Chapter 14: What I saw from the train

Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth | The Book

I was on the train for 5 days and nights, on and off, between the stops. I could have stayed on it forever. All I had to do was sit there. I read, wrote, caught up with myself and looked out of the window. I looked out of the window for hours. You can see everything from the train.

The whole of America was laid out for me – not the pretty bits – the backs of places – warehouses, factories, transport depots with banks of lorries or yellow school buses, roads criss-crossing the track, parking lots, sidings, scruffy bits of dead land, containers, junk yards – the back-end of the world – the places that are always near railway lines.

There were pretty bits too of course, landscape. The forests and orange mountains of Colorado, not cowboy-movie bright on the day I was travelling through, but something more poignant about the everyday dull daylight. Everything in America on a grand scale – we travelled alongside the Colorado River for 200 miles straight. Later the expansive plains of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois where barely nothing changes for days. A long stretch of this is travelled at night, probably for this reason – there’s not much to see. The following morning I had breakfast in the dining carriage, and with half an eye on the sun rising over the dramatic flatness, me and another passenger joked about the herds of buffalo grazing and Native Americans riding bareback alongside the train we had missed overnight – as if.

Isolated or abandoned farmhouses. Whipping through the quintessential small towns with beautiful detached wooden houses that cover America. I looked up one day to realise we were crossing the mighty Mississippi, wide enough to take 10 minutes to cross.

There are places where there is no mobile signal for hours… Why would there be? You’re in the middle of nowhere. But that shocked me, again the expectation that America has the greatest developmental advancement in everything (including universal mobile coverage). But America is more complicated than that, with non-development, wilderness and poverty, a side less known by us outsiders.

It reminded me of the Chester Arnold paintings I had seen in Reno, what I saw from the train. The poignant statement of landscape – humanity’s marks, sometimes crass and abrasive – urbanity, wastelands, roads – on a natural environment. Even a country as wide as America is largely developed and tamed now. The white man did it.

We rolled on. I had treated myself to a cabin and this made my journey extremely comfortable. I had my own little box of private space to sit in, write in, lay out my stuff in, convert into my bed at night. Is this what first class is like? I’d done the same for a night’s travel from Romania to Budapest almost a month earlier and could seriously get into it.

I didn’t stay there though, I liked to wander too. Sometimes I’d go to the ‘sightseer’ lounge – a carriage of virtually all windows, over the ceiling too, and seats that swivelled and faced outwards to enjoy the view. There was competition for these seats for the dramatic stretches of landscape, as well as a gracious camaraderie amongst the passengers to give up their seat after a while so everyone could have a go. Sometimes there was commentary about the places we were travelling through, what to look for out of the window.

It was all a great big enjoyable excursion rather than a tedious long train journey, comfortable and to be enjoyed. The ordinary seating coaches had large seats like business class on a flight that went right back so you could sleep. There was a dining car and a cheaper cafe/snack car. When the train stopped it was often for an hour so we could get out, buy your own food or a paper, take a walk along the platform.

It wasn’t simply about getting from A to B. If that was all you wanted, you’d fly. The people on the train were like me – tourists and travellers. Or retired Americans who had all the time in the world to make a trip and had wanted to do this for years but never had the time. Or people who were afraid of flying. People too poor to fly. People taking their time. People who had been making the journey – for work or family – for years.

You get more of people on the train. On my first stretch I sat behind 2 young couples going from San Fran to Reno – the women hefty and pragmatic talking to each other, the men in silent camaraderie – on their way for a big night out. They inadvertently tipped me off about ‘the buffet’, I probably walked past them in the Eldorado.

At Denver I sat in the huge old-fashioned high-ceilinged wooden panelled waiting room before re-boarding after my 3 days in Manitou Springs with others. A very young couple with fresh faces, who seemed kind of cool, the girl with her blond hair in a plait carefully placed in front of her shoulder, the boy with a tiny beard and a beanie hat. When they speak though it is clear how delicate and sweet they are. ‘We’re not city people,’ they say, both from small towns in Ohio, on their first adventure. They’d just been to Manitou Springs too.

On the bench next to me sat a woman who I’ve never forgotten, her heartfelt spirit and kindness gave her profound beauty. ‘I don’t cope too well with hatred’ she says. She talked about giving, as in charitable giving. ‘You have to give till it hurts’, she says, ‘otherwise what’s the point?’ America has a big thing about giving, volunteering – ordinary people taking responsibility for their world and improving it. This woman epitomised the best spirit of this – coming from a personal genuine place of pure kindness, social responsibility and fairness. She encourages her children to do the same, she has 2 grown-up sons and a Korean daughter.

On the train another perk of upgrading my ticket was that meals were included. So 3 times a day I was called to the dining car for a substantial American feed. The ever courteous dining car crew seated us strangers round a table together, the pressures of space, no stand-off-ish distance, with a vague thought about how we might get along together.

I had my first breakfast with a couple into animal rescue who told me about their dog (a mongrel). I told them all about my Zita. An older man with white hair and a blue baseball cap joined us later, who started off grumpy but warmed up eventually. ‘I’m a lot more sociable than I make out aren’t I?’

One lunch I sat with 2 men, business partners, who seemed worldly and somehow out of place with the rest of us codgers and drifters. They didn’t talk to me much and I took photos of trucks out of the window in between, but were friendly enough and told me Chicago is great.

One evening I sat with 3 other women who all boarded at San Francisco too. The oldest woman looks unwell, her skin dark and almost grey. She is with her daughter, probably in her 40’s, who takes care of her, she has long grey hair. They are both kind of eccentric, survivors of the 1960’s. They have been ‘riding the train’ for years, they love it. They know all the routes, the daughter tells me, her eyes huge, and used to know all the crews, but things have changed. Beside me is a black woman from San Francisco who is heading home to Cleveland (as I am) to visit family. She is quiet and carefully puts leftovers into a tub for later, good idea.

The food is substantial. Meat, salads, potatoes, fries, bread, muffins, dessert. Despite the fact I have a choice I can’t help myself and pretty much fill up at every meal. Everyone is starting a diet ‘tomorrow.’

On the last train before my next stop at Naperville, Illinois I have breakfast with a couple probably not much older than me, on their way to see their daughter whose in college. They seem very into each other. The woman has come up with a business idea of making paper napkins with phrases and statements on them – ‘conversation starters’ she says. She gives me her business card. I think my newly discovered cousin Hilary Decent who lives in Naperville which she describes as ‘Stepford wives / Desperate Housewives territory’ – will know people who will love them.

The train in America is not what it is in the UK, a congested, often unpleasant way to get somewhere as quickly as possible. Here it’s an economical but slow way of travelling – to us – extremely long distances, dominated by commercial transport. It’s common that Amtrak passenger trains have to wait while the commercial ones trains take priority going in and out. The seasoned passengers know this and grumble as this happens just before Naperville and we wait over an hour to finally pull in.

My newly discovered cousin Ross Decent and his wife Hilary are there to greet me. We’ve never met before. They are in something of a rush now, it’s nearly Halloween and they have a local community ‘fright night’ tonight that they are involved with to get to. They dash me home to make a quick change – Hilary as Mrs Lovett from the Sweeney Todd story with a homemade pie and plastic fingers sticking through the crust, and Ross as Colonel Mustard from the Cluedo Game, complete with a huge ridiculous moustache he can barely speak through.

I wish they’d turned up at the station like that.

Funded by Arts Council England

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