High plains driftin': on the trail(s) of race and history

Well, PTSD-ers remain silent for nearly a week or so and then write two posts in a day . E's previous post got me thinking that I'd not written to regale yous with my adventures in the Northern reaches of this great country as I made my way across it. I should probably mention that none of what follows here is likely to have anything to do with academia but, then, as yous may have gathered by now, little of what I seem to write does.*

First, the name of the train itself. The way the Amtrak system works is that I had three choices for my cross-country trip: Washington to Chicago and then 1) across the Northern reaches of the country 2) across to Denver and Salt Lake City and 3) down South to New Orleans and through Texas. Well, when I found that one of the trains was called "Empire Builder", there really was no choice to be made. I had to take that across.** The Empire Builder made its way across Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Oregon. In the process, we passed through towns which, apart from their tarred roads, seemed little changed from the days in which Mr. L'Amour wrote about them. Having grown up with a steady diet of "Westerns"--both books and films--actually passing through countryside that resembled this mental image I had of America was pretty "cool".

Of course, there were differences--the ubiquitous utes; the communication towers; the sign advertising "free wireless internet" on a wooden shack near Malta, MT; the paved roads (I think I mentioned this already?)-- but the image of small frontier towns in America with their (one) main street and shoddy train stations, with their shops with names like "Jed's saloon" and "Burt's tack shop" and with people who waved at us as the train passed by, fitted in well with my (imagined) reality of going out West in America.

And then there were the oddities and marvels--the "Torture Museum" at Wisconsin Dells, the nightlong thunderstorms (during which the skies did turn red and streaks of lightning bisected the dark), the town of Fargo (in the midst of a blinding rainstorm--just what I would have hoped for), the "recreated" trading post of Fort Union (with its oh-so-fake wigwams situated stiffly in front of the post), seeing buffaloes run across the plain (oh-so-"Western")and crossing the continental divide.

The scenes of natural beauty which were pretty breathtaking as well--dry, dusty towns shifted to rocky mountains and evergreen trees with West Glacier National Park as a highlight, especially when the train went through tall mountain ranges with the river far down below. Except for the differences in the types of trees, it was almost like being back home in Nepal. Empire-building was actually an experience of homesickness, as the mountains, rivers and the high waterfalls were rather similar to the physical geography of home.

At this time, I would like to do a bit of advertising for Amtrak and highly recommend their "Trails and Rails" programme. This programme, where wildlife rangers rode on the train and explained about historical and natural heritage of the part of the country we passed through, was an excellent source of information and entertainment. However, as is usual in modern retellings of history, the stories about "Empire-building" that were actually told were heavily "sanitised"--not much mention was made of diseases, deaths and dodgy dealings with difference.

Then, after nearly 2 days of passing through the Northern Part of the United States, the train was just leaving the mountains, the rain stopped and there appeared a rainbow.*** It was a time to glory in the successful trip out West, in having survived a gruelling trek and it was a time to be thankful for the Empire Builder. Yes, I do see the irony in typing that but I shall do so anyway.

Next post--teaching and eating (in the main mess) and living with the students I am teaching. Seeing them at mealtimes, chatting to them on the buses as we go on trips and then teaching them "in class". Blurring of boundaries, as it were. An example: today's discussion in class, in between talking about international law and genocide, was about which of the TA's was the "hottest". How to draw lines when, on the one hand you are "hanging out" with them (eating and going on trips) and, on the other, are teaching them? Stay tuned for my reflections.

* This is a convoluted way of telling yous that you can follow my (train)trek across the United States by checking out this map. I went from Washington DC to Chicago to Glacier National Park to Portland to Berkeley. I shall remain in Berkeley until mid-August and then will make my way back across the country. I've not yet decided that route but I shall be taking the train...again.

** LilSis1 would probably tell you this is because of "reading far too many Louis L'Amour books when younger". Also, all Nepalis are frustrated Empire builders at heart. If only we had but world enough and time, we say as we pine for our (non) Empire-building pasts (though Berkeley, California folks' views of Nepal (and Nepalis) seem to be more along the "free love" version of Marvell than the Empire-building version Nepalis usually go for).

*** I kid you not. I couldn't make this up if I tried. There was a proper, shiny rainbow. If I'd seen this scene in a film, I'd have groaned at its utter cheesiness. But, it did happen. This is not to say I shan't groan at similar scenes in future films.

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