Days 25–26, August 18th–19th: the railroad!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 1,994 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 123/252

As people make polite conversation about my travels, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to Chicago?’ (Or Edmonton, that comes up too.) ‘—You’re going by plane?’

I think they ask just because they’re making conversation, because when I reply (with a nonchalance that sounds more feigned every time I say it) ‘No, on the train actually’, I get the same look Icelandic shop assistants give me when I speak to them in Icelandic. Or sometimes such a frankly startled look that I expect them to say ‘You mean there are trains in Canada?!’ But, aside from my ideological attraction to trains, I’m like, this is NORTH AMERICA! The land of the railroad!

From my window in Toronto, I can see the train lines, and I like the clanging of the bells when the level crossing closes. I like the fact that here in the middle of North America’s fifth biggest city, if I want to pop to the lakeshore, I don’t walk through a subway or over a bridge. I just amble across the tracks. I feel I should be driving my sheep to market while I’m at it! The iron road to the frontier spirit, there below my balcony.

I thought about nicking the Goon’s guitar, slinging it on my back, and hitching onto a passing freight train for my journey to the Midwest. But in the event I went to the station. (Crap signposting, Toronto; and it has this hideous basement. For a while I thought Union Station might be even worse than Brussels Midi and nearly as bad as the worst station in the world, Birmingham New Street. But actually the proper station building is this huge, stone, sort of maybe-it’s-called-art-deco, romanesquish place which is very impressive. Actually, it all unexpectedly reminded me of Helsinki railway station, Toronto’s basement more hideous than Asematunneli proportionally as Union Station is more vast than Helsingin Rautatieasema.) And I got there, right, and established that I needed to go to Gate 16 (ou port 16, naturellement). And I was, like, you losers, this isn’t an airport. It’s called a PLATFORM. (Et vous, mes amis francophones? Alors! Qu’est-ce vous faites?! Le mot correct, c’est quai, n’est pas? Oubliez-vous votre langue ici dans l’ouest?!) But then I discovered that actually, here in North America, they actually really hardly have platforms, just these little low things. Because you don’t need things like platforms out here in settler country!

And six hours later the guard strides down the carriage and says ‘Everyone for Depew! Follow me to the back of the carriage!’ And I step incongruously from the refrigerator where I’ve been sitting, with the legs zipped onto my shorts, in my thickest jumper, into the vestibule, which is at 27°, and the guard swings open the door and leans out into the rushing wind as the train draws towards the station, and the train makes the special honking noise that American trains make in films, and I’m, like, WOW, I’m in a moving train and the DOOR IS OPEN! Wild West!

And he jumps out with this little yellow hop-up the better to avail my descent onto the not-actually-a-platform (but also not, for that matter, a gate), and me and my jumper tumble down into the sun. And everything is flat, and looking back down the track all you can see is the train, and the telegraph wires stretching out along the train line, and this freight train that’s clanking by and stretches as far as the eye can see from horizon to horizon. And the south-west wind whips across the station blowing dust through the long grass and I’m like, BLIMEY! I’M IN THE MIDWEST!

There isn’t much to do in Depew, or its neighbouring town Cheektowaga, lurking on the edge of Buffalo, where I had a twelve-hour change (or would have if we hadn’t spent so long at the border). When various members of Amtrak staff, both when I bought my tickets and when I was on the train, realised I was changing there, they each gave me the sort of pitying yet bemused look you might give someone who has accidentally booked a no-refunds summer holiday at a leper colony. But I was actually pleased about stopping there—I had plenty of work to do and didn’t need distractions; but also it was an opportunity to see one of these infamous suburban type American places, and it indeed looked JUST LIKE AMERICA! With millions of American flags everywhere, and these shops that looked like aircraft hangers, each plonked into its own car park, for block after block. And although Cheektowaga, really being on the edge of Buffalo, isn’t actually the middle of nowhere, a Borders with a big closing down sign reminded me of the comment

we can spare a little thought for Borders. It has a particular relevance for American small towns and suburbs that isn’t apparent in urban centres. In the latter, the chain bookstores are the impersonal monoliths that destroyed small independents by undercutting them on prices. But elsewhere, the arrival of a Borders would mean that a town was finally getting a bookstore, rather than a rack of paperbacks and Sudoku books at the supermarket.

I don’t mean to malign Cheektowaga, maybe I just missed that cosy street of independent bookshops… And Cheektowaga had friendly people who nevertheless looked at me funny when I talked to them, and who said things like, ‘Katelin, do we sell… tea?’. AND I went to a MALL! (No wonder they looked at me funny. One of the ironies of being called Hall is that I have an accent in which the ll is impossible even for a lot of British people to make out. And on a really bad day I don’t even have the initial consonant, meaning that my surname is no more than an unusual diphthong. I have to pretend to be a BBC presenter from the 1930s every time someone on the phone asks for my name—and then have to spell it out anyway. Anyway, turns out that mall doesn’t go much better…). I was sort of really excited to see one of these infamous shopping malls. It turns out that malls, in fact, are exactly the same as the sort of shopping centre you’d find in High Wycombe. ‘Are you okay? You look lost’ asks a kindly mother-of-two as she passes. ‘Erm, yes, I’m just, er, exploring’ I rather lamely reply. Still, it was good to check. And there were a few anthropologically interesting details, like:

Life insurance ad

Adding that personal touch to life insurance

Ah, Tee Shirt University, NY. One of those little-known but assuredly excellent liberal arts colleges. At least if my postgrads can't find work on the European job market, I'll know where to send them...

Tactical pants ad

I really have no idea what any of this sign means, but I just can't get over the idea of having tactical pants.

orange moon

Orange moon.

And then it was midnight. And in America, the MOON IS ORANGE! And I was back at the station, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, reading Sigurðar saga fóts and watching the freight trains grind by, until, an hour late, the Amtrak train emerges from the night and the guards direct us, one by one, to our coaches.

I woke up, not for the first time during the night, and peeped out from under the t-shirt I had over my head, and realised that I was looking out over huge flat cornfields, and scattered woodland, as mist rose from the fields and dawn broke across the sky and I was, like, THE MIDWEST! It was a cool moment. And the sun comes up so quickly here. Suddenly it’s broad daylight and I’m back to reading my book.

At some point not too long after dawn, the train grinds to a halt somewhere outside Toledo, Ohio. Eventually, it turns out that up the track, a freight train has derailed and no-one’s going to be moving past Toledo for at least twenty-four hours. Which was sort of annoying, but at the same time also sort of, IT’S THE WILD WEST! You can’t expect everything to go smoothly on the iron road to the frontier you know. Probably it was actually AMBUSHED! Eventually, we creep into the station and after a couple of hours get put onto busses. Everyone was pretty cheerful about it—I was quite surprised. There was quite a lot of ‘Well, at least we weren’t on the freight train’, and at least as much of the rather mystifying ‘Well, sometimes these things are meant to happen’. Was this an echo of the deep religiosity of the American mind? I-phones jostled next to quiet beardy people who looked like they must be Amish. The driver of my bus put on a DVD of the Eagles’ farewell tour to remind us that that no matter how low our fortunes might seem to have fallen, they could have fallen so much further; and halfway through the trip he made an elaborate speech about how we were going to stop for a restroom break but that people mustn’t hang around buying food or get off to smoke because we were in a hurry. And then he arrived at the climax of this surprisingly rousing speech by asking ‘If anyone would like to drive right on past the restroom and save us some time, shout “keep on going” now!’ Scattered, but enthusiastic and much repeated cries of ‘Keep on going!’. ‘Alright then, we’ll keep on going!’ Scattered, but wild, applause. American democracy in action!


About alarichall
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3 Responses to Days 25–26, August 18th–19th: the railroad!

  1. The Dave says:

    Sounds pretty cool! Will be expecting more photos and stories come the end of September!

  2. emmhub says:

    I love seeing North America through your eyes! I have to admit, I was never as intrigued by you when I was passing through Cheektowaga! And I almost hate to destroy your excitement but the reason the moon was orange is because you were in Buffalo, and there is a lot of pollution that way. =(

  3. Pingback: Days 49–51, September 12th–14th: Vancouver | alarichall

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