“And remember, the “A” in Amtrak stands for Adventure!” said Ada the dining manager cheerfully over the PA system, after waking us up at 7am with the announcement that we’d pulled into a siding somewhere near Toledo, Ohio, due to a mechanical problem. “At this time, I’d like to remind you that we have a great selection on the breakfast menu today! Scrambled eggs, pancakes and much more! We’d love to see you in the dining car. Or you can just sit back and relax!” She sounded as if being on a broken-down train had made her day. “And we’ll keep you updated every twenty minutes or so.” – Every twenty minutes?! This was going to be a long one.
Boarding the train the previous afternoon, my enthusiasm for the adventure had dipped somewhat when I realised I would be sitting next to the most enormous man I’d ever seen. He was probably about four times my weight and was overspilling into my seat. But I told myself this was all part of the American travel experience, so swung my rucksack down in front of us and wedged myself between him and the window. The seats were actually pretty wide, and after all I am only A Small A.Mount, so it turned out fine. He asked me where I was going – the standard greet-your-train-neighbour question – I said Iowa, how about him. “LA.” “LA? Wow, I thought my journey was long!” “I came from Boston,” chimed in the woman across the aisle, not to be outdone, who turned out to be my neighbour’s sister.
I asked him why he was taking the 3-day train journey, and he said he guessed it ran in the family, adding (unnecessarily) that it would’ve been much quicker to fly. I wondered if maybe he wouldn’t fit in airplane seats; there’s much more space on trains, both widthways and lengthways. His two sisters across the aisle started watching a video clip on their laptop without headphones. It was some sort of pastor, very excitable, all Hallejuh!s and “thank the Lord our Father, he’s such a wonderful Father!”, getting louder and louder until he was shouting with a religious passion I’ve never heard before. The two women seemed to think it was lovely. No one else in the carriage batted an eyelid, and I assumed this was because they were used to hearing this kind of thing, rather than doing the pretend-nothing’s-happening, stiff-upper-lip, it’ll-be-over-soon British thing I was engaged in.
The train rumbled through a landscape of rolling hills, with lots of woods, occasionally breaking into open spaces. Tree silhouettes fingered the darkening sky and were reflected in a wide, calm river.
My neighbour heaved himself out of his seat. “Where you goin’?” demanded his sister. “Nowhere” he grunted. He turned around, leaning on his seat. “Say you, know how the Eagles did in the game today?” he asks the bloke seated behind us. “Nah, I don’t. Could phone someone.” “OK.” The second guy rang his friend, asking about the game. He had a hoarse voice, sounded like it had grit in it, which trapped the consonants so his words came out strung together, and gave the impression of being transmitted over radio from far away. Made “Maryland” sound like “Merlan”. He hung up, leaned forward. “Hey, the Eagles play tonight, man.” “OK, buddy.”