Initially it seemed a hair brained idea, catching the South Western Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles; a train trip which spans the breadth of the United States, running from the North East to the West Coast of the country, covering at least six states, with only the occasional leg stretch on dusty platforms in small towns with names
like Gallup and Flagstaff. Everyone else seemed to be getting off at Kansas City. Even the conductor looked askance at the ticket heralding the final destination as Union Station in the City of Angels. (Actually he called it Smog City.) One and a half days and two nights travel, instead of a plane trip shy of six hours…
Half an hour out of Chicago, we start passing the first of the Pleasantvilles, suburban cornfields, a couple of All-American farmhouses and the archetypal red barn. Chicago’s architecture, Anish Kapoor’s monumental silver bean – Cloudgate, the impressive Art Institute, Lake Michigan, all a chimera as we now traverse a landscape best described in iconic American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. But a train trip, even more than a plane trip, is a parenthesis in the noise of one’s life – a bracket of stillness, facilitated by rhythmic movement, and a repetitive whistle. It’s not about the destination, but rather the space breathed between the leaving and arriving. The changing landscape from cornfields to prairies, mesas and buttes to mountains; from cattle to wild horse, fox and elk, deer
and hawk, the yellowing trees a prelude to the Fall. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, California, the clacking tracks take us seamlessly from one geography into the next. As we cross the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa, the crowd in the viewing car let out a cheer and order drinks. Illinois is a dry state and, prior to the river’s borderline, the teacher marking algebra papers at a table in the car, was sipping whiskey from a plastic coffee cup,
less surreptitiously than studiously.
On scrubby plains with bleak grey skies, wisps of rain streaking through the clouds, we segue from dinnertobreakfasttolunchtodinnertobreakfast. I speak about the challenges of building houses in Illinois with a former bank manager, I discuss the entire series of Game of Thrones with a designer of amusement parks, who is afraid to fly. I eat dinner with a couple who work for the military – he, a professional tank driver, she, proudly
and patriotically, a member of the National Guard – and talk permaculture and earthworm farming with a man and his eleven year old grandson, Saul. The conductor is improbably poetic, he calls out “Picturesque Princeton, that perfect mid-western town “, and wishing “may the winds ride with you”, as he leaves us in Kansas City on his shift change. A dusting of rain and then a whisper of rainbow, past a billboard that proclaims, “I love you Debs”. Fields of corn alternate with fields of wind turbines, hundreds appearing to move slowly across the landscape, a portent of War of the Worlds.
It seems appropriate that my constant companions are Jonathan Frantzen’s book of essays, How to be Alone, and Calexico’s latest alt.country release, Algeria. Frantzen describes a novel by Paula Fox, Desperate Characters, in which the protagonist, “was going to get away with everything”. The phrase leaps out and I’m envious, contemplating what it is I would like to get away with, for a time, for a brief moment, before I return to the deep complexities of living in South Africa. I want to get away from reading the newspapers, from the inexorable panic and fury, violence and despair, as the country makes its way through hellish before finding the promised Elysium. I don’t want to follow the news from afar, anxiously wondering whether Rome is burning whilst our president fiddles, or whether the orchestra plays on as the Titanic, finally crashing into Marikana, sinks. How un-PC am I, by saying this aloud, I wonder? As Politically Incorrect as the award winning musical Book of Mormon, from the creators of the TV series Southpark? (Which would not stand a chance in South Africa, before religious and political sects demanded its removal, as is our wont.) It’s a conversation that echoes Kevin Bloom’s ode to South Africa, Ways of Staying.
What can I get away with? For a day and a half I do get away with everything, and the greatest conundrum I debate is whether Debs ever returned the love. Perhaps she is married now, with two kids, a sagging picket fence, and a couple of rusting trucks in the backyard; the original billboard and romantic proposal to a mid-western gal, long
faded in the sun. Perhaps not. Perhaps like me, Debs caught a train and found her way to LA, seduced by the sound of the train on the track, before being thrown back into the scrabble of life, at the other end.