My grandmother decided to change her name on the train ride to college. In 1942, somewhere between Jersey City and Ann Arbor, girlhood and adulthood, Northeastern urban sprawl and lush Michigan green, summer and fall, Ruth Tartalsky became Lea Tartalsky. Or so the story goes.
I loved this tidbit when I was little. I pictured my grandmother, sitting in a little cabin or perhaps a lounge car, watching the scenery unfold flipbook-style and reimagining the rest of her life. Would Lea stay out later than Ruth? How would she dress? Who would she date? What work would she do? When the time came, would she dye her hair or let it go gray?
These days, I imagine the scene slightly differently. My grandmother was seventeen when she left for college. I am twenty. While I will never know whether my grandmother’s decision was premeditated, I wonder whether a train trip might be a clarifying experience for me, too. Having grown up in Japan, I wrestle with identity questions of my own.
My travel companion, another foreign Yalie, and I board the train in Oakland just before 10 a.m. It is overcast in the Bay Area, but by the time we hit Sacramento, an hour and a half later, the land has flattened a little, and we can see sunlight nudging at its edges. Welcome aboard the California Zephyr. California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, all in 51 hours and 20 minutes. Save for the two bookends, these are all new states in my repertoire. I got a late start after a childhood spent overseas, but since I moved stateside for college, I’ve been working on adding more of America to the list. Armed with a tub of peanut butter and a liter jug of water, we take our seats, get comfy, get ready.
We would travel the length of the train line with only a stop in Denver, just past the halfway point between Oakland and Chicago. On the first day there are volunteer docents on board, two whiskery men in vests whose narration is piped into each cabin. They talk about historic towns, a special type of tree and the Rocky Mountains. Some passengers stare idly out the window at the remarked-on landscape rolling by; others stare at the solitaire games on their cell phones. The Zephyr, while advertised as one of the most beautiful train lines across North America, is also, for some, the easiest way to get from point A to point B. To many of my fellow passengers, this scenery is every day — pretty but commonplace, something they’ll get to see again if they miss it this time. Indeed, when we hit Reno in the afternoon, much of the train empties out. The locals travelling with just a handbag or backpack will get home just in time for dinner.
Those who remain are long-haulers, travelling the length of the line. The wise old man, the chatty woman in the rainbow tie-dye T-shirt, the skinny guy from Colorado armed with shooters of flavored whiskey who introduces himself as Jim. A woman with shaggy black hair and a tree tattooed on the inside of each forearm seems to really know her way around. I overhear her tell Jim, who is obviously enamored of her, about her adventures out west. She’s on her way home to Chicago, back to work after a vacation. She prefers traveling by train and finds it relaxing, cheaper too and definitely worth the extra time.
The following morning, we all gather in the lounge car as Utah gives way to Colorado. It’s lighter in here, glass windows all up along the car’s ceiling and sides. Every upholstered seat emanates the faint smell of potato chips. I hear the woman with the tree tattoos mention that she is twenty like me, which I probably should have expected but find shocking.
The land we breeze through this morning is road-less and people-less, canyon walls on either side with just our train in shady expanse between them. The rocks are sun-bleached, and the desert shrubbery looks a little prehistoric. I overhear Jim tell stories of his childhood — man, I used to just go for walks every day, just to see this rugged empty land. I imagine him as a little boy, pretending to be Butch Cassidy and running past where the road ends.
On the train, it’s impossible to ignore the vastness and multiplicity of American landscapes. On planes you forget that the rest of the world exists, and in a car or bus you feel every bump and watch every turn. The Zephyr paints a picture. It’s the marvel of train travel: passing the Rocky Mountains and San Pablo Bay and the endless tawny desert in Northwestern Nevada and admiring how swiftly and impossibly one American landscape becomes the next. Do you know how easily red rocks replace snow caps and grass replaces sand?
I grew up learning about America through chapter books and postcard cliches (“Howdy from Vegas!” “25 Miles of Beach via South Shore Line!”) from the other side of the world. Past canyons and coastline, the Sierra Nevadas and the Forty Mile Desert, in the chipper exclamations of the Zephyr’s docents and the asides of its passengers, I look for motifs and sentiments that feel true. What can I claim as my own? Can I imagine playing Butch Cassidy as a child? Every time we enter new terrain I catch myself searching for the familiar in unlikely and novel places.
Three days later, I wake up just as we are passing into Iowa. We had been told that this final leg of the trip was the boring part, a dull finale to the drama of the Wild West. Iowa is a flyover state and a chug-through one too. I migrate to the lounge car once again and watch the sun come up on dusty fields of Iowan corn. The tableau is yellowed like an old photograph with huge, voluminous clouds peppering an endless midwestern sky. Think tornadoes and tumbleweed. Grandma Moses. Laura Ingalls Wilder. The plains and two-lane highways look like everything they are supposed to look like.
As a child I used to fall asleep dreaming of cornfields and bales of hay. To my young and untrained eye, America did not look like the rough Atlantic shore or jagged mountains, bayous or bright Pacific light. It was all about the flat and empty Midwest. Outside of the lounge car I now see an imagined fantasy come to life. Having grown up American on foreign soil, I never expect to experience a sense of rootedness just at the sight of Iowa’s expansive plains. Here is a recognition that I could feel at home in America, that there is scenery here that feels familiar and evocative to me.
Lea’s train traveled westbound in 1942, going through Pennsylvania and Ohio before heading up into Michigan. We are traveling east, to the other side of the lake. Our routes, then, come just shy of meeting in the middle, exactly 75 years apart. In my imagination, my grandmother resolved to change her name in the middle of Ohio. It was overcast but bright; grassy plains extended in every direction. There, chugging away from everything she knew, Lea performed the ultimate act of independence and rebranded herself.
Unlike her, our final destination is an afterthought, second fiddle to the journey itself. Not to mention, I am arriving in Chicago bearing the same name I left Oakland with. Where my grandmother was looking to find — or else invent — something new, I hope to discover a place that felt familiar. Rather than invent a fresh identity for myself, I look for reason to grow into the one I have always possessed.