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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Teutonia and Beyond: Meeting of the Rails
by F. S. Brewer
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Four of us board in Zurich, all bound for Munich. Two Germans, a Serb, and me.
     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 feet.      
     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 since Spain.
     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 Jana, lives.
     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 for centuries.
     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 falling rain."
     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. Meli acquiesced.
     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 these people.
     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 prepared.
     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 to me.
     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 me.
     "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 decide.
     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 people.
     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.

* * *

There is 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.

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