Friday 3 June 2011

Days 61 to 63: Amtrak from Chicago to Los Angeles

I rather liked riding through the farm country of Illinois and Missouri.  There were more trees than I'd been led to expect, but still as sense of openness with lots of fields. It looked almost European, but without the dense dense network of civilization that knits Europe together.  Antonia and I spent the late afternoon in the lounge car working through lesson books.  The train lurches a lot more than any I've been on, which makes neat writing and drawing harder than expected.  It even means that quite a few people nearly fell into us.

Dinner in the restaurant car was included with sleeper accommodations so we ate in very pleasant surroundings a meal of reasonable quality.  By then I was wondering exactly where we were.  Fortunately, we now have both a GPS and a Michelin road atlas for the states so I can follow our route.  (We preferred the Michelin atlas over the American version for one reason.  The American one goes state by state in alphabetical order.  The Michelin is continuous geographically.  Its one omission is the train track, which would be unthinkable in Europe.)  Each train carriage has one family room which takes up the whole width of the train.  Although it is still cosy, it is designed for families with more than one child, so it works well for us.  The trains have showers which I thought we would have to queue hours for, but I discovered there is not much competition for them.  The novelty of showering on a train seized Antonia's imagination, so for once she is enthusiastic about her ablutions.

We fell asleep at the north-eastern corner of Kansas and woke up at the south-western corner.  Here it is flat and dry and barren as expected.  There isn't a tree big enough to climb in and the grass, if it is grass, is brown.  Throughout the day, we rode through a dozen different kinds of desert, many of which we expect to explore in more detail later.   In places there was nothing higher than a covering of lichen as far as the eye could see  Little widmills raise water to troughs around which cattle gather like flies to jam.  I kept an eye on the vegetation, counting species and looking out for signs of humid zones, as though one day I might need it.  The settlements (I can't call them anything more promising) are of breathtaking delapidation. Surely, the conceit of the Americans that they are a privileged nation is due to the fact that they don't travel much.  In the lounge car, they find the living conditions of their poorer compatriots in their shanty towns to be an occasion for loud amazement and photography.  As we get closer to Albuquerque in New Mexico conditions change, and there are a few adobe mansions mixed in with the rundown trailers and huts.  Large or small, adobe is certainly the classy and comfortable option around here.

In the lounge car and the dining car its interesting to listen to the conversation of the Americans.  Self-appointed alpha males brag and bully at the tops of their voices about anything that attracts their attention: cattle, birds, the dining car menu, or a child trying to mind her own business.  Next to me, two women talked 'church' by the hour, without a single reference to religion. (I mean that church appeared to be a purely social and business phenomenon to them). I got to hear a few life stories.

The next day we had breakfast at 5.00 am Pacific Time, which left us pretty much wiped out for the rest of the day.  We were joined by a large party of British tourists who were doing a tour of the American South West by train and coach.  They had also found America unexpectedly rundown - the only thing I can say is that this seems to precede the recession.  I think all Europeans ought to travel to the US so we can really understand what fate we need to avoid.

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