The delay meant we reached Chicago four hours late, leaving me just an hour and a half before my third and final train – the California Zephyr, which would drop me off at Iowa and reach San Francisco two and a half days later. I walked round a few blocks to stretch my legs and realised I was walking down Route 66, between the tall glass skyscrapers of the financial district. Back in the train station, I almost did a double-take when I saw a family of four, who looked like they’d walked off the set of The Roses of Eyam. I wondered why Amish people were in a train station – I’d thought they eschewed all modern technology.
My last train-neighbour was an 80-year-old Iowan woman, bound for the same stop as me. A couple in front of us were headed there too, leading the ticket collector to joke, “Mount Pleasant will be busy tonight!” My travelling companion’s father was Dutch and had emigrated to Iowa in 1899. His father had died and his mother moved to be with her parents, who had already settled in the US. She travelled with her five children by ship to New York, and then by train to Iowa. “The farms now are huge and mainly grow corn, soy, and now they do wheat as well. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. We had a small farm, maybe 200 acres, with hogs, corn, cattle, wheat, sheep, and a vegetable garden. There was something called a Depression in the 1930s but we hardly noticed it because we had everything we needed. Meat and vegetables, and my mother used to sew our clothes out of feed sacks.”
She had lived in Mount Pleasant since 1969. “It’s a nice place, 6000 or 7000 people live there, and we have some banks, a few post offices, and downtown there are plenty of grocery stores, and there used to be some places where they made things, um, factories, that’s the word I was looking for. They made Blue Bird buses there. But then they moved them to Georgia and that was bad for our economy.” She looked slightly subdued for a moment, but, brightening up, “We’re a very rural area though, lots of farmers. And we have a tractor show every year, which is pretty well-known.”
We rolled past fields and fields of corn, a golden carpet stretching out towards the flat horizon, where it dimmed into a dusty blue, punctuated by the occasional set of wind turbines, electricity pylons, or a cluster of houses surrounded by trees, and often the flicker of a red-and-white-striped flag. Slowing to a 10mph crawl, we crossed the great Mississippi, and the Iowan woman pointed out the cable-stayed road bridge. “It’s not quite as big as the one in San Francisco, but it’s still pretty nice, isn’t it?”