Where’s Sarah Palin When You Need Her?

Let’s first stipulate that nobody needs Sarah Palin. Ever. She has made herself into one of the first class buffoons of our era–and she has every right to have done so. So–good for her! Congratulations! But this column is not about her, or what she can see from her house. Don’t think Sarah Palin; think, instead, of the infamous “bridge to nowhere.” Only in this case think, rather, the rails to nowhere.

On January 6 the California High-Speed Rail held its official groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno, at the site of that city’s future train station. Yet no spades of earth were turned. It was a glorious day, really–an historic one–and many dignitaries attended, including Governor Jerry Brown, and those who gave a speech each spoke very well. Especially the Governor, whose passion for the eventual completion of the rail system was unequivocal. Sunshine smiled upon the gathering and, after the best early morning chill that winter could hurl, temperatures rose to nearly 70 degrees. The media were conducted on quite an informative tour of the site, the former Del Monte building downtown, which has been demolished, and it was made very clear that–high-speed rail notwithstanding–the entire area was, in short order, to be gentrified. The speeches were then given, naturally culminating with Governor Brown’s, after which, to some inane pop music fanfare, a section of rail was hand signed by the grandees who assembled before it. This artifact is destined for display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Got the picture? Now–what do you picture when thinking about the last significant rail event our country has celebrated? I give it even money you’ve harked instantly back to the text books of your grade school days, and an image of two railroad engines–nose to nose on a single track in Promontory Summit, Utah–has formed in your mind. The May 10,1869, completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, right? A big day, indeed: Samuel G. Montague of the Central Pacific Railroad, on the left, shaking hands with Grenville M. Dodge of the Union Pacific Railroad, both, apparently, bearded, and surrounded by a crowd of–well, who knows, exactly?  And right about now, if they haven’t before, the words “Golden Spike” should come to mind. At least, that is, for those of us who attended grade school. It was ingrained in our minds as a momentous event–so much so that a national historic site now commemorates the fastening of that final spike.

You are to be forgiven if your assumption was such that the section of rail signed was actually a sample length of the high-speed rail track to be laid. It was not. I have no idea what the new, high-tech track is to look like–but it would have been much better if a section of that had been signed. Instead–even though it looked as if it had just been forged–a nicely cleaned and polished piece of good old steel rail was placed into History. We’re talking a length of rail nearly identical to that commemorated at Promontory Summit nearly 146 years ago: Rail upon wooden cross-ties every several feet, nailed down there–yes, the Golden Spike was just a big nail–with clamps. What’s the sense in this? One hundred forty-six years from now, in 2161 (I’ll finally be a  grown-up of 198 by that point) will this old-school track have the same resonance that the Golden Spike today enjoys? I think not. What’s the sense in touting the high-speed rail as high-tech–as the Future–then celebrating its groundbreaking by signing track that would be recognized as contemporary by those at the very dawn of rail travel?

Take a vacation to the Sacramento of the future–say, 146 years from now. Let’s say you have brought your son–who is, naturally enough, a toy train enthusiast–to the historic California State Railroad Museum.

“Look, Junior–there’s the exhibit commemorating our nation’s first high-speed railroad. You can see where the governor at the time signed it.”

“What year was that again, Dad?”

Not, “Where did he sign it?” or, “Who was the governor then, Dad?” Not much, after all, of a remembrance.

And this is not a good selling point. I happen to be very much in favor of the high-speed rail going forward, and I think it is quite important that it does so here, in our state–the state that leads our country in everything from agriculture to entertainment to high-tech. I am one of those who believe that the high-speed rail is, indeed, the Future. But the project does have its critics–there was a paltry assemblage of protesters outside the groundbreaking–and nobody is entirely comfortable with how much money will eventually be spent on it.

There is, too–and in no small measure–a curiosity factor. What does track over which a train travels in excess of 200 miles per hour look like? That would have been worth signing. It would be worth exhibiting in a museum for posterity to ponder. More than anything, it would be historically accurate. I mean, they may as well have signed the thing using quills. The rail destined for display says absolutely nothing about our time, and what we aim to accomplish. It is symbolic of–what, exactly? The Golden Spike at least represents the technology of its time and, being golden, is also indicative of the Guilded Age it heralded.

I need to know how the display will in any way be relevant not only to our time, but to any time. I need to know what anyone could possibly learn from this exhibit in the future. I need someone to explain the rationale behind all this.

Indeed–where is Sarah Palin when you need her?

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