If you’re old enough to remember Simon & Garfunkel, (yep, that’s old), you may recognize the line from The Dangling Conversation: “…you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost, and we note our place with bookmarkers, that measure what we’ve lost”. If it conjured up images of High Culture, well, that’s how New England sees itself – and in parts, it really is.
I took Amtrak’s Vermonter train from Penn Station out of NY, on a student-discount first-class ticket. Such a thing is possible in America. After the plane from Australia, the legroom was an extravagant luxury, and I luxuriated as hard as I could (though not to the point where I raised a sweat). Trains travel at a human pace, in places that are now always ‘the other side of the tracks’. I find it much more interesting to see the stories in everyone’s back yard from these tracks, than to look at the fictions that people want you to see, from the road and street.
Not far from NY, out into Connecticut, already the metropolis was gone, and strong hints emerged of how beautiful this land can be. We Australians get so used to the dark greens of rainforest and the dull blue-brown greens of eucalypt that it’s actually unsettling to see these bright greens, all limey and glowing, and to see both the trees and the forest together. That’s possible because there’s not the same thick understorey we have, and it sets up a different feeling – a possibility of inclusion, of going into, traveling through, rather than our own ‘stay out’.
The Vermonter passed north into Massachusetts and clacked to a halt in Springfield, stopped by track work further up the line. We transferred onto buses for the short leg up to Amherst, and it became clear that many of the passengers who weren’t stretching out in first class were also exchange students on their way to UMass.
An older woman clutching a book sat next to me, wispy white hair slightly disarrayed. I had a Laurie Anderson ‘there’s one on every plane, and they always end up sitting next to me’ flash. The book was a life of Dostoevsky, the pages well-thumbed and foxed. She was underlining passages and writing notes in the margins, so I had to guess – Laurie Anderson crazy, just your average cultured New Englander, or university faculty? Or all three, perhaps? None of these; a holidaying public servant from interstate on her way to stay with her sister (who was a retired professor) and celebrate their mother’s 91st birthday.
You arrive in Amherst along a flat, almost sunken, road that gives little hint of what Amherst’s like, but every hint of what America’s like. It’s quite rural, just a ribbon of development backed by farmland and forest. There’s the giant new car salesroom and the small used car lot with rusted wrecks ‘in back’. The grand house with its colonnades and pediments, and the low home with its folksy scarecrow man atop an old Farmall row crop tractor. The gasoline stations, feeding America’s love of the auto. But mostly, the shopping malls. Fed by America’s love of the auto. And cheap fuel. And abundant land, which is miles from the town that it serves, but can be reached if everyone has a car, and cheap fuel.
How many malls did I pass, on that few miles from the interstate into Amherst? I still don’t know. I don’t know if it’s one gigantic mall, spread along a mile, on both sides for the road, or six, eight, ten malls, each the footprint of one Australian mall.
The road into Amherst rises from Mall-Land into a well-treed old town, with old red-brick buildings that quietly say ‘money’. Old money, and lots of it. And at the crest, there’s Amherst College, one of the most expensive in the land.
And there, the Dostoevsky lady points out, is where Emily Dickinson lived. My guide closes her book. Does her bookmark measure what she’s lost, like Simon and Garfunkel wrote, or has she gained as well? Our own dangling conversation comes to an end as the bus pulls alongside Amherst’s tiny station.