Sunday, July 29, 2007

The great Southwest unbound

A “senior” couple said they preferred the train now that they “have the time to travel graciously”.

Gracious is a good word to describe the experience. Civilised is another. I met several people my age who make the time to go by train for that reason.

It just came to me what the certain something in the dining car was – it was real service, not the American approximation. And it was all very Orient Express, tablecloths and flowers, gleaming cutlery and glass.

I had reservations about being seated with strangers. Everyone gushes about how this is one of the best things about taking the Superliners, all the interesting people you meet, but I’m not at all sure of my abilities as a raconteur. But it was okay – just the bare facts of where I’m from and where I’d been in the past two weeks seemed to possess an Othello-to-Desdemona fascination.

And the conversations were interesting. One memorable person asked me what state Dubai was in. Another asked if I had learnt English because I was visiting the States. (I was sorely tempted to say no, because they don't speak English here, but I took the high road). But the others were surprisingly well-informed. In fact, many of the older people knew startling details about the other side of the world. Halfway through my journey it occurred to me that they belong to the generation that would have made the hippy pilgrimage (at least a part of it) to the East. I confirmed this at the next smoking stop.

I noted with secret glee that there’s a subtle but definite class system between the Sleeper Aristocrats and the Coach Not-so-much. It was most noticeable in the dining car: Sleeper types have an ever so slight club-member attitude to other sleeper types, though they both smile kindly upon the coach types.

I bought a beer from the snack shop simply for the pleasure of saying Sam Adams. The man promptly pandered to my pretensions by saying “You’re a long way from Massachusetts.” I replied with “Trying to hitch a ride to San Francisco”, but he didn’t get the reference. Or ignored it. Perhaps tourists who come here pop-eyed about pop culture are as amusing to them as the German Hare Krishna in Chicago was to me, when he said I was so fortunate to be born a spiritual Indian. (I encouraged this a bit and then donated five dollars to his cause – as amusement park fees.)

I was excited about Albuquerque being a one-hour service stop, what with all the Native American history. Unfortunately, understandably, any interaction is confined to souvenir stalls. On the subject of which, I feel that if you’re selling totem poles to tourists anyway, you might as well go the length and do it in a feathered headdress. Everyone else does it in costume. I, on the other hand, provided them with sterling entertainment during my souvenir buying, by jumping at my train like a jack rabbit at every distant whistle.

I took my Sam Adams to the observation car and pretended to drink it for a while. I really can’t appreciate beer. We were passing fields full of cows. I screwed up my eyes a bit and pretended they were herds of bison on the prairie. It’s impossible to look at the scenery without superimposing pictures on it. It’s featured in too many books and movies. There’s plenty of real drama as well. A row of green tractors stretching away from a filling station. A riveting formation in the distance that looked like a twister. Basically, the star of the event was the landscape. The phrase “unfolding outside the window” was invented for this.

I suspect that the California Zephyr (my first plan, the one that started my whole trip) or the Coast Starlight (my second plan) wind their way through more spectacular country. But the train I finally caught fulfilled to the letter the requirements I had from this: I wanted to see the larger-than-life land of opportunity that drew them in their thousands, and I did.

On the second day, I had to escape to my book for a little while in the day, because the sheer expanse outside makes you a bit giddy. Everything is giant, economy size. Trees, water bodies, shrubs, clouds, rabbits. Everything. Two thousand miles later, when I saw my friends in LA, I was quite surprised to realise it had only been two days since I waved goodbye in Chicago to one half of the couple.

Having time in its pure form takes a little getting used to, but once you realise that you’re entitled to just stare out of the window for two days – and in fact have paid for just that – it’s a great sense of release.

A mode of transport disguised as an old-world hotel is a great way to fly.

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