While I do have a mystery story that's almost ready to send out, and the beginnings of a fantasy novel, I've actually sold autobiographical pieces about rail journeys. I've been working on this one intermittently, and thought I'd share the opening paragraphs:
Here I go again
crossing the country in coach trains
(back to my old
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco”
Jack Kerouac, in his Beat Generation classic On the Road, describes U.S. Highway 6 as “one long red line that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles.” One early morning in June of 1969, I headed down that red line on my Raleigh Sports bicycle, riding east in preparation for a trip west.
During my senior year of high school I had worked as a stock boy at Scott’s Variety Store in Iowa City, and had saved up enough money for my trip. I’d be going out to the Grand Tetons to visit my high school sweetheart, who, with her mother, was working at a ranch near Dubois, Wyoming. I would take trains as far as Victor, Idaho, then bicycle over Teton Pass, through the park, and over Togwotee Pass to Dubois. But the Rock Island had eliminated checked baggage service to Iowa City. The nearest place to check my bike was Rock Island, Illinois. So I was riding east to go west.
Across much of Iowa and Illinois, U.S. 6 follows the Great Rock Island Route. The tracks were out sight on the first leg of my ride, from Iowa City to just outside West Liberty, where I struggled up a humpback bridge over the railroad, then pedaled hard on the way down to build up momentum. Biking up the gradual rise into town, I crossed the old Zephyr Rocket route. One U.S. 6 landmark, a favorite of Iowa Writers’ Workshop students, was the Frigid Queen. Its soft-serve cones weren’t any better than those of Dairy Queen or Tastee-Freez, but in those days, every budding writer had to drive out to that place with the Freudian slip of a name.
I rode on through West Liberty, and up and down the rolling hills of eastern Iowa. At Atalissa (named for Atalissa Davis, the first white child born in the village) there was another humpback bridge, this one with a bend in the middle. Both the West Liberty and Atalissa overpasses have since been replaced with grade crossings.
Just beyond Atalissa, U.S. 6 drops into the Cedar River valley, with a long level stretch of road along the bottomlands. I shifted into high gear for the downhill, trying to keep up the momentum until the inevitable climb back out of the valley. Also inevitable were the red-winged blackbirds who swooped down at my head to defend their roadside nests.
Once out of the valley, I followed Route 6 to the left and once more over the Rock Island tracks, then turned right into Wilton Junction. The branchline from there to Muscatine had long since been abandoned, but the town had yet to change its name back to plain Wilton. It had a respectable brick depot, but no trains stopped there.