“You’re going to Iowa on a TRAIN?” was the common response when I announced my plans for Thanksgiving break to my fellow students. “Three trains, with stop-offs in DC and Chicago,” I corrected them. “But that’ll take forever! And the trains will break down! And it’ll be winter so they’ll be even more likely to break down, probably, and if the train breaks down there’ll be snow everywhere!”
I had to admit that Amtrak, the rail company, did not have a great reputation. But I was determined to give it the benefit of the doubt, in the land where the automobile is king. I was concerned about the ballooning carbon footprint that comes with the transatlantic lifestyle. I find airports a hassle. It wasn’t any more expensive to get the train. And after three months of library-bound Ivy League life, I was ready to “see America”, meet some of these “Real Americans” that politicians here go on about all the time – apparently Yalies don’t count.
I left New Haven in the pre-Thanksgiving rush on Sunday morning, piling into Union Station with throngs of other students off to see their families for the week. I’d managed to fit everything in my rucksack, and my only concern was that the fruit cake I’d baked for my friend’s family would survive the 1,200-mile journey to Iowa City. I’d wrapped it in newspaper and put it in a shoe-box stuffed with clothes for padding.
My first train-neighbour was a dear old lady off to see her son and daughter-in-law. “They’re both doctors”. She was one of those talkative people, who asks you questions but then doesn’t give you much of a chance to answer. “Where are you headed?” “Iowa.” “What?” – she was a little deaf. Or didn’t think anyone would be taking the train to Iowa from New Haven. “Iowa.” “Ah. I love farmland. Some of it’s beautiful. [Pause] It was very hard for the English people, they were used to everything being all squashed together. Then they came here, and it was difficult for the women. Sometimes they’d go for days without seeing another white face.” “Hmm.” I wasn’t sure if she meant they’d only seen Indians, or that they hadn’t seen anyone at all. “Strong people, in Iowa.” “Mm.” I went off to find a cup of tea in the cafe car – the Dunkin’ Donuts queue at the station had been too long.
The Amtrak cafe cars are wonderful. They have booths to sit in, and tables you can fit four people round. The longer-distance double-decker trains have a sight-seeing lounge on the top floor, with huge windows, dark-brown plywood panelling at the end of the carriage, and comfy seats of dark blue leather. I spent a lot of time there, feeling as if I was in another age – except for the cardboard sleeves for the cups, which under the Amtrak logo read “Rail Consumes Less Energy Than Car or Air Travel”, reminding me I haven’t in fact slipped through a time-window into the mid-twentieth century.
I had an hour and a half to spend in Washington DC, so after “detraining”, I headed straight out the station and gazed about, wondering where to go. Behind a stone memorial to Columbus (“whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world” – not sure they consulted the Native Indians on that one) I spied a domed roof at the top of a slope and, West Wing knowledge kicking in, realised it was the Capitol building. I joined the Sunday afternoon tourists taking photos of the famous cupola, passed the Supreme Court with its motto of “Equal Justice Under Law”, admired the stately trees dotting Olmsted’s lawns, then boarded the 2pm sleeper train to Chicago.