Four of us board in Zurich, all bound for Munich. Two Germans, a Serb,
It's 1991, and my first month traveling
Europe by trains. I'm on my way to Prague, crossing the continent via
a circuitous route through Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
The German sitting next to me is in his
early twenties, roughly my age. The sides of his scalp are shaved clean,
the top of his head sprouting a tuft of dyed red hair. Several earrings
run through both of his ears, another through his right nostril. There
is, despite the regalia, a look of intelligence about him.
It shows when he speaks English with me,
his accent strangely American. He has never been to the U.S. The accent,
he tells me, comes from listening to American punk bands. Hüsker
Dü, Minutemen, Black Flag--bands he likes, something we have in common.
The Serb and I sit knees-to-knees by the
window. He is middle-aged, his face haggard and tired, his hair pitch
black and streaked with grey. The more the German punk and I speak, the
more annoyed the Serb seems to become. He smokes compulsively, pensively
shifting around in his seat, exhaling smoke as if he were trying to make
a point. Every twenty minutes he gets up and leaves the compartment, each
time coming back with another oversized can of beer. After downing one
can, he throws it on the floor and steps out to get another one.
The other German sits silently in the corner,
listening to a Walkman.
The German punk pinches tobacco out of a
packet of Drum, delicately placing the tobacco on paper, rolling a tight
and tidy cigarette. The Serb offers him a Marlboro, but the German politely
declines. The Serb then says something in German in a tone that sounds
like he is angry, angry that the German should refuse his hospitality.
The German brushes him off and continues the conversation we are having.
But the Serb won't be brushed off. He interrupts
us again, to ask what country I am from. The German tells him I'm American.
I have been traveling a short while in Europe, and haven't yet learned
it is sometimes best to conceal your nationality.
This is one of those times.
His face acquires a look of derision. He
says something else in German. I understand only one word: scheisse.
Shit. American shit. I ask the German to translate. He says it isn't worth
it. The German informs me the guy is Serb, and for some reason hates Americans,
a hatred the Serb wants me to know about.
The war in Yugoslavia has just begun. I
don't know much about it, but I do know enough to recognize who the aggressors
are. The guy seated across from me, with a look of anxious hatred, gives
that aggressor a face. Like the American government throughout the war
in Bosnia, I try to ignore it. But his face is unavoidable. It swaggers
directly in my line of sight.
We, apparently, cross the border. But I
wouldn't know if it isn't for the border policeman, who abruptly opens
our door and bellows out, "passport control." This is my first time in
Germany, yet there is nothing except this plain-clothes border cop and
his hard, official look that indicates where I am. This man, as far I'm
concerned, is the border.
Two policemen in uniform stand behind him.
The plain-clothes cop immediately pins his eyes on the German seated next
to me. The cop asks to see what's in his bag.
He searches it thoroughly, pulling out his
clothes, cramming his hand down side pockets. The earrings, the tattoos,
the tuft of hair--obviously a drug user. The policeman finds nothing incriminating
and seems rather disappointed as a result.
I remember seeing a 60 Minutes report
on Zurich's famed "Needle Park," where the use and sell of drugs are condoned
by the Swiss officials in an attempt to keep the problem contained within
the park's boarders. Europeans from all over the continent flock there
to buy drugs. Consequently, border patrol step up drugs searches on trains
originating in Zurich.
"Funny thing is," the German tells me after
being searched, "I never take drugs. I hardly even drink. But they are
always searching me because of my appearance."
The Serb, meanwhile, is laughing, flaunting
his visa in front of the official, as if to say, "you got nothing on me."
The Serb doesn't have any luggage, so there is nothing that can possibly
incriminate him. He finds all of this rather entertaining. By this time
he is obviously drunk from the several cans of beer he has gone through
since leaving Zurich, four of which keep rolling around the floor at our
The official glances briefly at my passport
and hands it back to me. He probably knows better than to bother searching
my bag through a bunch of foul-smelling clothes that haven't been washed
Then he turns to the second German in the
compartment, a male about eighteen who still has said nothing since leaving
Zurich. He looks innocent enough to me. Short blond hair, nice leather
jacket, probably a college student on his way back to school. But the
official is intent on finding something, anything worth his while.
He does find something: two sharpened pieces
of metal, taped together in their middle so they can be held between two
fingers. It looks like a leather puncher to me. Whatever the patrol thinks,
it is evidence enough to pull the young German off the train and search
his bag and his body more thoroughly.
Unbelievable, I think. This Serb, in my
completely prejudiced opinion, is probably getting away with some atrocity
he has committed in his own country, while this young German is being
hauled off the train for carrying a leather puncher.
But the Serb seems as outraged by the cop's
actions as I am. After the police leave, he violently throws his empty
cans against the door, calling them "schwein" and "scheisse."
I am beginning to fear for my safety.
But the Serb becomes quiet, almost introspective.
He then gets up and leaves the compartment. The tension in the compartment
immediately diminishes. But we still have another two hours to Munich--enough
time for anything to happen. A few minutes later the Serb returns. He
has three cans of beer in his hands. He hands one to me and another to
the German. We both accept the offering of the Serb, whose face has now
lost its derision, and acquired a look of regret.
"The cops are shit," the German says, translating
for the Serb. "You Americans are not so bad." I suppose I should take
it as a compliment.
He doesn't say another word for the rest
of the trip. We have reached some understanding, at least in regard to
the cops. Something, though I am not certain what, happened in crossing
the border, something we now share. Language and nationality, which had
kept us separate and therefore distinct, vanished during the tense moment
in the train compartment. The difference between us remains as surely
as the border between Switzerland and Germany, but the animosity we have
toward each other has been mollified.
A German punk, a middle-aged Serb, and a
wandering American sitting in a train compartment bound for Munich. It
almost feels like community as we toast one another with our cans of beer.
It is December, 1991.
Five months later Muhamed Zejcirovic, his wife Meli, and their two daughters,
Elma and Nina, fled Sarajevo.
Muhamed tells me the story on one of the
days I've set aside to spend with the Zejcvirovic family. As a volunteer
for the Refugee Resettlement Program in Salt Lake City, I serve as the
Zejcirovic's link to American culture and society. I help them acclimate
to living in the U.S., their fifth country in six years.
Having escaped Bosnia, they spent two months
in Slovenia, but were ineligible to receive health care there. They tried
Croatia, but Croat schools would not admit Elma and Nina because they
were unable to provide officials with the requisite Catholic birth certificate.
They lasted five months there, and then moved to Germany, where they lived
for six years. But that ended in 1997, when the German government decided
to evict refugee-status Bosnians living in their country.
Better than to return to war-torn Sarajevo,
the Zejcirovics applied for refugee status in the United States, and received
it. They ended up in Salt Lake City, where their sponsor, Muhamed's sister
I first met Muhamed and his family at his
sister's house, where they had been staying prior to moving into their
own apartment. During that first meeting I asked Muhamed about his and
his family's escape. He politely declined to speak about it, saying that
it would be best to wait. It was apparent he needed to establish some
trust between us before relating the story. I should have known better.
He tells me the story a month later, after
returning from a walk in the Wasatch Mountains, mountains that remind
him of the ones surrounding Sarajevo. Though it happened in 1992, he talks
about the escape as if it happened yesterday.
The war took him and his wife absolutely
by surprise. They refused to believe that Bosnian Serbs would ever mount
an attack against Bosnian Muslims, against people they had lived with
But the noise they heard the night of April
4, 1992 was indeed gunshot, and it came from their neighborhood in Sarajevo.
They spent that night on the floor, fearing bullets might stray through
their windows and into their apartment. The next morning Muhamed and Meli
decided to leave. Immediately.
Meli would drive the two girls, her brother-in-law
Boris, and his two children to the Croatian border. Muhamed would have
to find his own way as there was not enough room in the car. They decided
they would go to Slovenia, where they had friends who would house Meli
and the girls for the time being, for as long as it would take to figure
out what to do next.
Meli and the girls took only the essentials.
Meli had to make it seem as though she and the children were going on
vacation. The Bosnian government forbade their citizens to leave the country
unless it was for vacation or business purposes. Meli and the girls were
lucky; they still had valid French and Spanish visas from a vacation they
had taken in the two countries weeks before.
Muhammed set out on foot to the bus station
to catch a bus bound for Munich, where he had a job and an apartment.
He had been working in Munich as an electrician before the war began,
driving back to Sarajevo each weekend to be with his family.
Going back to Germany would be different
this time. Even if there had been room in the car, Muhamed knew he had
no chance of getting into Croatia riding with his wife and children. The
Bosnian border authorities were on the lookout for men escaping the Bosnian
draft. Muhamed was eligible. He would have been arrested, possibly shot,
if discovered trying to leave the country.
But the possibility of being shot would
have been greater if Muhamed and his family had stayed in Sarajevo. This
became immediately apparent as he made his way to the bus station on this
day, the first day of the war in Bosnia. In order to get there he had
to pass through the Serb enclave of the city, where Serb snipers perched
from the roofs of buildings and raked gunfire at anything that moved down
below, be it Croatian, Muslim, or even Serb.
Muhamed found himself in the crosshairs
of those snipers as he ran across the Bristol Bridge and over the River
Miljacka, which demarcated Serb from Muslim territory. He could hear the
gunfire spatter the concrete close to him, a sound he describes as illusive--"like
He made it across the river and to the station
unscathed. Shortly after Meli and the children arrived at the station
in their car. Meli had suddenly decided she that didn't want to leave,
that she couldn't tear herself from their home, from their apartment,
which they had weeks before refurbished and outfitted with a brand new
washer and dryer that Muhamed had brought down from Germany.
Having just dodged the bullets of snipers
who didn't give a damn whether he has Bosnian or Belgian, Muhamed was
understandably perplexed. He wouldn't hear of staying. It meant putting
them and their daughters' lives at risk. He demanded that they leave.
Shortly after Muhamed's bus departed, Boris
and his children arrived at the station. They immediately took off for
Croatia, hoping to catch up with Muhamed's bus along the way. But they
were unable. As a last resort there was still the friend's house in Slovenia
where they could meet up. So Slovenia it had to be, unless they could
find each other at the border.
At the River Sava, the natural border between
Bosnia-Herzigovina and Croatia, thousands of people milled around, all
looking for some way across the river. The Serbs had days earlier blown
up the bridge. A ferry now transported people back and forth. There wasn't
a chance in hell Muhamed and Meli would find each other here among all
When Muhamed relates this scene at the border,
he squints and slowly shakes his head, as if the scene were unfolding
in his living room. "Thousands," he reiterates. "Absolute chaos. Mothers
with children." His eyes narrow further. "It was like Holocaust."
Muhamed had something that most people at
the border didn't--hard currency, for he knew that along borders anything
is possible with the right amount of cash. He had $5000 on him. He was
He got off the bus and walked along the
river's edge, searching for someone with a boat. He approached one fisherman
and made a deal. For $2000 the fisherman agreed to take Muhamed across.
$1000 in Bosnia, another thousand in Croatia, part of which the fisherman
would have to pay Croatian border police for ignoring how the fisherman
was making money.
Muhamed got in the boat. At once the fisherman
draped a white sheet over him, "like I was a corpse," as Muhamed describes
it. In minutes he was on the Croatian side. He was safe.
Meanwhile, Meli, Boris, and their children
waited in line to board the ferry transporting cars and people across
the river, which included the bus Muhamed was taking to Munich. Boris,
who had just been released from the hospital having suffered a heart attack,
was visibly too ill to serve in the army. He had the papers anyway to
prove it. But to be on the safe side, Boris had to find his own way onto
the ferry so as not to incriminate Meli and the children and prevent them
from getting on.
They waited six hours. When it came Meli's
turn to drive her car onto the ferry, the boat was full. The border police
would allow no more cars on the ferry. Meli pleaded, cried, and prodded
the children to cry too. It worked: the police succumbed.
The car's tail end hanging off the back
of the ferry, water seeping in at their feet, Meli and the children made
it safely across the River Sava and arrived in Croatia, as did Boris.
The border closed the next day, as the region
became embroiled in war, a war over borders, a war declared because a
majority of Serbs had gained the desire to live in an ethnically pure
society, a society closed, isolated from the world around them. At the
River Sava, border turned to barrier. The Zejcirovics managed to slip
through at the last moment.
In Sarajevo, Serb nationalists set out to
eradicate all trace of Muslim culture, first and foremost mosques. In
the Zejcirovic 's old neighborhood, the first to die were professors.
Waiting in Croatia, looking across to Bosnia
where his family waited to board the ferry, Muhamed had come to a juncture
in his life. All that mattered at the moment was for his family to get
across that river. It meant everything at that point.
When he saw their car being dragged across
the river on the back of the ferry, he broke down in elation. Leaving
Sarajevo, Muhamed wasn't sure if he would see his family again. Now he
knew he would.
Later, he would learn that two hours after
leaving their apartment in Sarajevo, Serbs occupied their neighborhood.
They killed fifty Muslims living in their building. Would have been fifty-four,
Muhamed thinks, if they hadn't gotten out when they did.
Crossing the border into Croatia, the Zejcirovics
had become refugees, people estranged from their homeland, from their
culture. But the crossing had been imperative, their survival unlikely
without it. I now have an interest in that survival, an interest that
involves more than just the fate of the Zejcirovics or Bosnia, but the
fate of my own state, and my own country.
Though Bosnia now holds a fragile peace,
thanks to American effort that went into the Dayton Peace Accord, I can't
get over this feeling that we betrayed Bosnia, a multi-cultural and multi-religious
country like our own, that we betrayed Bosnia by turning our backs on
their plight, by choosing to ignore the violence they suffered, the violence
we read about in newspapers and saw on our television screens nearly every
day for five years. I am convinced we would have ignored Kuwait too had
the Iraqi invasion not driven up the price of gasoline, had it not disturbed
our automobile-dependent lifestyle.
Muhamed's family are the first direct contact
I have to this war. I have chosen to have a stake in Bosnia. Perhaps it's
too late in terms of the war, but not in terms of Utah.
The Zejcirovics have come to depend on me,
and I have come to depend on them. As I am their link to American culture,
they are my link out of it. A rather homogenous state, slack in its embrace
of other cultures, Utahns spurn diversity, banning gay clubs in high schools,
calling for a bill instituting English as the state's official language,
demanding the removal of the United Nations flag from middle schools.
In Utah, fitting in means being culturally
the same, or pure, as Elma Zejcirovic learned from her high school math
teacher and several of her Anglo-American classmates, who continually
lampooned her Bosnian accent in class. At age eighteen, Elma speaks four
languages, three more than most Americans ever learn. But instead of respect,
she's received ridicule. Consequently, she's chosen friends who are black,
Hispanic, Tongan--who are, like her, ethnically and culturally diverse.
White and largely Mormon, leery of outsiders,
many Utahns embrace a social order that would make Ronald Reagan proud,
Jerry Falwell envious.
I, instead, embrace the Zejcirovics. I hope
they never lose their accents.
* * *
For the Zejirovics'
first Thanksgiving in America, I bake them a turkey.
For the last few months Meli has treated
me to her Bosnian cooking--meats, fish, pastries, and pastas smothered
with sauces colorful and complex. I cannot get enough of it. I would,
in fact, prefer her cooking over my culture's on this particular Thanksgiving.
But it's only right we have an exchange.
This is the first time I've prepared the
full Thanksgiving meal. I have had to call my mother to learn how to do
it. As I cut vegetables, mix the stuffing, baste the bird, and do everything
else involved in preparing the meal, I become aware of what I took for
granted the dozens of times the meal just seemed to appear on my family's
table. Cooking in the kitchen of this family from Bosnia, I learn something
of where I come from, of who I am.
In her kitchen Meli has hung a small print
of Egon Schiele's "The Dancer," a portrait of ballerina sitting with her
arms draped around one leg, her head resting on one knee, her face a study
of profound sadness. Meli calls her the refugee.
Below this portrait we sit down to the meal,
Elma and me on one side of the table, Muhammed and Nina on the other,
Meli at the head facing her refugee.
Muhamed opens a bottle of Italian chianti
and proposes a toast. To me and the turkey. No, I say, to us and this
turkey. With my glass of wine in hand I reach out across this table spread
with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. Half way I meet the
outstretched arms of this Muslim family from Bosnia.
We eat. Though I've had this meal nearly
every year of my life, it tastes different this time. It tastes richer.
It's a recurring dream I have. A train engine heaves along a circular
track pulling a string of cars. Around and around the engine chases the
caboose, the train a circle.
I stand to the side of the tracks and watch
the engine round a corner and begin to pass through a Greek temple, its
rounded ivory columns supporting a metope that spans across the tracks.
But just as the engine passes between the
columns it jumps the tracks, derailing the train and knocking over one
of the columns. The temple collapses on the cars as the derailed train
bears down on me. I awake just before the engine runs me down.
I am getting cautious. The older I get,
the more I fear speeds which might land me in a hospital. Of course, I
don't consider driving seventy miles an hour down Interstate 15 putting
myself in jeopardy. It's the other drivers I worry about, the ones coming
up in my rear view mirror and dashing to the left lane just when I can
see their faces.
But we're not here to look at faces. Eyes
to the road, to the lanes and lines. Freeways are not for socializing.
It's an autumn day in northern Utah. Dark
clouds rove from the west on a crash course with the Wasatch Mountains,
mountains haloed, mountains that look like the fronts of Gothic cathedrals.
I drive past Ogden, my hometown, on my way
north to Promontory Summit. It's only been a few weeks since I was in
Ogden last, but the place looks different somehow. It's the clouds I think,
lending a touch of sublimity to mountains as familiar to me as the faces
of my siblings. Actually, it never fails to move me--how these mountains
appear differently every time I return. The light, the clouds, the air
all seem to conspire to mutability. Like faces, their moods evident.
The interstate follows the old Salt Lake
City-Ogden passenger line--the defunct Bamberger Railroad. Boxcars line
portions of the freeways. Formerly firetruck red, blood orange, Miami
pink, the boxcars sit idle, rusting, defaced with the illegible lettering
of graffiti--the markings of gang territory that look like senseless scribbling
I bring my speed down to sixty-five. The
rain's coming down, the roads are slick, my tires bald. This, I think,
doesn't make for polite society. I have only animosity for those cooking
up speeds of ninety on a rain-slick freeway. I might have had a chat with
these same people had we been on a train, had we not pitted ourselves
in isolation on the freeway.
A Mack rig pulling three hitches passes
me on the left, broadsiding my car with rain water, momentarily preventing
me from seeing out. I accelerate my windshield wiper and tune into a classical
music station for something to calm my nerves. Vivaldi, I should have
known. They always play the Four Seasons on days typical of the
season. But I'm not sure which season I'm listening to. It all sounds
like "Autumn" to me.
I pull over in Brigham City for a bite to
eat. I stop in at a diner and take a seat at the empty counter. A couple
walks in as soon as I sit down. They both look as though they've just
crawled off motorcycles and out of decades of drinking cheap whiskey.
The guy has a bi-level haircut, short in front, long in the back--the
kind of haircut that always makes me think of guys who drag the boulevard
in muscle pickups on a Saturday night in Ogden.
They sit down next to me. For Christ's sake,
I think, every goddamn place at this counter is free and they have to
sit next to me.
"How's it goin', buddy?" the guy says to
"Fine," I say, as I open my notebook and
start writing something, anything to indicate that I am not in the mood
for small talk. I think about moving to a booth, but change my mind, fearing
it would be too obvious that I am avoiding him. Better not make a scene,
I look across the diner and see an older
couple sitting at a booth, both of them eating fried chicken legs with
their hands. Across from them is a middle-aged man with a cup of coffee
placed down in front of him. He slumps in his seat, his arms spread-eagled
across the back of his booth, his face haggard, his eyes listless.
"That your diesel parked out front?" the
guy eating chicken asks.
"Yup," the guy with the coffee replies.
"Always thought truck drivin' would be a
good way to make a livin," the guy eating chicken says. "Good life?"
"Well," the truck driver says, "it ain't
a heavy labor job, but sure is a heavy pressure one. It's gittin' worse
too, especially here in Utah with all that damn construction on I-15.
People er gittin' crazier and crazier, angry it'd seem. One stupid move
and I am jackknifed."
"Road rage," the guy eating chicken says.
"Damn legislature should a fixed this traffic problem long time ago. It's
just too late now."
Slumped over my hamburger and fries, I want
to tell the guy eating chicken that we made our first mistake when we
stopped riding the train. But it's not my place to get involved.
"Me and my wife always wanted to travel
cross country. We're lookin' at buyin' ourselves an RV."
I stuff the last of my hamburger in my mouth,
pay up, and pull out of Brigham City.
On my way out of town I realize how little
patience I have for some people in Utah. They seem so predictable to me,
ready at once to talk about the obvious, ready to bitch about interstate
reconstruction but never consider the alternatives to driving, like taking
a bus or riding a train (that is, if we had a commuter train in Utah).
Taking a bus or train means sacrificing an amount of privacy. And privacy,
especially private property, is of paramount importance here in Utah.
Insular, I think, we are so goddamn insular
in this state.
I know I am not being fair. I know I'm even
being a little hypocritical. It must be the weather, the drive, the dangerous
drivers on the road. My frame of mind, itself insular. Maybe I'm suffering
a little road rage myself. Whatever it is, I'm in no mood to deal with
I head west around the northeast portion
of Great Salt Lake, past the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, through
marshes. Instead of birds, I spot the heads of hunters bobbing up and
down in the tall grass, the barrels of their guns resting on their shoulders.
I also see more railroad cars, rusting, going nowhere.
I am on my way to Promontory Summit to contemplate
the significance of that moment on May 10, 1869, when the golden spike,
the last spike, was driven, linking the east and west coasts, marking
the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
At the time it was a scary prospect for
the people of Utah, to have their isolation ruined by a railroad. It was
a vehicle of transformation, bringing an influx of people here from around
the world. Irish, Italians, Germans, Chinese--all tugging at the Mormon
social fabric, a completely homogenous fabric woven together by an unquestioning
adherence to church doctrine.
After the completion of the Transcontinental,
my hometown of Ogden became the railroad hub of the Intermountain West.
It also became a volatile site of contention between Mormons and non-Mormons
(otherwise known as Gentiles).
Along Ogden's Twenty-fifth Street, saloons,
hotels, and whorehouses serving transients replaced blacksmith shops,
emporiums, and general stores serving settlers. In the minds of the Mormon
founders, corruption and rebellion took up residence in Ogden. In a travelogue
called From the Pacific to the Atlantic, the author W.B. Johnson
spends a few days in Ogden. He has a conversation with a Mormon farmer,
who speaks his mind about the railroad.
"How was it before the railroad arrived in town? We were a happy,
peaceful people. Not a saloon in town; no drinking or gambling places
to be found. How is it today? Go down Twenty-Fifth Street; look into those
drinking hells. The proprietors are not Mormons. No, they are Gentiles,
formerly Missouri rebels during the Rebellion; they are the ones who make
the most noise."
Now the question is: how was it after the railroad left town? Photographs
of Twenty-fifth Street from the turn of the century to World War II show
street cars making their way through crowds of people, past Chinese laundries,
past a theater topped with a Russian-style onion dome, past restaurants
specializing in oysters, past saloons sporting ornate neo-Classical façades.
Since the expiration of the passenger train, Twenty-fifth has become a
listless street of empty lots, bikers' bars, and pawn shops, despite recent
attempts to spruce it up with new restaurants, cafes, and antique shops.
Union Station, built in the Spanish mission
style, the source of the energy found in the early photographs, now stands
as a memorial to itself.
As does Promontory Summit, now the Golden
Spike National Historic Site. Trains, both passenger and freight, no longer
run through Promontory Summit, not since the construction of the Lucin
Cutoff, a trestle stretching across Great Salt Lake that made the northern
route around the lake, through Promontory Summit, obsolete.
Researching Utah's history, perusing photographs
and reading old newspapers, I can't get over the feeling that, with the
expiration of the passenger train, we lost a tremendous social and cultural
fabric, a fabric that made up in diversity and vibrancy for what it lacked
in adherence to Mormon and other Christian dogma. Myriad and colorful
in composition, it was a fabric synched together by the railroad, a vehicle
transporting communities and delivering them across borders.
And no crossing was greater than the Transcontinental,
which I now follow, but in my car, on a rainy autumn day in 1997.
About twenty miles past the bird refuge,
I drive past Thiokol, an aerospace corporation that manufactures rockets,
missiles, and space shuttle boosters. Scattered hodgepodge across the
face of the Promontory foothills, Thiokol resembles a mining town, except
for the shoe box buildings plunked down on the bare hillsides and connected
by huge swaths of road.
I pull over to have a look at Thiokol's
display of missiles and rockets. There are about ten of them, each one
an impressive show of potency and might unto itself, each one directed
to separate corners of the heavens. More so than by the seemingly-intentional
phallic design of these crafts, I am struck by the singularity of purpose
they exhibit. Each one of them seems shaped by one overarching idea--to
propel these hunks of metal as far away from earth and mankind as possible.
I get back on the highway, where signs on
the side of the road, erected by Thiokol, implore, "Slow Down, Don't Rush
Safety." I drive past another huge metal shed decorated with an enormous
American flag. Tacked up next to the flag, another sign reads, "Think
Safety, Act Safely."
I put a heavy foot to the gas and continue
on my way up to Promontory Summit.
Isolation. This is the first thing that
comes to mind when I enter the monument. The place evokes a sense of estrangement,
an odd sense for a site that staged one of the most pivotal events in
American history--the meeting of the rails, the linking of one coast of
the United States to the other.
The summit lies at the north end of the
Promontory Mountains, a range jutting southward into the Great Salt Lake.
The land bristles with sagebrush, juniper, and limestone outcroppings.
Most of the tracks are gone, their steel spikes extracted, smelted, and
used for building armaments during World War II.
But the grade laid by the Union Pacific
remains. Imprinted on the land, the grade charts a weaving course to the
summit that I can imagine a weary, exhausted man taking after walking
hundreds of miles. Heaps of dirt, dug out from the land to level the grade,
form contours in the land that have melded with the natural landscape.
I pull up to the monument headquarters,
a flat-roofed building that reminds me of the structures I saw at Thiokol.
Besides the ranger, the only people here are a German couple who seem
rather amused that our country would even go to the trouble to create
a monument here on this desolate piece of land, where there is hardly
anything left of May 10th, 1869 but memory and landscape.
I walk outside and stand where the final
spike was, according the newspaper report made at the time, "attached
to the telegraph wires in such a way that at each stroke of the hammer,
the blow was heard in all the offices from San Francisco to New York,
and throughout the land."
Documenting the meeting of the rails is
a photograph by A.J. Russell. In it the two steam engines used to transport
supplies, Central Pacific's Jupiter and Union Pacific's No.
119, face each other cowcatcher to cowcatcher along the single
Transcontinental track at the point where the two railroads met, where
the golden spike was driven. A crowd of dignitaries and laborers from
each railroad stand before the engines. Several other laborers perch on
top of the engines, intent on having their faces part of this history-making
moment. Two of these laborers stand opposite each other on the two cowcatchers,
reaching out with bottles of champagne in their hand. It appears they
are conducting a toast to one another, a toast to the occasion, to the
meeting. Russell uses this toast as the focal point of the photograph.
Standing on ground that might have absorbed
the champagne spilled from the bottles in Russell's photograph, I recall
who it was that labored on these lines: the Irish, Germans, and Italians
who worked for the Union Pacific out of Omaha, and the Chinese, who worked
for the Central Pacific out of Sacramento. People from other sides of
the world, meeting here in the unlikeliest of places amidst the sagebrush
and limestone outcroppings in the middle of a continent separating west
Europe from east Asia. This, I think, was the true meeting, and the best
promise of that moment in 1869, when trains now ran in defiance of the
boundaries and borders set between states, between nations, between people.
I await the thrill that I hoped would accompany
standing at such an historical spot. But it's the rain, the silence, the
isolation that hold my attention. I sink deeper into my coat, trying to
ward off any seepage.
For places like the former Czechoslovakia
and the former Yugoslavia (now a patchwork of territories sewn through
with barriers along ethnic and religious lines), that promise of 1869
didn't hold. In Utah, we have consigned that promise to a national monument
that not many people care to visit.
It's disparaging--that, having come to this
remote corner of Utah to contemplate the significance of the Transcontinental
and the diversity of culture it brought with it to Utah, I've turned up
a feeling of estrangement, and weapons of America's defense, weapons used
only when America's economic interest are at stake, and not when a culture
is at the precipice of extermination.
I get back in my car to return home, saddened
it has to be this way.
a spot on the Weber River near the mouth of Weber Canyon where the river
is dammed. Just upstream from the dam, where the water is deep, is where
I take my two dogs, Sam and Flurry, swimming. I have returned to Utah
after several years of being abroad. The dogs and I go to this spot on
the river every day.
Running parallel with the river on the opposite
side are train tracks that were a segment of the original Transcontinental
railway. On most days at the river, a Union or Southern Pacific chugs
its way past. The engine drivers waves. I return the gesture.
Despite the noise, I welcome the train like
I welcome the river. Both have a persistent motion that lures me here--the
train surging on its track, the river coursing through its bed.
But I also like to see my dogs swim against
that motion, Sam in particular. I give each of them turns. Flurry, the
full-bred Newfoundland born to swim, then Sam, her half-labrador son who
can swim circles around most humans I know.
As soon as the stick leaves my hand, Sam
dives into the river. I make sure the stick lands at some point upstream,
so he can snag the stick before it floats too far downstream. The current
fights against the line he chooses to pursue his stick. But no matter
how strong the current, Sam maintains his course to that point in the
river where he and the stick meet. When he reaches that point, he hoists
himself from the water and snaps his jaws around the stick in a two-part
motion that seems as fluid as the river. Having achieved his purpose,
he swings himself around to deliver the stick at my feet, so he can again
indulge in the satisfaction of retrieval.
I share in his satisfaction. No matter how
far I fling the stick into the river (it could be to the tracks on the
other side), I can rely on Sam and the stick returning, despite the threat
that the current may sweep them both downriver.
To Georgia, back to Utah. To Virginia, again
back to Utah. To the former Czechoslovakia, once more back to Utah. Again
and again I depart. Like Sam's, my departures are double-edged: they signal
a going-away, but portend a return.
Watching the trains and the river go by,
I take a few steps into the stream, feeling the water brush up and flow
around my knees, remembering that it was exactly this force, this movement,
that created this canyon, this piece of my home.
In a few short months, I will once more
depart Utah and go to Prague. From there, I will travel to Sarajevo, where
I will live with the Zejcirovic 's relatives. I would have liked to take
the train from Prague to Sarajevo, but all the railroad lines crossing
the border into Bosnia are now under reconstruction. This time, I'll settle
for taking a plane.
Watching Sam fetch another stick, I try
to imagine how different my life will be when I return to Utah from Sarajevo.
But I am unable to project myself that far into the future, despite my
best attempts to do so.
From Sam I turn my attention downstream
to where the river is dammed. The sun glints off the waves as water laps
up against the concrete wall and spills out the drainage, easing the force
pent up in this section of the river.
I stand in the current, my feet sunk into
the river bed, mud squeezed between my toes. The water rushes against
the back of my knees, threatening to topple me. My eyes instinctively
rove forward and back, trying to keep up with a point in the river I've
focused on. I lose my equilibrium this way. To regain it I have to look
to the immobile shore, where Flurry is off tracking some scent she's found
in the driftwood.
Since the first day I met the Zejcirovic
family, I have longed to go to Sarajevo, to see the beautiful, battered
city with my own eyes. Their stories have swept me away, fueling my desire
to cross the geographical threshold impeding the way between their war-torn
city and me.
I wade back to shore from the middle of
the river. As I emerge Sam nudges the stick to my feet with his nose,
his tail a wagging blur of black fur and water. I stroke his head and
rub his ears. But Sam has something other than my affections on his mind.
I pick up the stick and cock my arm back. He's off before the stick even
leaves my hand.