Some days you can’t put it off any longer. I had found a storage facility for my repeatedly vandalized car, away from our hopeless capital that would have been better off with an urn of cremains for the mayor. What better way to celebrate than to spend a December day being buffeted by high-speed winds?
The termini of this trip did not inspire me like those in the West: D.C., which deserves its reputation for Northern charm and Southern efficiency, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Still depressed about being uprooted from the West, I nurse a lingering prejudice about this part of the country, which is reinforced by Civil War re-enactors who always want to play Confederates.
Things started smoothly enough. My Metro train pulled into College Park just as a CSX southbound freight halted nearby. Striding out of the subway riders’ sight, I barely had time to snag one of the last cars. Even as I ran for it, the brakes were charging up with that characteristic ticking noise; seconds later, the no-nonsense engineer took off. Back came the sensation I feared I had lost forever: the sun and wind on my face.
CSX winds through the gunfire-filled parts of D.C. before reaching the Potomac. First came the junkyards, weedy vacant lots, and auto-salvage shops. Then followed the abandoned RFK Stadium, a pathetic reminder of the Redskins’ long-departed Super Bowl years.
Undeniably, though, the heart of D.C. scenery is uplifting. In rapid succession I was treated to the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the cherry trees, the Jefferson Memorial, which the train approached so closely that Jefferson was visible inside. Soon enough, modern might replaced history – namely, the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Airport – and they in turn metamorphosed into suburbs, perpetual suburbs, that dragged on past the subway system, past commuter-rail platforms, all the way to Quantico Marine Base and Fredericksburg. You’d think someone working in D.C. would have the sense to settle for a smaller home near work.
Only after Fredericksburg, more than half the distance to Richmond, did the open land begin. The day was cooling rapidly, and my breath turned into plumes of steam. Alternating between thick second-growth forest and sunlit, grassy meadows, the landscape here had changed almost not at all since the Civil War. I suppose everything grew on a bed of skulls and bullets, as in northern France.
At this time of year, darkness falls fast, investing the woods with an eerie quality. It was dinnertime, and pitch black, when we reached Christmas-lit Ashland, home of Randolph Macon College. The air was rich with the aroma of other people’s cooking. Nothing makes me more despondent on a night ride.
With naive hope, I jumped off in front of the Richmond Amtrak station. There were no D.C. trains left; I optimistically asked the clerk, “How far is the Greyhound station?”
“About six miles,” she replied, plunging a dagger into my heart. Clearly, intermodality eluded these good people.
I did not feel deeply motivated to hobo back to D.C. in darkness and cold, and my calling a cab was about as likely as my sprouting wings. I trudged back outside and reverted to the oldest form of transportation. To reach the center of town and bus station, I headed for the brightest lights. The same simple method had guided me on a six-mile hike across Spokane in 1993. I also figured on opportunistically jumping a northbound freight, if a fairly safe one turned up.
Eluding trucks and flashlight-toting railroaders, I made my way into a thicket of standing trains. In the darkness they were silent killers, gliding north, gliding south, without warning. I climbed up on the sill of a boxcar and watched one definite northbound steaming out without any ridable cars. All around me strings of cars were backing and “humping” and I got the hell out of the yard. There was no easy way to predict which northbounds were going out how soon. I was tiring, the freight cars seemed to be growing bigger in the moonlight, I would likely be cut in half if I lingered in this swarm of machinery.
Anyway, the clerk turned out to be wrong. It was only four miles.
During the sold-out Greyhound ride back to D.C., I fell back into the deep melancholy that attended my departure from the West. Probably I’ll never adjust, even if I find what other people call a “career,” to exile in a decaying Eastern city. However, the trip down to Richmond did awaken an ancient, in-the-bones memory from a Midwestern childhood: that combination of bracing cold and sunshine piercing the stripped, leafless trees. Winter is here.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast.