Saturday, November 03, 2007

Starting from Iowa City

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
lone wandering)

- 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.

12 comments:

SzélsőFa said...

I liked how the description of the road follows anything in sight and perception here.
Will this be published, too?
Did you make photos back then?
Do you plan to re-take the very same road...just to see how things have changed?

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, this segment alone could be expanded to fill chapters. You really have been on the road most of your life, haven't you?

Charles Gramlich said...

I like the attention to detail here. I like that you set up the reason for the trip. Is the narrator going to have any conflicts with anyone on the road?

steve said...

Szelsofa--I plan to send it in to Classic Trains Magazine once I get through with it. Another piece of this article is "Then Came Bronson-A View from the Cutting-Room Floor," which is in the July 2007 archives. I noticed that you had quoted Bierce in your blog. That same archive has a recycled article called "The Bierce Curse," with the real reason the Cubs didn't make it to the World Series in 2004. I have some pictures, especially on the caboose ride from Idaho Falls to Victor. They're not of magazine quality, though. Unfortunately I don't have the time or the money to repeat the trip. And barring a working time machine, I can't repeat the rail journey.

Karen--One of the advantages of having divorced parents it gave me the opportunity to ride a lot of trains as a teenager, although this trip was more personal.

Charles--This is actually nonfiction--I really did take this trip. No real conflicts, although I did sit next to a guy who was convinced that the Masons were conspiring to take over the world, and that fact that a Mason had run off with his wife was all part of the plot. He was headed for Twin Falls, Idaho to rescue his wife from the evil Masonic clutches.

Peter said...

Steve, your tone and voice always draw me in. Let us know when and where it gets published so I can continue the trip.

SzélsőFa said...

Hi there,

I've found some material about St. Margaret of Scotland, who really was a granddaughter of St. Stephen, Hungary's first Christian king.

YourFireAnt said...

Nice to discover this blog today. I'lll be back tomorrow to read more. The trains is what drew me. I travel mainly by train.

FA

steve said...

Szelsofa--Thanks again for your research.

Fire ant--Thank you for visiting my blog. I haven'r done a lot of posts about train travel, though I may have something shortly. I've sold two articles to Classic Trains--one about a trip I took in 1966 in Iowa, and another on my trainriding experiences in the "Magic Summer" of 1967, but the articles have yet to be published. I have an article in the current issue of Remember the Rock (see "A Shameless, but, alas, Profitless Plug."). Thanks again for visiting.

Lisa said...

You have a great voice and I love road stories. I hope we have a chance to read more of this, or you'll tell us where we can find more.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Steve

Thank you for visiting my blog. I've replied there where I can see your comment so please do drop by again some time soon.

I fully endorse what you said on your next post about genocide. We have a long way to go and I'm not sure we're making any progress, when you look at what goes on around this globe of ours. I'm afraid I tend to take refuge in fiction.

Keep in touch.

Dave Darby said...

Very cool and informative. One correction though. The village was not named for Atalissa Davis, it was the other way around. Captain Bill Lundy, who founded Atalissa was at a Calfornia Mining camp named Atalissa, after an Indian princess, and was so enamoured of the name, that he named his town thusly. He then had a contest, offering a free corner lot to the first girl born in Atalissa to be named such. Atalissa Davis was the winner of the lot.

steve said...

Dave--Thank you for the details. I used the WPA "Guide to the Hawkeye State" as a source for the origin of the name Atalissa. Your version is certainly more colorful. When I get around to finishing the story, I'll make the correction.