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A Train Ride to Provo

March 29th, 2012 · 1 Comment · En Route, Time and Place

At age 23, like many in his generation at the depths of the Great Depression, John A. Palmer, “packing a toothbrush and razor in the lapel pocket of my jacket and armed with the clothes on my back and a pack of cigarettes,” hit the road, heading west. He had $7. Palmer’s memoir, A Walk to Somewhere, relates the adventure that ensued. In the book’s introduction, written when he was a very old man, Palmer noted: “…the Depression engendered a diversity of feelings; among them, frustration at our inability to advance and succeed. An ever-increasing lack of opportunity in our country, together with the ever-present picture of abject poverty and despair, presented a scenario which we were ill-prepared to accept. Our ‘walk’ was more a journey to understand what happened to our dreams.” In the edited excerpt which follows, Palmer tells how, when faced with crossing the Rocky Mountains, he and two companions hopped a train outside of Laramie, Wyoming.

Off we went into the night, lurching and rumbling and jerking. The beginning of the trip wasn’t too bad, and we amused ourselves by huddling in one corner of the gondola, lying about our various road experiences. At times, wearying of that game, we withdrew into our individual reveries and, as all good conversationalists do, respected the silent interludes, interrupting them only to comment on a shooting star or to mutter an oath upon a particularly inconsiderate lurch of the train. The weather became less balmy as the train climbed higher and higher.

I guess it was the last reverie that awakened me to the situation I was in because my breath exhaled like a spout from a steam kettle. The rumbling and jerking of the gondola underscored that this was no carefree ride ending in the relative comfort of a warm tent on the ocean sands. As we climbed higher and higher, my companions and I started to jog up and down in the empty gondola in an effort to get our circulation going – no easy task – since our running track had its own several motions, and it was not long after that one of our buddies decided, as we slowed near the top of the grade, to take his chances in whatever shelter he could find and continue his journey during daylight. We decided to remain where we were with the cold and the light snow that was starting to cover our footsteps in the open freight car. It wasn’t too much later that the snow began to turn to ice and our jogging became more and more a slip and a slide.

However, the human body, even a well functioning one, has its limitations. In the cold sleeplessness of the environment, my mind started to play tricks as I retreated to a lonely corner of the gondola to rest my trembling legs. The layer of newspapers I had inserted under my shirt and trousers no longer seemed a barrier against the elements but rather another irritant, stiff and cold against my body.

I guess I must have been dozing, when I felt a hand shaking my shoulder, and my buddy pointed to the first rays of dawn. As we left the snow and the summit and started our long slide into Provo, Utah, suddenly it did not seem so cold.
© John A. Palmer, 1993. Used with permission. A Walk to Somewhere is published by Vision Books International.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Marguerite

    So thrilled to see the acknowledgement of my Uncle John’s book ,”A Walk to Somewhere” on your website. Of course, I read it many years ago but I now will pull out my copy and read again. I so enjoyed the tale of his journey. Thanks to Kay for bringing it to light again. His wanderings were retold throughout the years when visiting with the family and how I envied his thirst for adventure!

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