Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas
Going Home

Getting there is not the plan, I just like the feel of going home - John Hiatt

The slow rhythmic sway of the train, a message sent from the sleepers, telegraphed up through the wheels to where Hank sat in the window seat was comforting, hypnotizing. Outside the window the night slipped by, shadows of phantom trees alternating with glimpses of a sky punctuated by the occasional star shining dimly through the threatening cloud cover.  Settling deeper into the leather seat, he conjured up a mental map of the trains progress. The Sacramento Valley, Sierra Nevada and Great Basin behind him: the Wasatchs, red rock country and Rockies ahead. Hank was content to let the miles pass, relentlessly moving him toward the rising sun.

California behind, Colorado ahead: movement providing solace, a respite from urgency, a pilfered day or two with no need to excuse inaction.  Ties to California loosened by a shrinking family and the tedium of coastal overcrowding, not yet replaced by commitment to the poor sketch of a plan carried loosely in his unfocused mind.

Cresting the Wasatch Range, the rising sun illuminating a light snowfall as the train followed a narrow river canyon into a hardscrabble railroad and mining town. Rolling by the plain brick station, passing slowly by tired storefronts, muddy backyards and quiet dawn streets. A village trying to coax prosperity from the residue of a bypassed economy. He wondered why people stayed; a sense of place, lack of options, inertia or a complex mix. 

Was it possible to feel a sense of place for movement? Could motion replace the feeling of home; wandering replace the need to be rooted? Leaving the familiarity of California inspired a sweet melancholy. A syrupy sadness, but not an overwhelming sense of loss. Family memories, both good and bad; the baseball team he grew up with; an intimate knowledge of twisting backroads; beaches where he learned to body surf; the native vegetation blooming after the occasional wet winter: a very short list of what he would miss.

As a gregarious conductor entertained the passengers, Hank turned away to watch the red-rock country of Utah unfold. Eroded by wind and water, the landscape was carved into a labyrinth of cliffs and canyons, begging to be explored; calling for him to walk without a plan, weaving randomly through the sage, following canyons that would lead him nowhere, providing beauty as his reward.  Closing his eyes he could feel coolness of the deep shade beneath the cliffs and the soft sunlight and artificial warmth of a late afternoon sun striving to reach the canyon floor. Ranch roads, dirt, gravel or broken asphalt crossed the sage. In his imagination they led to weathered compounds; a small house, outbuildings and corrals. Perhaps occupied, with a battered pickup in the yard and a couple of horses or possibly abandoned, a testimony to struggle and a hard life in the pursuit of belonging to the land, to place. 

Relentlessly, the train consumed miles, his destination growing closer with each turn of the steel wheels.  A destination chosen for reasons he only partly understood. He could quote a list: open space; clean thin air; the smell of sage; silence; a yearning for a  home and the chance to graft his life into a community, to develop a sense of place. An opportunity to replace fatigue with energy. Behind the reasons, a gnawing doubt that he was engaged in a fools errand. A fear that he would remain a permanent tourist.

Riding the California Zephyr in reverse, Hank crossed the border into Colorado, the next stop, his. Slipping an unread paperback into his backpack he wrestled with the idea of extending his ticket and continuing east with the train, sinking into the languid security of the swaying train as it chewed up endless miles. Understanding that committing to continual movement was foolish, impractical; the idea was nonetheless comforting. As the train decelerated into the station, Hank walked toward the door, waited for it to slide open and stepped onto the station platform.

A cold wind swept across the open sage plain, flowing down directly from the high country. Hank took a deep breath of the crisp air as the Zephyr accelerated out of the station leaving him alone, backpack at his feet, surrounded by silence.