North Carolina writer Anna Raglan was delighted to find that Amtrak’s conductors still called out these words to passengers before departing the station. In her new travelogue The Train From Greenville, Raglan, a kind and wise friend of mine, describes a journey she made by rail from Greenville, South Carolina, to Seattle and back again.
A wife, mother, and professional in her mid-50s, Raglan was apprehensive about the trip. She packed and repacked her luggage, had a friend help her make the reservation by phone, and nervously kept an eye on her luggage while onboard.
Raglan takes her readers along with her on her way across the country and shows them the pleasures of train travel, which include the opportunity to see the American landscape and to meet people from all around the country.
The Train From Greenville is a good book, wise in its observations of Raglan’s railway companions, accepting of their eccentricities, and gentle in tone, but that’s not why I am writing about it here. No—what deserves a deeper look is the sadness of this book, a sorrow entirely unintended by the author.
You see, though The Train From Greenville is newly published, Raglan made her trip in 2011. That time, and the people she describes, seem to have lived not just a decade ago, but a century. It is startling looking back at who we once were.
On that train were blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians, and at least one Native American. Raglan spent a good bit of time with a tattooed man who loves drag racing and the music of Bruce Springsteen. Eventually, he told her a harrowing story about how he killed a man who had tried to assault him in self-defense. She conversed with a Native American hired by Amtrak to share stories of Indians and the West with the passengers. Her seat companions ranged from a female veteran of these trips to a quiet young man wearing dreadlocks.
And though Raglan overheard a few political conversations, nowhere on her train do we encounter the acrimony so commonly found today in our mainstream media. Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, the savage political assaults on presidents and politicians, and the laments over America’s faults: not a word. And of course, the COVID pandemic with its fearmongering, lockdowns, masks, and mandates were not even a whisper in the wind back in 2011.
No, these trains, the beauty of the country they rolled through, and the Americans who rode them represent what America was about back then, a people united in purpose—in this case, getting to a destination—and helping one another along the way. Again and again we see these men and women offering assistance to their fellow travelers, helping a blind woman find a seat, sharing food and treats, and making certain not to crowd the person seated beside them. Other than a nervous, easily angered woman Raglan refers to as Birdie, and a man upset by a delay in the timetable, these people displayed those traits foreigners have long thought of as American: optimism, cheerfulness, and a can-do attitude with lots of smiles.
Above I mentioned the miserable contrast between now and 10 years ago. But as I reflect on the matter, I also see The Train From Greenville as a sign of hope and rejuvenation, a reminder of who we were and who we are. Surely all of us know friends, family, and neighbors like those on the train, good-hearted people who looked out for one another and who have carried on through these last two miserable years.
We are a people who were born in a revolution, fought a civil war, who helped to save the world from fascism and communism, and who, despite our flaws, have made enormous changes throughout our history, looking for justice and liberty for all. The fearmongering of the current pandemic, the heavy-handed efforts by government to order us about and so diminish our liberties, the insane spending by Congress, the foreign policy failures: these have damaged the American spirit, but they cannot kill it—unless we throw in the towel out of despair.
One chapter of The Train From Greenville is titled “We Are Here Together.” Let’s make those words one of our banners. Let’s turn our backs on those contemptible people working so hard to divide us and remember we are all Americans.