Rails Across America, Part 1

I just spent seventy-two hours in Yazoo City, Mississippi, seeing, learning, and doing absolutely everything I can. Leaving this place after what seems to be a short period of time, I feel I have learned an impossible amount about this town of 11,403. The town was once a vibrant place that has fallen on hard times; once a lumbering and industrial city, now home to several passing interstates, a growing of complex of federal prisons, and a punctured lung of a main street.  I could tell you the story of the Yazoo Witch, who burned the town to the ground in 1904 or why Simmons Catfish Farm spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a levee around its perimeter.  I could tell you much, much more (if you’d be interested, of course).

Here’s how I got here: I’m a twenty-year old rising junior at Middlebury, and I’m taking trains across and around America for seven weeks.

Why?

It is in the same way that I could enumerate any number of reasons why my brother would eat all the family’s strawberries—from gluttony to hunger—that I can attribute my motivation for embarking on this trip to myriad causes.

Each of my reasons for taking this trip is, to a degree, honest and valid. Among the ones I am aware of: [1] escapism; [2] domestic exploration, because I’ve been abroad but America is still the world’s greatest; [3] patriotism and a search to understand my identity as an American [4] a love for small towns, which are unfortunately evaporating everywhere; [5] academic interest.

Here’s what I’m doing: To give my travels a specific and defined purpose, I am planning to write a report that compares and contrasts eight small towns across America.  More details can be found here. The eight small towns in the order that I will visit them are as follows:

1.    Yazoo City, Mississippi
2.    Cadillac, Michigan
3.    Astoria, Oregon
4.    Trinidad, Colorado
5.    Fort Madison, Iowa
6.    Malvern, Arkansas
7.    Connersville, Indiana
8.    Wells, Maine

As the previous hyperlinks suggest, I’m chronicling many of day-to-day activities, interactions, and epiphanies on my blog, though with an unfortunate lag of a couple days.

Additionally, I will be writing regular dispatches here for Middlebury Magazine throughout the course of my trip, which I will structure as prose summaries of each town I visit.

I’m an economics major, so you can readily expect that my investigations and descriptions of these towns will be noticeably tilted by this “follow-the-money” instinct. With this said, I am overdue to write a piece on Yazoo City and will have another about Cadillac, Michigan, where I’m just now finishing my three-day stint.

I will get these out ASAP.  Please do send any comments, questions, or miscellaneous feedback, no matter how critical, mundane, or celebratory it might be.

Editor’s note on July 30: Earlier versions of this dispatch included the incorrect name of a municipality in Maine. The correct name is Wells, Maine. 

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  1. Hi Ryan —
    What an original and exciting idea! Looking forward to your blogs.

  2. Hi Ryan,
    One of your mom’s Smithie friends here. I love your passion for self-exploration as well as academic exploration and your adventurous spirit!

    Curious, how did you choose these small towns?

    Susan

  3. Hi Ryan,
    What an incredible experience, and one that you will always remember. I still remember my high school family vacation driving across the US, but doing it by train is much more adventurous. We have relatives that moved from Connorsville, IND to Plainsfield, IND in case you need any input. Have a wonderful trip.
    Love,
    Mrs. Rabosky

  4. Hi Ryan, I love “I’ve been abroad but America is still the world’s greatest.” I agree!!! This is the most amazing country in the history of mankind. As an econ major you’ll appreciate that America has been the country of the greatest affluence for its citizens than any country in the world. I hope at the end of your trip you will love the United States more than ever. That’s how I feel after every trip abroad. Traveling mercies, Ryan, and can’t wait to hear more.

  5. Hi Ryan,
    What a great adventure. I work at the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, AR (about an hour from Malvern) and would love to talk to you about the possibility of a short interview during your time in Malvern. You can email me at jdean@kark.com. Hope you’re enjoying your trip.

  6. Are you curious about locomotion? Healing, rest and discovery? Perhaps the reporter in LR will take you over to the Cottonbelt Railway Museum in PIne Blluff or to Hot Springs for the treatments?

  7. Ryan – I am a 1993 grad, work for the Indiana Brownfields Program, and have a good relationship with the Mayor of Connersville. We’ve been working on redevelopment of the former Visteon plant there and it is an interesting lesson in brownfields redevelopment, job loss/attraction, etc. Feel free to contact me at mgramels@ifa.in.gov if you are interested in hearing more or trying to touch base with the Mayor, Leonard Urban, to discuss the City of Connersville’s efforts to revive their job market, deal with contaminated properties, etc. Meredith Gramelspacher

  8. Ryan,

    Did you bring your psychology texts with you for the long train rides?

  9. Your plan sounds great. I wish I could come. I confess little experience in shall towns. I was a CITY manager for many years. Here I am writing this on my 60th wedding anniversity. I wish you well.

  10. Ryan,
    Sounds like a great plan. Good luck! I have been a lot of places, but never been to any of those towns. I will read with interest. I am currently at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch halfway between. Bozeman and West Yellowstone, Montana. This is Janet’s and my 23rd year coming to this ranch. All our kids have learned to ride horses here. We are headed out shortly to ride the high peaks of the Taylors. Check out the website http://.ninequartercircleranch.com.

    Churchill
    Middlebury ’71

  11. What a fantastic idea! Buen viajes! I look forward to hearing more about your journey in the fall.

    Abhishek

  12. Ryan,
    Having grown up in a small town in Vermont makes me anxious to hear about the areas and people you visit. The amazing stories that will be shared with you will be priceless.

    I’m looking forward to your blog.
    Enjoy your trip!

    Best,
    Linda

  13. It was a pleasure speaking with you this past week and seeing a young person taking the time to learn about the different areas of this country makes me feel good about the future. The more you know via the informal training of travel the better you know different approaches to business, people and how to get along.

    Best of Luck!

  14. Hi Ryan,
    I am a summer resident of Maine, and have been part of Maine all my life, and have never heard of Astoria; also, I just consulted the DeLorme atlas, the definitive map-book of that state, and there is no listing for Astoria. Could you have meant Augusta, the State capitol, (to which there is no train service)? The only train service, at present, is from southern Maine to Portland.
    Just curious.
    Good luck !

  15. Peter,
    The town in Maine, as corrected above, is actually Wells, Maine. Thank you for catching the mistype.
    Best,
    Ryan

  16. Enjoy Astoria and the Oregon Coast! It is known for it’s beauty and OR is my home state and I miss it so.
    Best,
    Grace

  17. Ryan, I met you a couple of weeks ago in Wells, Maine at the Antique Auto Museum, gave you a ride (sorry not on a train) to the town hall. Didn’t look as though you enjoyed Wells a whole lot by you comment in your blog, hopefully you did enjoy Maine. I live in North Berwick the next town over and like soooo many in Southern Maine grew up in Massachusetts. Really, Maine is alot more laid back which we appreciate very much. Are you back at school now, will you continue your trek at a later time? Whatever, good meeting you and hope you have a good year ahead.

  18. Great idea Ryan!

    When I finished my junior year at Middlebury, Amtrak celebrated its 30th anniversary with $30 fares anywhere it went. I booked a ticket from Rutland, VT (the closest Amtrak stop to Middlebury College – not counting Port Henry, NY) to my home in Seattle, WA. That was a long, multi-day train trip through Schenectady, Cleveland, South Bend, Chicago, St. Paul, Staples, MN, Minot, ND to Seattle. I remember arriving 23 hours late, but it was a grand adventure in patience and excitement during the occasional “train stops for only 20 minutes” excursions into small towns along the way.

    Good luck!

  19. Dear Ryan,
    I marvel at your interest in traveling by train and visiting small towns. I do the same, only in a very much smaller place, that is in Switzerland. I live here, and train and bus connections are so good, my wife and I have never bought a car. Agewise we are now in our upper sixties.
    I will be interested in reading more about your trip. I very much share your interest in small towns. It is interesting to watch how the young and aged move around, and it is sometimes easier to get into contact with them than in big cities. Using public transportation is effective in communication and it is an ecological way to travel. I

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    hope you will keep it up
    All the best!

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  20. wow! that is awesome. That’s something i should have down when i was your age :)

  21. and you’re doing it right for the planet by refraining from flying – hope your writings will encourage others to (re)discover the joys of train travel –
    re economics, I believe the SlowMoney movement is based in Colorado though maybe not on the radar in Trinidad – slowmoney.org – another new & sustainable way to travel!

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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