The Melancholy of the United States

What a difference a year makes.

Last year in October (2016) I had taken a railway journey from east to west in the United States, this time on the beaten-up old ‘Empire Builder’. Travelling from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then to Portland in Oregon before the final run on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, I was in the United States in the last days before the presidential election that Donald Trump was to win.

On the trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, I met and talked long with a retired lawyer. A staunch democrat, he was full of foreboding. He and many of his Democrat friends were suspicious of the opinion polls that gave Hilary Clinton a comfortable lead. They would be voting, he said, holding their noses. Afterwards, they preferred to hide under tables awaiting the result.

Still they hoped. Obama had promised them hope, although it always seemed a hope for a Golden Age now past. In fact, the very idea of a Golden Age indicates an emerging consciousness that it is past. But Obama offered to recover it. As did Clinton, suggesting that ‘America’ was still great but that it needed to made whole again. But Trump captured this desire best: ‘Make America great again’ was his slogan. Industry would return to the United States, jobs would reappear, the economic might of the country would arise once again. But now it would be done by retreating from the rest of the world.

A forlorn message it was, for Trump has – not unexpectedly – failed to deliver. Or rather, he has failed to deliver on making ‘America great again’. Instead, he has delivered spectacularly in the ragged retreat of the United States from the world stage. But this is to give Trump the credit. In many respects, he is the symptom of a much longer process that began at least after 2001. Meanwhile, the Asian countries have begun to sort out their own problems, blocking the United States out of the process. Europe and China engage increasingly in cooperation, with the Belt and Road Initiative opening more and more paths of contact and exchange. The Chinese-Russian integration moves ahead vigorously, resetting geopolitics. And Xi Jinping has laid out a global roadmap of a common destiny for humankind, based on win-win cooperation.

Back in the United States – where I was again recently – many of these developments lie on the periphery of consciousness. For the few still continuing in privileged cocoons, what is outside the cocoon does not matter, whether in the world at large or in the United States. They perversely assume that what they say and do has world-historical significance. Except that the world is no longer listening or paying attention. Indeed, the majority in the United States has also ceased to listen.

But for those who had hoped with Obama or Clinton, another mood is upon them. A year ago, after the election, they were too shell-shocked to register anything but bewilderment and outrage. Now the mood is a growing melancholy. Hope has all but faded and Trump has brought the melancholy home to them. I mean not so much that Trump is their president, but that his victory had made it all too clear that this fractured and disintegrating society – with increasing class conflict, obsession over external interference, lost jobs and spreading rural poverty, rampant homelessness and endemic drug abuse – cannot be denied, cannot be repaired in the ways they had assumed.

Are there any alternatives? One suggestion struck me: while Trump may have given voice to those who feel the system has ignored and exploited them, he has also energised right-wing activity. Bring it on, was the comment, for this can only lead to a real and viable left outside the present political system. At last, they may have some relatively real political conflict instead of the sordid business as usual.

Building and Unbuilding the Empire

‘We’ll be holding our noses and voting for her’, he said.

He was referring to Hilary Clinton and the watershed United States elections of 2016.

We had met by chance in the dining car of the Empire Builder, a train that crosses North America from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. He was a retired African American lawyer, having worked his life in Chicago, but now settled in Los Angeles. I was trying to find myself on the last North American transcontinental rail crossing.

The feel was decidedly weird, apprehensive even, although we had different reasons for feeling so. For me it may have been a growing sense of futility and uselessness of liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. For him it was a sense that the system in which he had believed for so long, even committed himself, was showing its real and rather ugly nature.

Do not get me wrong. The setting was brilliant, if somewhat surreal. I had made my way, by ‘The Cardinal’, from Philadelphia to Chicago. From there, I would board the fabled Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, and then travel southward, for a fourth day, on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.

On the heavy, if somewhat battered, Amtrak rail carriages we trundled westward. In contrast to the few moments spent in Illinois, we ambled across Wisconsin and the vast plains of North Dakota. Well into Montana we began – as the name suggests – to rise into the mountains in all their glory. Here we touched in Idaho, passed through the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, before running through Washington to Portland, just over the state border with Oregon.

Yet this breathtaking countryside is also soaked in blood, where systematic extermination of the indigenous people was attempted, by killing off the food sources (bison), poisoning water, starving them, driving them off the land, or simply slaughtering them en masse. This was land that assisted in defusing social unrest and potential revolution, for the under-employed and poor working classes were unleashed on the ‘west’, to vent their class fury in hard toil, disease, and early death. This is part of North America that makes the chic urban types of the north-east or west coast shiver with apprehension. And this is where Donald Trump found so much support in the election a few days later.

I sat long in my cabin, pondering the land, life and the universe. Or I was down the stairs in the vestibule, camera in hand, or relishing – as always – a shower on the move. Being the loner and nomad that I am, I savoured the long hours and deep slumber on my own. In this context, the dining car is a strange pleasure, with its communal seating. In the past, I have been able to distinguish between the world seen through the panoramic windows and the world inside the train. On this journey, the world outside, especially the social and political world, was everywhere inside.

In the dining car, I met a black earth farmer, who spoke not a word for most of the evening. Two older women had been making very polite conversation, in the curious way they do in this part of the world.

But when asked his name, he said, ‘I am a black earth farmer’.

‘Black earth?’ I asked.

‘Up north’, he said. ‘The best soil in North America’.

Then I remembered: ‘Like the black earth in the Ukraine and south-western Russia’.

Eyes wide, he said: ‘My grandfather immigrated from Ukraine, after his family had moved there from Germany’.

‘Why have you kept so quiet?’ Asked one of the women.

‘I prefer to listen to people who are more intelligent than I am’, he said with the slightest of smiles.

But now he was unleashed, speaking of GPS steering of farm equipment, of agribusiness, of being 74 (he certainly did not look it), of children and grandchildren who did not want to work the farm. All the while a sharp sense of humour shone through.

At another meal I sat at an all-male table, with a hipster from western parts and a know-it-all California wine merchant who obviously enjoyed the benefits of constantly sampling the products he sold. When I asked about the looming election, the hipster quietly indicated that it was a taboo subject.

Not so for my lawyer friend on his way to Los Angeles. He had been visiting daughters in different parts of the country, returning home by the means he loved best. In years past, he had experienced what it was like to be a black lawyer in a country riven with racial discrimination. And this experience had driven him to become a member of the Democratic Party.

‘I’m a Bernie [Sanders] man’, he said. ‘I’m really disappointed in the way the party machine froze him out and put up Hilary’.

‘So it’s now Trump versus Clinton’, I said.

‘The way I see it’, he said, ‘Democrats will vote for Clinton holding their noses and Republicans will vote for Trump doing the same’.

‘But all the opinion polls suggest Clinton will win’, I said.

‘Yes, yes, but the feeling is not right’, he said. ‘It’s weird’.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘They’re missing something’, he said. ‘I hope Clinton will win, but I am really not sure’.

Brexit came up often, in the way that the opinion polls had missed the mood in the UK a little earlier in the same year. Their methods seemed to be outdated, so they were unable to do what they are supposed to do – gauge public opinion.

‘I fear a large number of people are not saying what they will do on election day’, he said. ‘Or that they will make up their minds on election day and vote the other way’.

Despite his concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, he remained a firm believer in the system as such.

At one point, I suggested, ‘People in China look at the system in the United States and say “no thanks”’.

To which he responded, ‘And we look at China and say “no thanks.” We don’t want someone else telling us what to do’.

This exchange soured our open conversations, so that we began to avoid one another on the run south from Portland, on the Coast Starlight, to Los Angeles.

I needed more time to myself by that stage, so I did not mind so much. But even my solitude could not block out the mood about the train. A mixture of disbelief, suspense and barely contained anger abounded – depending on which side one was on. For some, the disbelief was based on the apprehension, if not desperate expectation, that the unexpected could happen. For others, the anger at a system that had made their lives worse could not wait for election day. For me, I found it hard to believe that anyone would find such a system desirable.

Meanwhile, I could not help noticing many other signs of a crumbling empire – apart from its political system and social fabric. The train, while solidly built, was increasingly battered and groaning. The cracks on the station platforms seemed wider than ever. The forms of payment seemed archaic. The list could go on and on. It seemed that only thing keeping the system going was the insatiable demand for military expenditure, funded by the extraordinary process of relying on the funds from others, via US Treasury bonds. An empire built on massive debt, enabled by brute force and grudging trust.

But a question kept coming back to me. I would ask: ‘Why do you call it the ‘“Empire Builder”’?

No-one seemed to have answer. Was it a signal of the age-old plans to invade Canada when it was still a British colony? Or was it a signal: this is line; anyone who dares cross it risks life and limb? Or was it part of the extraordinary process of defusing unrest from workers and farmers, pushing them west in a perverted form of the ‘welfare state’? In this case, the state compensated those who took on the task of dispossessing and decimating the indigenous population. Now it seemed as though their descendants were intent on unbuilding the empire through an unlikely champion.

2016 November 036

Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.

The Crumbling of the USA

Cracks in the ‘pavement’, torn seats, broken arm rests, faded signs, stained carpets, broken taps, and filth in all the many holes and gaps that are increasingly evident. I speak not of eastern Europe, or even of some the poorer countries in Asia, but of the United States of America.

For some reason, I notice them even more now. They had always been there, if one cared to look in the parts visitors are not supposed to see – in the southwest and even centre, of perhaps in no-go zones of the cities where even locals do not dare to tread. But people in these parts have been quite adept at papering them over and presenting to the world – through the extraordinary propaganda system called Hollywood and endless television series – an image of uniform wealth and seamless efficiency.

But now I was in the northeast, which looks with disdain on most of the rest of the United States, quivering with horror at the barbarians within, whether in the rust-belt states, the southern reaches, or the centre-west.

Here too the railing I almost held was bent and loose. The train I caught groaned and clunked and the lights flicked on and off – it had not been upgraded for many a decade. The toilet I used was barely cleaned and the tap spurted uncontrollably. The escalator had ceased functioning some time ago, for dirt had gathered in its corners. And everywhere the footpaths and road edges were crumbling, crumbling.

I am told by good authority that the United States by and large no longer invests in infrastructure. Money is to be made, obscene amounts of money. But people hardly ever get rich these days by gaining lucrative government contracts for, say, a cross-country railway line, or a freeway interstate. Instead, they speculate on the stock market, making money from the misfortunes of others (most spectacularly in the wake of the Great Recession that began in 2008). Ever new and bamboozling ways are found to make money from money – the greatest fetish of all, as Marx already pointed out. So the richest tycoons are those who so speculate, seeking to manipulate international monetary flows for their own advantage.

Meanwhile, the country itself falls to pieces. Those who have lost out – workers of different backgrounds (African-American, Latino, European, and so on) have moved from disillusionment to being openly angry. The cynical political machine threatens to break as people begin to vent their wrath. Killings and regular protests rock the streets, and internal ‘terrorism’ has become a far greater threat. At the same time, those in the northeast and northwest dismiss the disenfranchised as backward, racist and sexist ‘hillbillies’. I have heard a north-easterner opine that those in the centre-west and south should either be relocated, re-educated, die off, or be killed by a foreign power. It is not a country with an existential crisis; it is a country beginning to tear itself apart.

But the cracks have always been here. I have always found negotiating a footpath a tricky business, and if I cared to look I could find plenty of seedy establishments, with infrastructure barely functioning. The reality is that the foundations of this empire have always been shaky indeed, but once upon a time one could easily miss the foundations for the glittering façade built upon them. Yet, even the weakest foundations can bear only so much. Eventually, what is built on them must also begin to crumble.

In Pursuit of Bigfoot: The Southwest Chief


All Aboard

Big diesel idles quietly by the platform, its immense power merely a hint in the regular tick of the engine. I pause as I walk past, anticipating its waking to full, thundering power so that it can haul us on the transcontinental journey soon to come. ‘All aboard’ is the call, echoing within one of those glorious railway stations with their elaborate and symbolic architecture – Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington. We make our way past the engine, past towering double-decker carriages made to last through the ages, and to the glowing doorway and its attendant.


A show of tickets, detailed instructions from the attendant, a climb up the stairs – so we find our accommodation for the next couple of days. ‘Intimate’ is a generous euphemism for the close quarters. Officially, it is known as a ‘roomette’, a cute title that suggests a room, only slightly more cosy. ‘Cell’ would be more appropriate, except that prisoners have more space. Yet I gain immense pleasure in such spaces, marvelling at the creative arrangements of compact space, realising how little room a human being needs in order to be comfortable.


I set out to determine how the beds fold out. They seem to emerge from impossibly tight corners, unfolding like a piece of origami to stretch out and invite one to lie down. Soon enough one settles in, finding it more than enough. Above all, the feeling of falling asleep on a racing train that dances on the rails in its passing is extraordinary. To fall asleep in one part and awake in another never ceases to delight. I peer out of the window (curtain always open) at first light to ascertain where we might be. Or if I wake briefly during the night, I watch a heavy diesel goods train emerge from the pouring rain to thunder past.

Outside the Window


We are on the Southwest Chief, one of five transcontinental crossings of North America (including the Canadian Pacific). By now, I have travelled on all but one of these. The Southwest Chief needs two days for the run between Los Angeles and Chicago. Another day on the Capitol Limited takes you to Washington and then a local train to Baltimore on the Atlantic Coast. From the arid landscapes of California to the lush slopes of Maryland, we pass through deserts, prairies, rolling farmland, deep forests and snow-capped mountains. Our stops have legendary place names, such as Albuquerque, Dodge City, Kansas City, and even the Santa Fe Trail (which we follow through the mountains. Desert heat beats on our carriage, as does rain and even an early snowstorm. At one point, snow gathers on our windows and the engine is encased in a shield of ice. Human habitation changes as we pass, from dusty trailerized towns in the deserts of Arizona, to the orange and yellow adobe houses of New Mexico, to the pastel boxes and phallic silos of Missouri and Illinois, and then the faux European sensibilities of the of the old towns on the Atlantic seaboard.


The train not only roars through this vast landscape, it also whistles – endlessly. Initially, the train whistle is but one noise among many – the clacks and creaks and rattles of a heavy iron and steel machine in motion. But at each change of driver, I begin to notice distinct signatures: a short with three longs; long, short, short, long; four shorts and a long. I imagine drivers discovering and then practising their distinctive whistle in the driver training school before hitting the tracks. Once in command, they are supposed to give the whistle a blast at level crossings, when passing through human habitation, and as a warning. But they seem to delight at any excuse, whether hearing the sound itself, or waking sleeping passengers, or announcing our passage to the big skies with their streaks of cloud.

Inside the Window

As always, inside is arguably more intriguing than outside. The feel of each carriage is determined by the attendant: one obsesses about the ice chest and the inspectors; another’s brittle humour soon gives way to swearing after someone leaves the shower running and floods the lower floor; and another loves to talk any time of the day or night.


For me, the dining car with its community seating provides an extraordinary insight into this strange country. We meet a pair of older black women, who are lovers of trains, their grandchildren and Hugh Jackman (what a relief it is no longer Paul Hogan). We engage with a hipster couple with pierced tongues and beards (both of them). They are into edible forests, corduroy pants and soviet-style time banks. We talk with two young Japanese men – here for a year on a work posting – with a burning desire for decent coffee. One tells a story of how he spilled a cup of coffee on his jeans only to find no stain when they dried. ‘Real coffee would leave a black stain’, he says. ‘Not this stuff. It’s mostly water’.

But I am most intrigued by the 80-something newly-weds, the in-bred religious couple, the Obama disciples, and the charming man with a disconcerting passion. As for the newly-weds, youth is a distant memory for both of them – she is 81 and he 83. She is also cross-eyed, with limited vision and some very dodgy pegs. He is a Korean War veteran, equally wobbly on his feet but full of redneck observations on politics, the free market, and undesirable ethnic groups. I am tempted to mention that the Russians really won the Second World War, or that China has the best railway system in the world, but hold my tongue and listen in wonder.

A meal or two later we are joined by the fundamentalist religious couple, who seem as in-bred as they are opinionated. His comb-over hangs down to his armpit while he growls about ‘them environmentalists’. She has pencilled orange on her crooked eyebrows. After they lean in close and pray for an eternity, he says, ‘I am a religious man’. I almost ask: ‘Are you a Christian conservative, a Christian liberal, or a Christian communist?’ But I think the better of it.


Then there are the former teachers with a love of hiking, shouting and Barack Obama. They may have been tentative at first, with teacherly mannerisms to the forefront and discussions of wildernesses and the hiking of which they were fond. But then they warm up. Committed Democrats, they loudly praise Obama to the skies, bemoan religious nut-jobs, as also the minority Tea Party who try to hold the country to ransom. Is there something wrong with the brains of these folk? At the next table sit the fundamentalist couple with whom we had dined earlier. Their squirming and sour looks indicate that then can hear every shouted word. It strikes me that both couples believe deeply in their ‘great country’. They share the feeling that evil continues to threaten it, that good requires fostering through unwavering vigilance. Above all, they agree that something has gone wrong with the place and needs urgent repair. Why? To restore a fading Golden Age. The catch is that in the midst of this politics of nostalgia, their diagnoses of the illness and their prognoses for recovery are wildly divergent.

The highlight of almost a week on trains is a charming and gentle man whom we join one day at lunch. We are last of the diners, so we have the place to ourselves. Full of stories, he tells us of the conflicts between river-boat companies and the new railways in the nineteenth century. On one occasion, in 1856, a new bridge over the Mississippi was struck by a riverboat. The boat sank, the bridge pylons caught fire and the bridge itself collapsed. The shippers brought a case against the railways, so the latter engaged in their defence a prominent local lawyer, one Abraham Lincoln. His success in the case was, suggests our friend, a major factor on his path the presidency a few years later. It all began with a railway bridge. As he winds up his story, told in loving detail, he peers out of the window and observes simply, ‘I’m watching out for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. Apparently, he is serious.

Back Yard


On this long rail journey, we gain some insight into the back yard of the United States. One is reminded again and again of the brutal economic system in these parts. We pass through one dusty trailerized town after another, where the supposed wealth of the United States is but hearsay. In the cities, homeless people shuffle about and seek either a comfortable corner for a snooze or a traveller who might succumb to a hustle. Of course, they are the ‘necessary collateral’ of a ‘free market’, a constant reminder that such a life awaits anyone who displeases a boss or becomes ‘redundant’. Car and industrial wreckage is strewn over the countryside, as are the ruins of buildings and lives. It is nothing less than a sea of poverty dotted with islands of immense privilege.

Increasingly, I find the United States an alien place, like Mars perhaps or an even more distant planet. Despite all the Hollywood and TV propaganda, to be here and see it in this way is thoroughly estranging. How can such a mix of people from all parts of the world stuff up a national project so badly? Seeing the evidence of ever-present poverty along the route, I become ever more puzzled as to how anyone else in the world can believe that the ‘free market’ is a good thing, that it leads to the enrichment of all. The next time someone utters such a line in my presence, I will grab them and take them on a rail journey like this.


My puzzlement increases when I consider the train and the network on which it runs. When Americans put their mind to something worthwhile, they can do an amazing job. Amtrak is one of the best kept secrets of this country. Panned by most of the locals who know only cars and planes, it spans a comprehensive network throughout the country. We find that it is efficient, comfortable, and relatively cheap. We also find that more and more people use it. A few years ago on one of our other cross-country runs, we met quite a few who were trying it for the first time. Economic downturn, the cost and weariness of driving, the frustrations and discomfort of air travel (on an air network that is one of the worst in the world), the desire for a slower pace of travel – these and other reasons have led to a jump in passengers of more than 15% after 2008. On this journey, most of those we meet say that the train has become a habit. You need only spend some time in one of railway stations to see how rail is emerging again as a preferred mode of travel. Whether Los Angeles Union, Chicago Union, Washington Union (the three hubs of this journey), each station has a constant flow of people embarking, disembarking, or waiting for the next train. For instance, at Washington, 100,000 people pass through the station every year.


The trains themselves are union built. Downstairs in our carriage, a metal plaque reads: ‘Brook Field Shops. 100 years of construction’. Beneath the words are a string of coats of arms of trade unions involved at the workshops. The stainless steel, tough fabrics, thick glass and heavy iron continue to be the material the workers produce for running the ‘railroads’, as they call them in these parts. Here still is one of the union strongholds in a country notorious for crushing unions.

A sign, perhaps, of what Americans can achieve. The problem is that they rarely set out to construct anything worthwhile.


From the California Zephyr to the Lake Shore: Across North America by Train

As slow as a Romanian train on a bad day, rolling over wooden sleepers and rocking rails, by canyons and mesas, fleets of decommissioned warships, ghosts of cannibals and their victims at in the Sierra Nevada, Butch Cassidy territory, Mormons and their harems, masses of divorcees in divorce-friendly Reno and the national cowboy poetry festival in Elko (Nevada) – the California Zephyr took us through some of the most spectacular landscape of the USA. The first and perhaps still most famous of the cross-continental railway lines, completed in 1869 and fostering the Gold Rush, the Zephyr leaves San Francisco and traverses towering ranges, 3000 metre mountain passes, glaciers, wide deserts and lush plains. In order to cross the whole of the USA, you need to change at the magnificent Union Station in Chicago, picking up the popular Lake Shore Limited. It slips by the shores of the great lakes, through the hippie zone of upstate New York and ending the run on the Atlantic shore in Boston.


On a wet a windy San Francisco winter day we boarded the bus from San Francisco to Oakland, for the rail line had opted not to snake its way around an earthquake prone Bay Area with its myriad waterways. Oakland station already gave us an insight into another, more appealing side of a country with so many layers. Here were people waiting to board one of the great Trans-Continental rail journeys. Some were aviophobics, others preferred the slower pace of the train and yet others found it increasing cheaper to take to the train.

An Amtrak train invites you inside its imposing, solid and towering carriages. Compact stairs take you up to a second level, with its commanding views from the sleeper roomettes. If the roomette in the California Zephyr had a distinct emphasis on the diminutive ‘ette’, the Lake Shore, which we took for the last day of our transcontinental journey, seemed like all the room in the world. Here you could sit on both bunk beds when they were down, gain a whole new sense of space with uncurtained windows looking out on fascinating vistas, and even relieve yourself on a toilet within the room(ette), right beside your seat. A new level of intimacy for lovers journeying, looking intently on the grimacing face of your dearest as he squeezes out the morning dump, sharing the earthy smell of his newly released bowel contents with you, if not the whole carriage – after your desperate lunge for the door to release the pent-up fumes. Still, it was a mansion compared to the Zephyr, where bunks were sleeping tubes and a quick turn risked a dislocated shoulder or hip.

For the next four days and three nights the most important person in your life becomes the conductor. Barbara on the Zephyr took the firm opinion that if you needed anything – toilet paper, towel, water, or coffee from the urn at the end of the carriage – you would find her somehow and ask her. Renee on the Lake Shore was a vast contrast. Full of the energy needed to keep a busy sleeper car clean and tidy, hauling down bunks and returning them to their resting places in the morning, vacuuming, advising, knocking on doors for late sleepers. Out on the platform at Syracuse, she bounced her long curls and round behind as she exclaimed: ‘Did you know B.B. King’s daughter was in room number 1? Wow, if only I had known – B.B. King’s daughter!! There she was, in my sleeper car, eating breakfast in the restaurant, and I didn’t know!!!’ Animated, with squarish glasses that were the fashion, somehow making the Amtrak uniform seem like a sensual fashion item, Renee gave the journey a whole new dimension.


Our journey would take us through two massive mountain ranges, central deserts, the wheat-fields of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois and then the soft trees and lakes of the north-east. But that was a few days away, for we were just leaving Oakland. Within an hour out of the station, we were already in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, climbing ever higher on snaking tracks over plunging gorges. The snow became thicker until the tracks were two lines in white, cut by the iron wheels.

Rocks, stunted conifers, a glacier or two, heavily jacketed locals, animal footprints in the snow, freezing, snow-bound stations. High by Donner Lake were the ghosts of cannibals and their victims: in 1846-7 a party of 87 was stranded in a Sierra Nevada winter; 48 survived, apparently owing that feat to the nutrients provided by their fellow-travellers.

By the time we crossed the border to Nevada, we had already dropped, dropped, dropped to the desert plains below. Here saltbush, huddled settlements and the ever-present trailer-towns (not ‘parks) were all around. Here people would wave at the train’s passing, the symphony of the whistle announcing our passage. The desert would continue long through the day, but I began to notice that at each longer, designated ‘smoke stop’, a dishevelled, bearded and slightly grotty crowd (the men were even worse) awaited the chance for a nicotine hit. But their jolliness, rolling gait and easy laughter obviously came not merely from the Thanksgiving spirit, but also from the ‘special’ Coca-Cola from which they sipped with obvious pleasure.

By Utah the sun had set and I was rocked to a gentle sleep, a sleep like no other for it covers the expanse of a continent. The lights of Salt Lake City were bleary in a cold night, the rush of those heavy American engines, thundering by with lights blaring into the night, would greet me during my early morning piss.

At dawn on the second day, we woke to a red dawn over the Utah desert. Saltbush, rocks, yellowish-red earth were all about. I lay on the bunk, watching the sky slowly light up, the stars fade and the first rays of sunshine on the bare streaked hills. The desert would continue for most of the day, passing through Utah into Colorado. The vital role of the Colorado River, an apparent anomaly in a desert land (but fed by melt-water), soon became apparent. We wound along its shore for hours on end, noticing the townships on its banks that relied on its life-giving properties, although also using it as a means for washing away their (hopefully treated) waste.

From the desert we rose, through one precipitous canyon after another, into the Colorado Rockies. On one such canyon, the rock fall sensor had registered movement, so we crawled along, looking straight down into the gorge from one side and straight into a cliff face on the other. Once again, snow was on our path, and by the time we cleared the canyons, bare peaks were all about, with conifers slinging to impossible slopes in the pale sun.

Later that day, an hour or more outside Denver and after more turkeys found their way onto American dinner plates (for it was that Thursday in November), we heard of a very different animal massacre. The conductor announced that the westward bound train – Amtrak 5 – had hit a ‘gaze’ (for that, he informed us after some research, is the name of such a group) of raccoons on the rails. While I conjured up images of bits and pieces of raccoon exploding into the air and splattering the front of the engine, further details were relayed: some of the recently deceased raccoons, or at least some of their parts, had been sucked up into the engine, destroying pipes and hydraulic systems, wrapping themselves around belts and pulleys, and generally leaving pieces of raccoon liberally scattered over vital engine parts. The engine, it seemed, was out of service. Raccoons 1; engine 0. We ended up with the raccoon-festooned engine attached to our ‘composite’, to be towed back, bits of raccoon falling off on the way, to Chicago for repair.

The third morning saw us on the rolling grain fields of central USA, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois being part of the breadbasket of that sprawling, bulging country. For almost a whole day at a good clip we passed farmhouse after farmhouse, barn after curious American barn. With their odd shape – angularly squat below and slender above – I asked our dining companion about their use. ‘They’re for animals in winter’, she said. Used to thousands of sheep or cattle in a farm, I stared at her in disbelief: ‘What, do you put all the farm animals inside the barn in winter? Isn’t that expensive?’ She replied drily: ‘Not half as expensive as replacing them all in the spring!’

By early afternoon, we steamed into the underground platforms of Chicago’s Union Station. Some stations may be rusted, broken affairs, or perhaps cement monstrosities only American can build, squeezed out by a freeway overpass when the car was king. But others had begun to shine with new glory, especially with the increase in rail passengers. Chicago Union was one such station. A grand columned hall, decked with tiles, stained glass, arched windows, panelled ceilings, grand staircases and solid timber benches that invited one to sit and stretch out. It drew one in with quiet and awed reverence, in a way reminiscent of ancient temples or cathedrals.

On the evening of that same day we boarded the Lake Shore Limited, set to cover the remaining day of our journey across the USA. It hugged the southern shores of the Great Lakes, splitting at Albany, with one half going to Boston and the other to New York. Our last day opened to a landscape of bare trees on a bed of thick, fallen maple leaves bordering creeks, all of which was peopled by alternative life-stylers (with their straw houses, self-sufficient energy, wood stoves and anti-mining activism). Familiar places now were in our path, familiar from a life more than two decades ago – Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, until at last we creaked into Boston station.


The outside of a train is where the wide windows and ever-changing countryside draw one’s eye. But inside a train is as intriguing, if not more so. One of the great and simple secrets of an Amtrak train is the dining car, for here they seat you with anyone who has a spare seat beside them. We met old fogeys, perpetual rail travellers, sensitive liberals, ex-military types, mountain women, gays from the East Coast …

Our train was overflowing with people. Not quite the national festival crowd on a Chinese train, I must admit, but a Thanksgiving crowd in the USA comes a fair second. As oil pushes ever higher in price, as the recession continues to bite, as planes become ever more chaotic and paranoid, people now take to the trains as never before. This Amtrak train was far longer than any I have boarded before; attendants were almost frantic with tasks; the cooks pumped out meals in a forlorn struggle to keep up with rumbling stomachs.

Early on we met Jo, who was from hereabouts. He said he would rather spend his time on a train than sit at home and stare at tasks to be done. His wife didn’t like trains, but he jumped on board whenever possible. The train was his world, his escape. He knew all the menu options, the types of Paul Newman salad dressings, every twist and turn of the track.

Beside him sat a mountain girl, from Colorado Springs, on her way to New York to spend time with friends. Long, slightly greying hair, an outdoor face, no-nonsense jeans, she spoke tough and laughed loud. We talked of cold winters, mountains and that great American sport … hunting. Her husband once used to camp while hunting, being a tough lad who could handle the cold. Then it became a camper trailer, caravan and now it is was a palatial mobile home. Can’t handle the cold any more, she opined.

And then at one of our breakfasts we gained an insight into how much the military pervades everyday life. The older African-American man regaled us with tales of Germany when he was a child. In the 1950s, when he was eight, his father had been a military doctor at the massive US base in Frankfurt. The best time of his life, he said, when they were taken to school in an army truck (covered with canvas in winter), drove through the mountains in a Buick, and were fascinated by Christmas, with St. Nicholas coming around with his switch of sticks and the burning candles on the Christmas trees. Yet his family had been part of the vast spread of the US empire, which sprinkled the globe with its 750 bases, offering undreamed-of travel opportunities to the poor and unemployed who became part of the endeavour. The other man at our table – a somewhat gross type with an ancient camera – had been in Alaska, among other bases, flying helicopters when he was young. Both it brought home how much the American Empire was a project that involved almost everyone at some level or other.

One dinner we sat with a retired couple from Oakland, who had discovered the sheer pleasure of trains. Or at least he had; she preferred ships. His eyes shone, with tales of journeys done and journeys planned. He asked about Russia and China, after hearing we had travelled the Trans-Siberian: ‘China!’ he said, as his voice trailed off, looking longingly out of the window as if to engage his far-seeing eyes. ‘What is China like? What are the people like? How are the trains? And Russia: tell me about Russia!’ I gained the sense that they wished they had discovered trains long ago.

But they also provided two priceless morsels:

‘Happy thanksgiving’, I said. ‘Although I notice you’re not celebrating with family’.

‘Thanksgiving!’ He laughed. ‘Yeah, let’s go and shoot some Injuns to celebrate and take their land’.

‘The annual mass slaughter of turkeys’. I said.

‘It’s the only reason we have turkeys’, he said. ‘If we didn’t have Thanksgiving, we wouldn’t have turkeys’.

And as we talked about place names and their curious variation from language to language, one of us said:

‘That’s just like New Orleans and N’awlins’.

‘That’s the French pronunciation’, she said. ‘N’awlins; they glide their words together over in France’.

Journey’s End

Towards the end of a journey such as this, a mixture of feelings and impressions crowds in on me. Suddenly, I long for the last pull into the station, looking forward to stepping off (or ‘detraining’ as they say in the USA) and leaving the close quarters behind. I pack my bag and sit back to watch the approach into a new city and its station, pondering both what has passed and what it to come.

Spectacular, bare mountains under snow, desert dawns, endless grain fields, soft and familiar New England maples that evoked a life of more than decades ago in Montreal – these all came back to me. But so did the many signs of a fading empire that we had seen. In many ways, from the internal fortresses into which the apprehensive elites retreat from the exploited, through the numerous city homeless rattling their cups, to the boarded-up country towns, much expressed the reality that the twilight of a brief and troubled empire is already here. This was especially clear as we travelled through country USA, over the endless grain fields of the central west. I could not help notice the effects of a prolonged depression in the country towns through which we passed. The cities might be able to hang onto some glitter, but the country towns had lost what little glitter they might have had: boarded-up houses from mortgage defaulters, run down yards, broken footpaths and roads covered in weeds, public buildings crumbling and closed. In some places unemployment runs at 20-25% and in those states where unemployment benefits actually exist (Nebraska for one), the coffers were almost empty. At this everyday level, in the ‘heartland’ of the USA, it was all too apparent that the empire was in decline.

But I also begin to ponder and plan other journeys. As the larger cities of Massachusetts began arriving in our window towards the end of our journey, we sat with two men, one a quiet, slightly effeminate man, originally from Cleveland but now living in Boston, and another with a distinct East Coast sophistication. Our talk was of travel, of ships and trains and how bad flying is. We wound our way to Berlin and East Germany (our final destination for a while) and I regaled them with stories of the ampelmänchen (the East German pedestrian-light figures) and nudity. Against their image of communist Eastern Europe as drab and dreary, they heard of the fostering of nudity, of nude swimming and camping, of a nude airline, of thousands of East Germans spending summers in nothing more than their own skin. And so I mentioned that I planned to ride my bicycle naked and go camping – naked – as well.

Ship’s Log: Day Thirty (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Thirtieth day of the voyage: 130 for the pilot on the long run into Philadelphia, arriving 7.5 hours later. Departure at 2300 for the run back down the Delaware.

One need only see the string of oil refineries on the eight hour run up the Delaware – I counted more than a dozen – and the stream of oil tankers to see how heavily dependent the USA is on oil. And that was on but one river. This country is severely fucked without oil.

Which led me to a second thought that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold.

Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.