I didn't have my 'ham and eggs in Carolina' as the old song continues, but I did have my breakfast pancakes in Arizona and my dinner salmon and veg in Texas. When I told people I was intending to take the train from Los Angeles to Dallas I received mostly surprised and incredulous responses - particularly from Americans. I subsequently discovered there are two types of people - those who use the trains and universally think they are wonderful, and those who have never travelled by train and are horrified by the idea.
After my trip I'm definitely in the 'think they are wonderful' category. The trains are comfortable, clean, cheap, and you can watch the vastness that's the USA unroll past your window. They provide wonderful service from staff you imagine have been working for Amtrak for decades. I guess the downside is that the trains are a very leisurely form of transportation, but as long as you're not in a hurry that can be an advantage.
Late one evening I left on the Texas Eagle from the rather grand Los Angeles Union Station - built in 1939 in vaguely Mission revival style.
I slept comfortably in my roomette, where every square inch of space had been designed to serve some useful purpose, and woke the next morning in Arizona.
During the day we moved through Arizona to New Mexico to the huge state of Texas. We passed through a few larger towns and cities such as Tucson, but mainly the landscape was of the vast plains, often with distant rocky outcrops, and occasional small rural settlements. We saw lots of poverty and tough lives in the trailer settlements and restaurants that have grown up around the railway in these smaller towns
and there was occasional evidence of farming, which must be so marginally viable in this kind of landscape, particularly in the present drought conditions.
Towards the end of the day we reached the large border town of El Paso where mounted guards could be seen patrolling the Mexican border that runs close to railway line at this point. We stopped at El Paso for a smoking break. I'm sure there were other reasons for the stop, but the train attendants made regular announcements about when the next opportunity for smoking would occur.
I had another night in my roomette, and very early on the second day arrived in San Antonio. I just wish the trip could have been longer, or that we could have had two days and a night so that I could have seen more of the landscape. A couple of days later I took another train north from San Antonio to Dallas - this time in 'Coach class', as it was a day trip. There had been much-needed rain the night before in the area through which I travelled, which must have come at just the right time for those who had ploughed their land:
Just before leaving on this trip I read Don Watson's wonderful 'American Journeys' in which he recounts his travels by train and car around the US hinterland in the mid 2000s. He'd prepared me for long delays on Amtrak services (which didn't happen) and lots of conversations on sometimes predictable, but often bizarre topics with fellow travellers (which did happen). Most of the conversations happened around the communal tables in the dining car - where proper meals of adequate but uninspiring quality are served by bossy but very amiable waiters - though Americans are so friendly that you end up having chats anywhere - in waiting rooms, during the 'smoke breaks' and in the coach car on my way to Dallas. I spoke with a retired couple who always spent their holidays travelling around the country with Amtrak - they'd been almost everywhere in the USA that's accessible by train, but still were surprised to find that Australia's seasons are the opposite of those in the USA. I had a long conversation with a kind and helpful man who was convinced Obama is a communist and bringing the USA to ruin. I met a rancher (dressed in beautifully ironed jeans, striped shirt, jacket, cowboy boots and cowboy hat) who said it was no longer profitable to run cattle on his Texas ranch and that a significant source of his income was renting his property to film-makers. He told me parts of 'No Country for Old Men' and "There Will be Blood' were shot on his ranch. I had a conversation with a woman who was taking her elderly demented mother to live with her. She was admirably kind and patient with her mother and told me she had recently bought a gun to protect herself in case of home invasion. I met an ethnomusicologist who studied the traditional musical forms of the San Antonio region, a woman who managed a charitable foundation to enhance adult literacy who thought the anti-Obama rhetoric was racist and wanted to know why Julia Gillard had disappeared from the Australian political scene, and a young Texan man who told me that his generation was the last for whom the work of a cowboy was viable.
I think I'll have to plan another cross-American train trip.
* Chattanooga Choo Choo Unfortunately, Amtrak no longer travels to Chattanooga. What a pity!