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Becalmed in Milwaukee on a Friday morn, but not for long. We’re on the Empire Builder, the famous train that starts in the Pacific Northwest, threads through magnificent scenery, hauls itself through the great expanse of Montana and North Dakota, wanders down to through Minnesota and Wisconsin before pulling in with great relief and little drama in the ancient station of downtown Chicago. We’re heading down for a wedding, and since we had the time we decided to treat Gnat to a train trip. Not that much more expensive than the plane, even with the sleeper room. Right now she’s on the upper bunk watching a movie; my wife’s in the next room (the porteress, if that’s the term, let us open the common door and sprawl out, since there’s no one next door) and I’m done with reading for a while. (“Pompeii,” a novel by the author of “Fatherland” and some other books I’ve enjoyed – although this one starts out with a Tom Wolfe quote about American superiority at the start of the 21st century, and the point is clear; just as Rome fell, so will America, and don’t be so cocky. Thanks for the reminder, Dr. Killjoy. I’ll start sacrificing finches to Vulcan right now so a volcano doesn’t destroy San Diego.)

Now we’re moving through the old industrial wastelands – strange blasted places that stretch for miles – smokestacks without factories, vast weedy parking lots, half-demolished factories, warehouses still in use, barrel fields. A few minutes later, luxury housing developments. A few minutes later, a barn. It’s not like I remember the Eastern Corridor, which was an interminable iron ditch lined with sagging rowhouses. But you can never judge an American town by the view from the train. They always drag you through the alley to the back door.

No snow anywhere. Remarkable. We’ll be in Chicago in an hour. Been a while; can’t wait.

Sunday Night. Good trip. Heading back now. That’s all! Thanks for coming by! See you tomorrow.

Well, no. Right now we’re heading back, blasting through the dusk. Wife and child asleep in the berths; Gnat was watching a movie on her iBook while I finished the novel. The volcano blew up! Never saw that coming. Anyway, more tomorrow – I have to write a column while on the train. In the meantime, here are some pictures.

The density of the city always amazes me – stuff on stuff next to stuff towering over stuff, miles and miles of stuff, punctuated by the casual immensity of the high-rise residential skyscrapers. I love views like this but if I had to see it every day I would slit my wrists. And as my life seeped out my veins, I’d think: idiot. You could have moved. Or just closed the drapes. Got a bigger TV and watched that! But nooo, you had to slit your wrists.

Gnat was a flower girl in a wedding. Flower girl / ring bearer / confetti strewer. She took her responsibilities seriously; in this picture she seems less little girl and more Stern Allegorical Figure.

But that's not an Allegorical Figure, This, mite, is an allegorical figure:

Union Depot’s main hall, once a grimy hole filled with those becalmed for a day or for a lifetime of bumhood – it’s clear and clean now, and eerily empty of life. That’s the statue of Day up there; night’s across on the other side of the arch. It felt odd to see them again after so many years. Right below was the corner where my wife and I kissed goodbye before I went on to DC and she went back to Mpls until spring. All the life had gone out of the room. When they sandblasted the place they stripped off the memories that aren’t yours, but seem present and important anyway.

Then we picked Gnat up and swung her together in the air, over and over, down the hall to the train home.


A reminder: posting will be, ah, different until the next book is done. There will still be M-F additions, so stop by. And buy the book! Great Christmas gifts, etc. And the Backfence is still open for business, Tue / thu / Sun.