A whistle blew and the train trembled into movement. My home for the next twenty-eight hours comprised facing seats that slid towards each other to form a flat bed and a tiny, boxed-in commode with fold-down sink above. Compact — and all mine.
Amtrak marketeers dubbed this route ‘the party line’. The dining car housed raucous youths, noise, confidence and bad language increasing with their alcohol intake. Older passengers ate quietly and rapidly. Gazing at pre-dispensed salads and cling-filmed bread rolls, I now understood the earlier comment of an American friend: ‘you’re not going for the gourmet experience, are you?’
I was there for the views rolling by outside, a chance to see ‘real’ America, not just airports and 5-star hotels.
Magnificent but lifeless homesteads gleamed white in the sunshine, contrasting sharply with trailer parks full of people in abundance, dogs barking and an occasional chimney smoking.
Every town had a level-crossing; the local station was often in the main street. Our train became, momentarily, part of the community. So different from home where railway tracks and stations are banished to the outskirts of town.
Night fell as we pulled into Orlando. Fairy-lights along the platform hinted at pleasures for children and adults but it was too dark to see anything else. I promised myself another visit, another year, with time to linger.
We’d boarded at Fort Lauderdale at midday. As I fell asleep at midnight, we were still in Florida. For someone from a small European island, this was geography in spades.
I woke to a deep grey landscape, tinged with orange. Colour gradually bled upwards and across the sky, a sunrise more magnificent than any seen through the window of a plane. We were crossing the Virginias on our way to Washington.
As we passed Chappaquiddick Bay, memories returned of news reports nearly forty years before and I mourned that this beautiful spot had such connotations.
In Washington, sights were fleeting. The Masonic lodge displayed mystical symbols on the ground and gardens. The Smithsonian Institute conjured up Kathy Reichs and complex forensic examinations. We glimpsed the magnificent needle of the Washington Monument and, even more briefly, the Capitol building.
That week, the Philadelphia Phillies had beaten the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series and in Philly, the victory parade was just finishing. Every street, every platform was swamped by fans of all generations: grandparents, holding the hands of small children, couples in love with their sport and with each other. As we pulled in to 30th Street Station, I resigned myself to a long wait for a taxi.
It had not just been the people, the homesteads or the sights that marked my passage, but the trees. In the Everglades, trees twisted and stunted, rose from swamps, hinting at dangers. In the orange groves, ranks of citrus trees faded into the distance, murmuring of OJ and preserves. In Virginia, reds and ochre vied for space with browns and the occasional green. Overnight, the temperature had dropped ten degrees. It was nature’s way of telling me I’d come a long way.
Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.
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