Journey Across America: Martians in Montana
As the rails suggest, Malta is not a place where ordinary people travel by train (Photo: Karl Hoffmann)
21 July 2012
It began with a journey from Berlin to Naples, then from Moscow to Lisbon, and before they knew it, the Italo-German discoverers were in the United States. Beppe Severgnini was also part of it again. In Montana, the star journalist encountered a dinosaur.
According to the great Don DeLillo, the sound of trains can help you get to sleep. Perhaps he rented a room at the Maltana Hotel in Malta, Montana, and wasn’t suffering from insomnia. It’s hard not to notice the succession of mighty BSFN freight trains that screech through the unstaffed railroad crossing and hurtle off into the prairie. Two titanic locomotives and two hundred container cars, many with Chinese writing. West to east and east to west, thundering tireless through the night.
Forget classical music, this is the way to fall asleep. At 8.30 pm, the sun is shining in our new Mountain Time Zone but we are tucked away in our motel rooms, where thankfully the Wi-Fi works. An hour later, there’s a knock on my door to tell me that tomorrow’s appointment has been cancelled. But if two hundred freight cars couldn’t wake me, two well-mannered Italians stood no chance.
Malta is Wim Wenders’ kind of place – not so much an American town as a set waiting for a film. Long, broad, empty streets, right angles, a cobalt sky and faded signs. The local attractions are a dinosaur called Leonardo and the outlaw Harvey Logan, aka Kid Curry, who robbed a train a few miles from here. The final exploit of the Wild Bunch before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid left for South America to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.
It’s exactly what it looks like: a godforsaken ticket window in the middle of nowhere, USA (Photo: Karl Hoffmann)
We wander along empty, sunlight-bisected streets until we are invited into the Lucky Bullet bar. Politely, without recourse to firearms. Get closer to this straight-off-the-screen America and it breaks up into individual real-life stories, often hard ones. Janae behind the bar shows us a photo of her daughter’s father, who left yesterday for Afghanistan. Her overweight friends describe a supportive but over-inquisitive town. Dennis and Dodiee show off the saddle they won at a rodeo.
In the Great Northern Hotel’s restaurant, a railroad time capsule, we talk to Cheryl, 23, whose hair is combed motorbike-without-a-helmet style. She tells us she came from Portland, Oregon, looking for a job. A junk auction attracts ten percent of the population. Everyday America is on sale, as melancholy and reassuring as the recent past always is.
At seven in the morning, the sun dazzles. Someone must have been polishing it. An engineer and his three fair-haired daughters have taken two rooms at the Maltana. Their car stands outside, like a cowboy’s horse, as the girls, who are here for a swimming competition, eat breakfast off the hood.
The remainder of the day passes in walks along the trackside, waiting for the Empire Builder to leave for West Glacier. It’s two hours behind schedule, but that could turn into three, or one. Amtrak has lessons about life. We arrived by train and do not have a car, which around these parts is unthinkable. Five Italians and a German visiting dinosaurs and kicking through the trash on the trackbed. We are Martians in Montana. Ennio Flaiano’s Martian in Rome would approve.
At least the dinosaurs are real; the Martians are not (Photo: Karl Hoffmann)
Over the past two years, the celebrated Italian writer Beppe Severgnini from the Corriere della sera travelled with Zeit editor Mark Spörrle. Under the motto Va bene?! the two first crisscrossed their own homelands, then half of Europe. For the follow-up project Atlantic-Pacific Severgnini journeyed to America with a new partner from Germany. Together with the ARD correspondent Karl Hoffmann, he travelled across the United States for two and a half weeks. The “European Martians” did not keep their experiences on the 6,000-kilometre journey to themselves, of course, but documented it all in their blog.