Its 5.19am July 6th 2012 and the Amtrak train I boarded in Kingman four hours earlier pulls into the tiny town of Flagstaff, AZ. The conductor has woken me and I, along with ten other passengers, quietly leave the carriage so as not to disturb the seeping forms around us. The sun is just beginning to light up the sky, birds stir into song and a tall 1950’s Motel sign (Rooms $5) is revealed near the side of the tracks, its skeletal form glows orange in a new Arizona dawn. I am based here for a period of time, mainly to visit the Grand Canyon (a birthday present to myself). I am feeling very sleepy and calculate that by now I have travelled nearly 4000 miles since departing from Penn Station in New York over three weeks previously. The trains have taken me to New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas before crossing into Arizona via Bakersfield and Kingman. There are many more miles to go before I return home. I have nearly three hours to kill before my Hostel opens and I can check in and have a snooze. For now though, I am content to rest in the old station waiting room. Flagstaff is one of those Western-type towns with low-rise buildings and wide streets that put one in a reflective mood: it’s easy to imagine stagecoaches and horses tied to poles, and the chink of spurs in the dust. Sitting on the station’s wide wooden benches, I muse on the variety of destinations to which the trains have taken me, the people I have met and the journey still to come. Think of America and it isn’t long before images of trains begin to appear. The history of America is also a history of the railways. In song, film and literary legend the train rolls along, creating narratives as enduring and powerful as a steam engine and stoking up the popular imagination. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was the first American narrative film, made in 1903; its plot is inspired by the exploits of the real life ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang led by Butch Cassidy. As one travels one realises that many towns very existence is only due to the building of the railroad. Originally these places were merely ‘tented-towns’ christened “Hell on Wheels” for their vice dens, violence and gambling (featuring in John Ford’s 1924 classic ‘Iron Horse’ and inspiring a 2011 TV Drama series) Many crumbled after the railroad was built but some remained to become bona-fide towns, notably Cheyenne and Laramie. The first ever populations of many cities and towns were the very workers who built the railroad, afterwards some remained to settle, many moved on. In 1865 at the end of the Civil War the term ‘hobo’ was created (the name ‘Hoe Boy’ was given to the returning destitute soldier/farmers of the South who, with little other choice of work, were drafted in to lay tracks) Many were unable to settle and wandered the country on the self-same railroad they had laid. I come to the trains as happily as a traveller who likes to feel the journey in his bones, hear the progress in the tracks and watch the ever-changing landscape slide by the window.Train travel over a long distance is certainly not as exhausting as flying. The combined sound of the tracks and gentle rocking of the carriages is restful at night and although I travelled through a total of five time zones I was never ‘jet lagged’. It may not be the fastest manner in which to travel but it is comfortable, even meditative. One knows that the views one is experiencing can’t be seen from any road or aeroplane.
I found it interesting how unaware most Americans seem to be about Amtrak. Although blessed with a non–privatised national rail company, which is cheaper and cleaner than flying and less expensive than car fuel, Americans generally choose to use planes and cars to get around the States. The majority I spoke with had no idea that the Government ran Amtrak or that a rail pass was available for travelling which cut costs even further. These conversations were often punctuated with statements that they had, “always wanted to try the train”, but had never done so. The main arguments were of course the time factor and this they felt was exacerbated by the freight trains. It is the Freight companies, and not Amtrak, who own the tracks. The legacy of the single-line track across most of America means that Amtrak trains are often delayed by long, slow freight trains, which ship goods all over the country 24/7 and have priority over the Amtrak passenger trains. However, over the course of the whole of my trip I calculated that I was delayed for only a maximum of 4 hours. Perhaps I was lucky.
Quirky conversations, chance coincidences and strange meetings are an essential part of the train travel package. One never knows whom one will meet on the train: a group of Amish women boarding in El Paso chat to me about their lives, a Vietnam Vet in Emeryville tells me of his adventures as a freight train engineer in the 50’s, I administer first aid to an 86 year old motorcycle enthusiast on the way to Chicago and, coming into New Orleans, the Café Car attendant, a tall woman, speaking in a deep Louisiana drawl, slips seamlessly into a broad Yorkshire accent, addressing me as ‘Petal’, upon hearing my English tones. She moved to the USA from Bradford 16 years previously and after a while began working on the trains. She works ‘The Crescent’ from New York City to New Orleans. She seems to be a real favourite with some passengers and is gregarious and cheery. I find it spooky as she converses effortlessly in her Southern drawl and then flips to her ‘natural’ Yorkshire tones when she talks with me. The trip to New Orleans is 30 hours, towards the end of the journey I get an experience that must rank as one of the best in train travel: the six mile crossing of Lake Pontchartrain is made possible by the train running on tracks laid on a causeway just above the water’s surface. It’s as if our carriage has become a speeding boat, the view from the window encompasses 630 square miles of water and looking straight down it is unnerving not to be able to see the rails. Fishing boats and small stilted buildings are dotted around us and people wave at the train from their bobbing craft. I wave back, delighted at this magical train-on-the-water experience.
In New Orleans:
In San Antonio, TX: On the way to L.A. from New Orleans the train makes a layover stop at San Antonio to refuel, restock and clean up a bit. I have been asleep for a couple of hours but hear the announcement that we are to remain at San Antonio for a while. The stopover is for two hours and it’s 1am as we arrive. I am wide-awake and feel a breakfast beer coming on. I wonder if the station bar is open. Its not – there isn’t one. I ask the conductor if there is a local bar I might visit. He smiles and says I am in luck. There’s a sports bar open till 3am just around the corner from the tracks at the end of the platform. “It doesn’t have a name” he says, “But you’ll see the ‘Open’ sign, make sure you are back here by 2:45am – I’m not coming to get you from your stool”. I assure him I will be back in time and head off in the direction he has indicated. The bar is only three minutes away. Fringed with a wooden porch, a few people are clustered in groups round tables on metal chairs and cushions. I clump up the steps saying ‘Hi’ and people nod in my direction. I walk through the door. A beautiful barmaid who is serving beers from an ice-filled tub on the floor says “I’ll be with you in a moment honey” then, when I order a beer, she says “Oh, Hi Steve!” I check that I haven’t inadvertently picked up a name tag from somewhere and ask how she knows my name. “But sure, you’re Steve from England aren’t you” This is weird, either she is a prophet or an amazingly gifted detective in her day job. I must look confused as she says; “You rang earlier – asked to speak to Nick – wanted to know if we was open when the Amtrak stops over? I recognised your voice and well, here you are,” I tell her it wasn’t me who rang, that I never even knew the train stopped in San Antonio, but however, I am called Steve and I am from England. “Oh, wow, she says that’s crazy!!” “Oh well,” she ponders, “The Steve from England that’s not you, hasn’t shown up, but the Steve from England that is you…is here!!” “Yes, thats’s true…I am!” I say. As I take my beer out to the porch I hear her relay the coincidence to other customers lining the bar on stools, one gentleman shouts after me…”Man, you have a Doppelganger – you want me to hunt him down for ya?” “No thanks”, I say, “You might shoot me by mistake”
In Los Angeles, CF: I take the number 7 ‘Big Blue Bus‘ back to my hostel after a visit to an exhibition, it’s the same bus that I took on the way to the show but it terminates instead at a bus station some way from my desired destination. I ask the driver for the best way to Crenshaw and he tells me its five minutes that direction (gesturing vaguely to his right) I stand on a street corner for less than one minute to get my bearings, when a woman says from my side, “You look lost – are you lost?” I agree that I am and tell her that I thought the bus would be taking me to Crenshaw Boulevard and that it stopped here. I’m thinking of walking and does she know the direction? “Are you crazy?” she says, “Crenshaw is a long, loooong road, what number you lookin’ for?” I tell her and she says that’s not too bad. I tell her if she will point me in the right direction, I will walk it. She pauses and looks at me intently for a moment then says, “Show me your I.D. – I might just give you a ride.” Somewhat taken aback I don’t comprehend why I should show my passport to a person who (might) be giving me a lift. I hold my passport open for her and put it in front of her face, she reads my name, looks intently at me again and turns to a man queuing at a nearby ATM and says “Hey, what’s your name?”, “My name’s ‘Will” he answers, “Well, Mr. Will”, she says, “Take a good look at my face, my name is Janice, I’m from Hollywood”. “Uh Huh” says Will. “Now Will, while you’re at it, take a good look at this man’s face too”, she gestures to me, “His name is ‘Stephen Mepsted’ and he’s from England”. ”I am gonna give this man a ride, as he is lost”. “Uh Huh”, nods Will slowly. “And Will” says Janice, “If you see my name or face in the morning papers or on TV, and I’m like all dead and raped, then you make sure to remember the name ‘Mr. Stephen Mepsted’ – from England!” At this point I burst out laughing, but Janice from Hollywood is deadly serious and I am about to make a joke to a bemused looking Will: “Hey Will…should ‘Steve Mepsted from England’ turns up on the news all dead and raped then please remember the name ‘Janice from Hollywood’!” but I think better of it. Now of course I don’t know LA that well, so I guess Janice is absolutely right to get a witness to her good deed. The contract is made and she shows me to her station wagon and drives me along the freeway towards Crenshaw. I try to give her some landmarks to head for, ones that are near my hostel; I am notoriously bad at directions – In fact I possess no directional sense at all and don’t remember street names. When in an unfamiliar place I navigate by a building I’ve seen or by a striking landmark or location I can work my way back to. “I remember a big tall building called ‘Harbor’” I say, and she says she knows it and that’s fine, we can go there…its not too far. On the way she says to me. “You know, that’s not a great place to stand around looking lost”, “The bus depot”? I ask, “Yea, its not a good neighbourhood – not really a neighbourhood at all.” I express my thanks for picking me up. She asks me, “What are you doing in Los Angeles” I tell her I am travelling around on Amtrak trains from place to place, taking photographs and writing and thinking”, she seems impressed but wrinkles her brow at me like I am a bit odd. Janice then says, with sudden passion in her voice, “Death’s coming! – Live!” I am not quite sure how to respond to this slightly startling utterance but take it as an inspirational quote, which I am sure I am meant to. She says in a less urgent voice, “Sorry about the I.D. thing earlier, but my husband is sick and tired of me picking up lost people – you see I am a God fearing Christian and I have to pick up God’s lost children,” I nod, worried that there may be some ‘Righteous Preaching’ about to be delivered, but no….she continues, “My husband says there are always too many lost children out there and one day you are going to pick up the wrong one and end up dead, I guess he worries about me.” I tell her I am thankful and that she is a good person,” I add ludicrously, “I’m not going to kill you.” She smiles and says that she can tell I won’t. She asks me if I am never scared, she means in strange places when travelling, not generally scared. I tell her I am always getting lost, I don’t drive, I rely on public transport and walking and it gets me into areas that might be considered dangerous but because I don’t know they are dangerous I am not scared. It’s all a part of gaining new experiences and I point out that our current situation is a perfect illustration of that. She agrees. Janice tells me about her work: church charity missions, and networking for funding, she travels a lot with ministers of the church and considers herself to be a lucky person. She believes that ‘givers’, by giving, gain everything, and ‘takers’ only want more and will never be satisfied. I agree with her and ask if she gets scared – she says her faith keeps her confident that God looks after her and that she is not scared of death. She admits that she is, however, scared of driving on the high-speed freeways and that she has to listen to inspirational CD’s to give her confidence while she is driving. As we approach the hostel she asks what I am going to do this evening? I tell her I am tired from arriving at 5.20am and walking all day, that I will have an early night. I will go to the 7-Eleven to get some groceries, make a meal and crash. She is then kind enough to take me a further half mile to the 7-Eleven. Before I get out of the car I implore her not to get killed tonight because I might get the blame if ‘Mr. Will’ is on the ball! She says she’ll try not to, and laughs. We say goodbye in the parking lot and I forget to take her picture. Oh well…thanks, and goodbye Janice – Bless You!
In Las Vegas, NV: Its been said before but it bears repeating: Las Vegas is screwed up; sad, beautiful, run down, built up, shiny yet dull, like a pocket knife discarded in sand. Vegas is populated by sulky dwarves and grinning giants, bo-toxed angels and suited demons, desperate and hopeful, greedy and needy; Vegas drinks too much and dresses badly and gets around on motorised wheelchairs when it is perfectly able to walk. Sinatra and Elvis have left the building and have been replaced by ‘The Jersey Boys’, magicians, hypnotists and more tribute acts. Costumed ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Spongebob’, ‘Buzz Lightyear’ and ‘Woody’ line the streets. Card-snapping small people flit like locusts and promise a ‘Hot Babe to your room in 20 minutes’. Couples argue and kids whine and beggars demand and all the while the relentless desert heat pounds down on ‘New York, New York’ and the Statue of Liberty looks out upon ‘The Strip’, offering a fibreglass ice cream cone in place of her flame.
To Flagstaff, AZ: I gratefully leave Las Vegas by hopping on a shuttle from Mc’Carran International Airport and then an Amtrak Bus to take me to Flagstaff AZ. At Kingman Station awaiting the train to Flagstaff ‘JC’ a Vietnam Vet who has chatted with me on the shuttle is inspired to tell me of his time as a freight train engineer in the 1950’s. He says that the trains would pass so slowly through here that the bar up the road would have a tray of beers ready – he would jump off the front of the train – run into the bar, pay and leave with the tray full of beer and be in time to jump on the rear of the train then walk along the top of the containers to his mates at the front end again. During this trip I travel upwards in elevation 4’818ft and across a state line: Vegas sits at 2’181 ft above sea level and Flagstaff at 7’000 ft. I have timed things so that I will spend my birthday in the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff is a great little place to wind down after the bustle of Vegas. The thin air here creates a particular shade of blue sky, a powdered baby blue. Each intake of breath feels like two – same with a glass of beer. Freight trains at night announce themselves mournfully and shunt on through the station, which lies just behind my hostel. The rail crossing shuts its barriers to cars and pedestrians and clangs as the train blows, it feels like proper ‘Old America’ and the only place I have visited so far where, in my minds eye, I can see the streets 150 years ago. 7th July is my 49th birthday and I am up early to grab the shuttle bus to the South Rim of the Canyon. We arrive and it’s a short walk to the rim. I shut my eyes as I began to see the view up ahead of me. As I fumbled my hand out to the railing and opened my eyes I shut them again to let it all seep in, its too much to comprehend and my brain needs to adjust. I stayed at the rim for an hour just looking, mouth open, and then take the ‘Bright Angel Trail’ down into the Canyon for a happy hike.
Back in Flagstaff I heard some guitar music coming from the bar across the road, in the elegant courtyard of a small bar. I decide to end my birthday with a meal and some beer. The duo playing were excellent and we got chatting in their break. I mention I play and sing a bit and they said I should hop on stage! I borrow a guitar, play some covers and they join me. In a fairy-lit garden in Flagstaff, the trains sound hauntingly in the warm night air. I look forward to the adventures I will have down the line, and all is well with the world.
FACTS AND INFORMATION: If one has the time and the inclination for this sort of journey, Amtrak trains provide it, and they do so reasonably cheaply and efficiently. As the USA’s intercity passenger rail operator, Amtrak connects America with 21,000 route miles in 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, Amtrak operates more than 300 trains each day, at speeds up to 150 mph, to more than 500 destinations. The cheapest way to go, if you are planning an extended trip, is to purchase a USA Rail Pass from Amtrak for $829 (around £520 at time of writing) CHECK FARE PRICES NOW this entitled me to 18 journeys, or ‘segments’, to be booked within a 45 day time period but available for travelling for up to 180 days. With a little pre-planning and booking-ahead I was able to cover 8000 miles and cross 20 states for little over £500. A segment can be a 38-hour journey (New Orleans to Los Angeles) or a relatively short hop of 7 hours from Kingman to Flagstaff. USA Rail Passes can also be purchased to cover 30 days/12 segments and 15 days/8 segments. In all I travelled for two months on Amtrak trains. From New York to New Orleans, New Orleans to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Oakland, Oakland to San Francisco, San Francisco to Emeryville, Emeryville to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Kingman, Kingman to Flagstaff, Flagstaff to Albuquerque, Albuquerque to El Paso, El Paso to San Antonio, San Antonio to Austin, Austin to Chicago, Chicago to Buffalo, Buffalo to Boston, Boston to Washington DC, Washington DC to New York, New York to Toronto (via Buffalo) Toronto to New York (via Buffalo) One can also choose to pay extra and sleep on the train in variously graded sleeping compartments. On long journeys this might be a good idea for some but I never did avail myself of the service – the standard coach class seats are comfortable, reclining to 40 degrees with sufficient legroom, even for a 6’6” man like me.