Category: Raban, Jonathan

on the train (quote)

Jonathan Raban’s BAD LAND: AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, pp. 48-49

In 1909 the roadbed was still soft, and when the emigrant train pulled of Marmath, North Dakota, its speed didn’t rise above that of a reasonably agile man on foot. As usual, it was already running more than five hours late; the published timetable was another railroad fiction. With the sun sinking fast toward the horizon, the train crept through a sudden irruption of badlands terrain, past mushrooms of sandstone on stalks of pale gray clay.

At the back of the train were the emigrant cars, each with a family, its livestock, furniture and farm implements snugly boxed in a single wagon. Whenever the train stopped at a station, these families could be seen living the life of Reilly: they slept on brass-bound feather beds, tipped luxuriously back in rockers, played cards around their dining tables, while their cattle grieved and snorted at the bars of their compartments. To rent an emigrant car was relatively expensive. From Chicago to Miles City it cost 49¢ per hundred pounds of movables, with a minimum charge of $98 a car. The people aboard were nearly all farmers from the Midwest and as the land inched past they watched it closely, furtively, pretending to be engrossed by their newspapers or their hands of cards.

The polyglot crowd in the coaches that made up the forward end of the train had to stow their belongings as best they could. Their stuff, parceled in blankets, cardboard boxes, old flour sacks, and flimsy suitcases lashed shut with rope, spilled out into the gangways of the carriages, where it served as seating for children and beds for household cats. The toilets (one at each end of every coach), the poorly trimmed oil lamps, the improvised cooking arrangements and the scanty opportunities on the trip for washing, gave the coaches a powerful and complicated smell that many of the settlers’ children would be able to recall in their nonage.

The journey had to be survived on a bare wood-slatted seat. With the temperature outside close to 90° and the train barely moving, the oppressive breadth of America was brought painfully home to every passenger. The stations — Selby… McLaughlin… Haynes… Reeder… Bowman… Rhame — slowly came and slowly went, their names empty of any meaningful association. At close to noon, the Missouri River had been crossed at Mobridge, South Dakota; since then there had been nothing in the geography to engage the eye. The badlands formations arrived as a welcome break; they gave one something to look at, provided a talking point in their queer resemblance to animals, human faces, architecture.