America: Strangers on a train

By Sam Wetherell

Sam Wetherell rides the rails across America and meets a colourful cross-section of US society.

Two Amish men and a train at Albuquerque Station. Photo / Creative Commons image by Rob Sinclair
Two Amish men and a train at Albuquerque Station. Photo / Creative Commons image by Rob Sinclair

Americans are at their best on trains. Unable to compete with cheap aviation and an entrenched automobile culture, Amtrak, the American rail network, has become a weird sideshow that few people talk about.

It unites a broad coalition of Amish, vagrants, homeless drifters, plane-phobics, environmental activists, retired railroad engineers and people who are too fat to fly on planes. It was a community I would come to know rather well after a month of American rail travel.

I spent the past year studying in Boston and after the first four months became desperate to explode out of the narrow confines of the northeast corridor and see what the rest of America looked like.

When the Christmas vacation arrived I considered my options. Not knowing how to drive, and wanting to see more than just isolated cities with airports, I decided to buy a one-month Amtrak rail pass.

With no idea what to expect I arrived at Boston's South Station and boarded a train to Los Angeles, a journey of three solid days with a one-night stopover in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The train was small, mostly empty and smelt of stale snow.

When it stopped at Albany, two men dressed in top hats and black jackets with extravagant silver timepieces and extraordinary facial hair caught my attention. Together, in the art deco squalor of Albany station, they were an unreal sight.

It gradually dawned on me as they began, somewhat unexpectedly, to admonish me for owning a mobile phone, that they were Amish. Boston felt very far away indeed.

It was extremely cold the first night. So cold that banks of snow built up in the compartments between the carriages. I put on a coat and two jumpers, curled into a ball and felt my bones turn to glass as I slept.

I woke up in northern Indiana. Absurdly huge factories with complex machinery clogged with snow sprung up on each side of the train. I poked my head out at Chicago station. My nose hairs froze instantly.

The cars were dusty brown and cracked by the wind whipping off Lake Michigan and thundering down the canyons of skyscrapers. It felt like a metropolis built on some distant planet, on the more obscure fringes of the solar system, far from the sun's warmth and subject to exotic climactic traumas.

The train spent the next two days winding through the Rocky Mountains then sinking down into the New Mexico desert. I was serenaded by a drunk Native American on his way to a music festival and shared whisky with a gang of retired railroad engineers.

I arrived in Los Angeles after 5000 kilometres, nine states, 18 mini oranges, four hot dogs, two burst shower gel bottles and one lost camera.

My next journey, a week later, was a 50-hour continuous trundle from LA to New Orleans. For half of the trip I was trapped next to a homeless drunk who boarded the train at 3am in the Arizona darkness.

Named "Tazz" he was apparently fleeing the law due to a "misunderstanding" in Washington State.

Later, I befriended a gang of radical cyclists heading for a New Year's party in New Orleans. On a surreal four-hour stop in San Antonio, Texas we hit the bars, happy and relishing the ability to move from side to side as well as up and down.

On New Year's Eve in New Orleans I couch-surfed with a group of lost-looking hipsters who appeared to have fallen off the edge of the earth. They lived in a "shotgun house" - essentially a single thin corridor partitioned by flimsy sheets into different rooms - that was thick with blackening plates, shrivelled cigarette butts and the clearly discernible deposits of an incontinent cat.

The front door of the house was adorned with an almost medieval painted black cross and a 0, the mark of Katrina rescue workers, meaning the house had been searched and no bodies found inside.

Later that night, after my host began doing lines of cocaine off of the back of an acoustic guitar in the middle of the street, I managed to slip away and rejoined the cycling crew.

They had set up an impromptu rave under a railroad bridge by the river and had set about "jousting" each other on specially designed "tall bikes". The party continued until one of the group was severely wounded. The ambulance and police promptly ejected us.

I walked back to the house at 3am, through a somewhat transitional neighbourhood where it was difficult to distinguish between the sound of New Year's fireworks and gunshots. I was the only person in the house when I arrived back and the doors didn't lock.

After almost an hour of wrestling with the cat, the door flew open and a man I had never seen before marched into the room where I was sleeping, looked at me, and said "Oi. Where's my gun?"

He turned out to be a professional drug dealer. And I happened to be sleeping in his bed.

The previous week, apparently, while he had been home for Christmas, the house had been robbed by a man with a shovel (the shovel remained in the kitchen ominously propped up against the wall) and the robbers had taken his gun. An 18th birthday present, apparently ("I never bothered to get it registered, nobody does"). We drank beer till dawn and together we plotted out his new life.

I left for Atlanta the next morning.

Because of the exotic novelty of rail travel in the states, there is often a carnival atmosphere on board the trains.

As soon as this one left the station in New Orleans someone shouted, "Are we there yet?" to guffaws up and down the carriage.

The announcement about where the restrooms were located and when the buffet car opens were greeted with woohoos and rounds of applause.

At some point on the train from Atlanta to Washington the weirdness reached its zenith. A gang of stocky Mexican teenagers joined the train and began to wreak havoc, terrorising passengers, smoking by the luggage racks and generally being a pain.

Meanwhile an elderly woman sporting a Russian hat and wearing what could only be described as a purple bath robe wandered up and down the isles talking on a mobile phone about demons.

A few hours later I went down to the deserted buffet car to find the same woman standing at the front of the car lecturing passionately about demon mind control to the gang of Mexicans, who were sitting staring up at her in rapt, wide-eyed wonder.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates five direct services per week from Auckland to San Francisco.

Rail travel: The cheapest way to ride the rails in the United States is to buy a 30-day rail pass (limited to 12 segments of travel). Though you can pay extra for a two-bed compartment on board, the seats in coach are spacious and comfortable. Bring your own food. After several hot dogs from the Amtrak buffet car you'll be desperate for some fruit. Don't miss the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, which trundles through both the Rocky Mountains and the Utah Salt Flats.

Further information: See amtrak.com.

Sam Wetherell travelled around the US at his own expense.

- NZ Herald

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