover, this train lacked another essential component to railway travel. So smooth was the ride that the Southwest Chief was missing the rhythmic clatter of older rolling stock. The first time I had woken to the clang of wheels against rails I was going from Urumqi, in Uighur Xinjiang – a Tatar province in China – to Kazakhstan in the summer of 1993. The Chinese train was traversing steppe under a low full moon. And the music of mechanics in motion marked the rhythm of the journey, like a drum announcing a mysterious revelation. Quite literally it was so, for the future is always unknown and mysterious.

I was on the Observation Car when the conductor came on air to announce we were about to cross the Mississippi. True to its name, it did feel like a watershed in the journey. With the plush furnishing of a lounge, the Observation Car is lined from floor to ceiling windows on both sides, offering as complete a vision of the territory we crossed as possible from the tracks.

We had to wait, however. The draw bridge had been raised to let a barge cross headed south. As we slowly resumed our march, the rotting remains of a half-sunk, wooden boat came into view, a juvenile egret perched on its prow.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came back in a dazzling flashback to my childhood, to the first book I read in my Armenian home in Buenos Aires, to the first America I imagined, the country of the Mississippi basin, of unrestrained nature and freedom. In 1927, a Japanese visitor to the States had wrote back home saying “Americans believe what they read in their newspapers.” When I came to settle in Atlanta in 1999, I was excited to live in the South that I had come to know thanks to Mark Twain. Only then did I realize that I believed what I read in my books.

In Land of Shadows, a movie about C S Lewis, a former student bumps on a train into the writer, played by Anthony Hopkins. As they are catching up on their lives, the former student tells him that his father had passed away: “He used to say, ‘We read to know we are not alone.” It was a phrase that has stayed with me since, that I sometimes believe I understand, but other times I doubt that I do.


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This is the fourteenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief



Can Twitterature Become a Literature?

In an age of electronic communications that are mostly conducted on the tiny screens of mobile phones, it is worth wondering what the future has in stock for literature, and its younger sister, print journalism. A new genre appears to be emerging, called “Twitterature.” Certain kinds of poetry, including haikus, can survive and even thrive within the constraints of 140 characters or less. One noted practitioner of the Twitterature creation is Eric Jarosinski, a former professor of German literature and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He now edits NeinQuarterly, a Twitter account that amounts to a literary review. It boasts 134,000 followers. He composes his verses primarily on his smartphone. One thing very limited space does is enhance the relevance of punctuation and each word, forced to impose itself over the universe of the other ones. It may be too early to say that this may one day become a mainstream form of literature. Yet judge it for yourself on its conciseness: “#HowToFindHappiness Think of where you last saw it. See if it’s still there. If it’s not, ask yourself why it left. If it is, ask yourself why you didn’t stay.” To alarmist souls, your worries about the extinction of books and newspapers may be premature. As a published author and columnist himself, Jarosinski says, “old media still pays.”

Umberto Eco and Harper Lee, two giants of the letters united in death


They were most unlike except in vocation and talent. Umberto Eco and Harper Lee were catapulted to fame by their first novels, The name of the Rose and To Kill a Mockingbird. Eco, the Italian semiotics professor, conjured up the medieval world set in an unnamed Italian monastery, with all the debates and scientific advances that paved the way for the ambiguous modernity that surrounds us. When glory came, Harper Lee withdrew from the world into the Alabama of her childhood, like Boo Radley, the noble yet timid character that never left home in the fictional Maycomb of her novel. Eco, however, embraced his fame fully, with the passion of an Italian tenor, to voice his readings of the conflicting signals that emit those unique creatures that breath and leave their mark in that mysterious and brief adventure we call life.