A generous slice of Americana in which the author--a grandson of a passenger-train engineer--discovers in the history of railroads ""a lost grail of our American selves."" In 1988, having just lost a mayoral election in Keene, New Hampshire, the 40-year-old Pindell went on leave from his teaching job to travel all 21 Amtrak routes, in all states but three of the continental US. The objective of his 30,000-mile odyssey was, he writes, ""to see if the rail routes would lead me to integration of past and present, of history and headlines, of mind and memory."" Because of Pindell's gregariousness and ear for dialogue, this chronicle's most engaging sections revolve around his fellow passengers, who represent ""a colorful spectrum of American life united by a common willingness to slow the pace of their lives""--Vietnam veterans, an embittered Iranian exile, an art dealer, a teen-aged couple running away to California, a manic-depressive woman who has recently attempted suicide, aging hippies, and good ole boys. Seamlessly woven into the narrative, along with encounters with these dreaming or desolate steel, riders, are accounts of past railroad figures and events--e.g., Collis Huntington, Fred Harvey, James J. Hill, the first transcontinental railroad, the convulsive railroad strikes of 1877, and great train disasters that spurred governmental regulation of business. Finally, Pindell's journey becomes an attempt to make peace with his own past, particularly in his emotional return to Bloomington, Indiana, hometown of his father and grandfather. A wistful elegy on a largely vanished way of life--one that may remind readers of other attempts to take the pulse of the American heartland, such as William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways and Jonathan Raban's Old Glory.