One Brit, two continental coasts, three trains, four time zones, and fifteen states.
I left New Haven, Connecticut at dawn, my notebook lit by the sun blasting in through the window from across Long Island Sound, with the train rocking from side to side and making writing difficult. New England factories and power plants stood between me and the water, interspersed with stretches of marshland and inlets lined with bulrushes. Almost-naked trees that Sandy had stripped of this season’s yellows and reds; graffitied brick buildings; pylons and cables bisecting the sky overhead; yellow diggers on building sites, and the sun hitting the suburban wood-planked houses square on their eastern faces. Factories were puffing white steam; brick chimneys poked their chemical cocktails high into the sky; and we passed old warehouses with boarded-up windows and new warehouses of corrugated plastic with no windows. I sipped my Dunkin’ Donuts tea and watched Connecticut slip away, fixing my thoughts on San Francisco, where I would spend Thanksgiving after four days of train travel. It was essentially a lazy person’s Duke of Edinburgh expedition, with more books and less exercise.
The train settled into a comfortable trundle, setting the pace for the rest of the journey. Eight hours later I was on my second train of three, trundling out of Washington, D.C. I knew the drill this time, after my railroad ride to Iowa last year: as soon as the ticket collector had passed by, I was in the viewing lounge on the upper deck, drinking another cup of tea. The sun was balancing on the horizon, deepening into orange, and the landscape was thickening with trees as we headed inland away from the industrial coast. The trees took over the horizon but the sinking sun blazed like fire between the branches. There was no wind when we reached the West Virginia hills, so the trees were reflected perfectly on the surface of the wide, slow river we were following. I pressed my forehead to the glass to prevent the train’s lights interfering with my view of the darkening hills, and imagined the colonising Europeans viewing the same landscape for the first time in the sixteenth century.
“Over here we call them Democrats!” quipped the bloke from Ohio who I’d been placed opposite for breakfast in the dining car, when I told him I was studying the environment. We were crossing frosty Indiana farmland. I remembered someone at Yale telling me in all seriousness that Indiana was full of crazy Republicans, but it was difficult to confirm or deny that point when only presented with a landscape. At least they weren’t crazy enough to elect the Senate candidate who had suggested that pregnancy caused by rape was “something God intended to happen”. The waitress grudgingly asked me what I wanted to drink and marched off to fetch it. “She’s very pleasant,” smiled the Ohio bloke’s wife sweetly. The couple were in their sixties, off to Chicago for a couple of days’ break before hosting the family for Thanksgiving.
We arrived in Chicago on time, giving me five hours before my next train. I left Union Station, crossed the sluggish river and headed west to the lakeside in the bright sunshine. The downtown is overcrowded with megaliths, a forest of glass skyscrapers each trying to out-do the other – to be the most imposing, with the sparkliest windows. Somehow they seem naked, as if they are trying too hard – too ostentatious, too obviously decadent. Stark capitalism with no civic virtues to give it a facelift. After I’d walked by the lake, avoiding the duck droppings, I joined the queue of people stretching down the steps of the Art Institute and along the street, being harassed/entertained by an enterprising homeless guy trying to sell what seemed to be the US version of the Big Issue. I bought a student ticket and went to hang out with the Impressionists. I was standing gazing at Van Gogh’s painting of his room, admiring the perspective and vivacious colours, looking at how perfectly he’d done the bed and the chairs and wondering why the pictures on the wall were wonky, when a man standing next to me said “Tell me, why do you look at this picture so long?” He was rotund and grey-haired, with a thick French accent. I told him, and he said “Yes, the perspective is exquisite. I have seen copies of this picture many times, but this is the first time I have seen the original”. He seemed quite moved.
I was also drawn to Monet’s pictures of London in the fog. The one of the Houses of Parliament, dusky but still iconic and easily recognisable, was particularly beautiful – Monet was like a magician with colours, or a musician who seems to effortlessly create new harmonies that take you by surprise but that resonate deeply within you. Looking at that painting made me strangely aware of my own embeddedness in time and space: here I am, in downtown Chicago, drifting westwards across a foreign continent by myself, when I come across a painting of a building I used to cycle past regularly, in which I’ve got lost and felt awed by history – painted a century ago by a Frenchman who was entranced by the quality of the landscape created by the fog, which as well as being beautiful and mysterious was a product of the Industrial Revolution, whose long-running climatic effects brought me to Yale to study the politics of the environment.
That evening, I headed off into a second sunset across flat Illinois. So much space, the horizon appears only when your eyes give up distinguishing between field and sky. A great patchwork of land, straw-coloured and earth-coloured, sprawls endlessly, with no walls, fences, or any perceptible dividers, just a sudden, straight-lined shift from one field to another. Here and there a cluster of buildings protected by trees, like feudal manors with their territory staked out – but also like small factories, each farm with its huge steel grain storage cylinders growing out of the ground next to the trees. Back home I would have to climb to the top of Grindslow Knoll to see this far in all directions.
I marvelled at how much this landscape has been transformed: from prairie to homesteads to industrial ag, networked by electricity pylons, drainage ditches, and roads (dead straight as if the Romans have marched through), with an occasional smattering of wind turbines. And this train line, of course – easy to forget the position from which you see the world. There used to be loads of railroads, sometimes two or three lying next to each other on the same route, all competing for custom: transporting white-pine wood down from the Great Lakes for homesteaders to build their houses on the pineless prairie; bringing cattle and pigs up from the South to be fattened on Midwest grass and slaughtered in Chicago; and conveying thousands of people, some of them to San Francisco like me. It was dark by the time we crossed the wide Mississippi River into Iowa.