Day four began in bleak Arizona (we’d slept through Utah), on a flat plain washed over with grey, with steep bare mountains in the distance ahead of us. Sparse vegetation grew on the sandy soil. I couldn’t imagine what brings people to live here, but then saw some sort of mining operation, followed by various other industrial sites. We began to follow a surprising river, which enabled some hardy trees to grow and led us into the mountains.
We gained height fairly rapidly and soon the pine trees were colonising the land, until, once more, we were back in winter. Snow covered the ground and weighed down the pines’ branches, making them droop. It was no impediment to the train, which persevered upwards on gleaming rails. Soon we were curving round the sides of mountains, the ground to our right falling away into deep v-shaped valleys with mist rising up from their depths. The mountain-tops were hidden in low-hanging cloud. We reached 7000 feet at the highest point and then descended back down to autumn, with deciduous trees interspersed amongst the pines: few at first, then more, and we began to pass the occasional house. The soil became a rich orange, the vegetation more lush. Soon we were in the rolling foothills, leaving the Sierras behind in favour of an increasingly Mediterranean landscape with small vineyards. By that point I had lost all sense of direction, location, and altitude. I wanted to get off the train and run through the woods. We had reached California.
With a few hours left before my destination, I was left feeling overwhelmed by the changing landscape; every new geological and ecological assemblage awed me with another kind of power. Partly because of the scale of it: the continent unfolding on and on, the train tirelessly exposing new vistas to my island eyes: I began to understand the American presumption of never-ending resources and limitless possibilities. It wasn’t just the space that overwhelmed me, but the intensity of humanity in each new place we passed, arranging itself into different communities, adapting to different circumstances: urban and rural; hilly and flat; arid, wet, and snowy. At the same time, I had seen and heard indications of the limits within which we live, no matter what the continental mystique of infinity would have us believe. The half-empty reservoirs near Denver, the wildfires near Boulder, the soil depletion, the loss of biodiversity in the great agricultural factory-land that used to be prairies in Iowa and Illinois. Adaptation is not a single event but an ever-present requirement: once you begin to shape the earth to your needs, you create new environments that demand new adjustments.
Before we run out of coal in places like Wyoming and oil in places like Colorado, enormous shifts are likely to occur in our climatic systems, shifts that will reach even to the American heartland. On my path westwards across the continent, I began to wonder. In this country with its cornucopia of non-human nature and with such a diversity of communities, each one partially a product of human ingenuity and partially a product of the distinctive environment in which it is placed; a country that created the world’s first National Parks, that lived through the Dust Bowl and continues to live through more regular terrors like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods – how can the people who live in such a country fail to take seriously the existential threat of climate change? Or should I say, perhaps, the government of such a country? How can the electorate stand for such an irresponsible, shameful set of politicians who appear to be happy to trade off the USA’s stunning natural heritage – not to mention the resilience of its myriad communities – for a few bucks from a sleazy fossil fuel industry lobbyist?
This country is truly breathtaking; everything I have seen on my four-day slow transect by train has left me at times speechless, many times humbled – not just by the spectacular scenery but by the people I’ve met and their everyday stories, like the guy who was on his way back from Iowa visiting his old dad, all the way from San Francisco and back on the train, just for his dad who’s not very well. The terms of our existence are changing as a largely unintended result of our own fossil-fuelled actions, but as the years roll by without significant progress on tackling climate change, we cannot continue to assert our non-complicity. Of course Americans have the capacity to change things for the better. You think the personal effort is too hard? Tell that to the people who spent years of sweaty dangerous back-breaking labour building a train line over the Rocky Mountains.