I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, a block from the Soo Line Railroad yard. My brother Anders and I used to play by the tracks and watch grainers and double-stacks roll through the crossings and out past the green rows of corn. We imagined their routes through the heart of the country, and it captured our imaginations so much that we used to have “hobo days,” wearing dirt-stained shirts and eating cold cans of Spam in the woods. It was playacting, of course, but as we got older and started to explore the country on our own, we remained fascinated by the westward myth and the spell it casts on the national psyche.

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