Thursday, June 25, 2009

Amerillo, TX
Train Notes (Kansas City - New York City)

Transcribed from notebook:

Train moves painfully slow through down town Kansas City towards St Louis - Scrublands and scrap yards, vacant lots and derelict buildings. One business has an old metal sign outside reading 'we sell glass' but every window in the huge two story office building is either broken or missing. Graffiti is scrawled sloppily and artless on all concrete surfaces to man height at the sides of the railroad track. Garbage and other household refuse piles up against the banks and verges - Timber and Breakers yards - small power plants, storage facilities and dubious anonymous buildings of unknown sinister use. Pick up points for trucks - loading stations - small blue flowers scattered through the trackside grass. A single Herring stands on one leg at the side of a pond filled with garbage. Constant heavy rain in the slate gray dawn and mournful cry of the freight trains straining with their loads in a landscape of redundant buildings and telegraph poles..

Conversations around me: Death, cancer, drugs, crime, families, gas prices and how this country is going straight to hell. All the old favorites, it seems, which never get dull to people. Everyone’s got something to say on these subjects and which follow me around everywhere I go. Slave comparisons made in reference to church confessions, where the pastors reports on what he hears to the police and government. The death talk is long and involved and ends in what the State took off them after the funeral. Crime: Talk of feeling like prisoners in their own homes "stand out for too long on your front porch and you likely to get shot!" - "When I was a kid you didn’t need to lock your door at night, you remember, right?" Drugs: 'crack attacks' witnessed - once she saw a 12 year old boy she knew shoot up at the road side. Age here is important and in every story the kids get younger and younger, like it’s some kind of a competition. Health: How Doctors, when they have an African America patient, will treat them experimentally 'with what they think they might have instead of what they really do have'.

The train is a shell of metal only, facilitated to the bare minimum, but comfortable all the same. Though hard, the seats are large with lots of leg room. It’s quiet too and I get the impression safe, but after all I have heard, you can never be sure.. The lunch - eating car sells nothing but sad limp sandwiches and microwave food, but great coffee. I ordered a cheeseburger which was stodgy, wet and boiling hot with a flemmy piece of cheese and when I bit into it was still frozen in the middle.. I have to eat this stuff for the next 30hours.. I have forgotten my novel so only have maps and guide books to read. It’s a bleak morning, but the view is endlessly fascinating. I am traveling at 100 photographs an hour in regret (not taken) and I am already looking forward to what everyone thinks is going to be a grueling drive back from New York. I will then be able to stop and take pictures whenever I see something that shouts YES!

Open fields now - farmland and large copses of trees and with all this rain - succulent and green. Huge muddy waterlogged fields the size of those in Hampshire - flicker of young green shoots just above the surface. In the distance white farm buildings like superman’s home - grain silos like rockets in the enormous flat landscape. Mills, construction supplies and sprawling cemeteries. Peeling barns and water towers that stand as tallest objects, menacing like H.G. Wells Martian tripods and I imagine them in motion.. We pass through a small town and the trackside landscape is suddenly again the same fringe blight. Boiler makers - Propane dispatch, earthmoving rentals, collapsing trailer parks, steel supplies, numerous nameless corrugated iron buildings - factories perhaps, sit wonky in small flooded parking lots of cracked asphalt.

St Louis still looks like a burnt out bomb site. More like something seen on TV news of Bagdad than the U.S. Burned to the ground, looted and abandoned. Its famous Arch straddles the city centre like the ivory tusks of some dead mythical beast. The view from the top must be breathtaking, beautiful, sad and apocalyptic. Again, Americas ancient monuments; factory buildings, mills and power plants, one after the other lining both sides of the tracks and on into the distance. Equivalent of seeing a modern day Coliseum, Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Mosaic of broken windows, peeling paintwork, corroded metal, and blackened brick against sky of darkening clouds. Reminds me somehow of visiting Pompeii - shattered and petrified by some equivalent, but recent, natural disaster. Half demolished and derelict empty husks haunted with the ghosts of more prosperous times - phantom cry of the train adds melancholy and menace to this already eerie scene..

North North North. Illinois, then Chicago. Vast flat planes of flooded farmland, holding now; great still lakes which perfectly reflect the storm threatening sky above. Lines upon lines of young green crop shoots strobe past before me - now we have really started moving. Clouds look dense dark and brooding, but strangely illuminated from above with dim blue sapphire glow and descend - lower and lower until they almost touch the earth on the distant horizon. Perfect perspective.. The train is a real slice of American life. Cooped up here together for so long means boredom and frustration and with the delays everyone around me looks dazed, shattered and beat. Now a derailed freight train on the lines ahead means we are running aprox five hours late. After a rough nights sleep, in the sitting position with no pillow, next to a polish student called Nicholas (with sharp elbows and a nightmare problem), I wake up at six AM and head for breakfast in the lunch car. There there is more space, with bigger tables and a better view. It's here where I have spent most of the day.

Over breakfast I meet Fabian, a German economics student, who has recently graduated and has spent the last month traveling the country on these trains. He is on his way to NY to get his flight home and impatient to arrive. I think that once, before this trip, he was a jolly good natured type with big rosy cheeks and innocent eyes, but now he looks deathly pale, his skin looking like wet pastry. He is tired and grubby and smells and his good humor now laced with bitter sarcasm. His eyes have the appearance of innocence but are haunted with something I don’t understand, 'something' has 'happened' to him somewhere, I think, which I don’t want to know about. I keep catching him looking at me with deep suspicion too, like I were a con man, or worse.. We seem to have no choice though, but talk and get to know one another and this is what we do..

Throughout the day we are also joined at our table by long strange cast of different characters from every walk of life, it seems. Florence, from L.A. an elderly lady on her yearly trip to visit her brother in NY. She's smart, bright and glamorous, but something is off - misfiring in her which I put down to the long journey. She is involved with animal welfare and knows all the old movie stars and a lot about psychic phenomenon. She talks at length about these things. John, a 70+ English Canadian traveling back from Arizona. He has been working with a charity group on the U.S. Mexican borders, helping the illegal immigrants with food and water. He is a retired Physics professor, specialized in Quantum Mechanics. Over the hours we hear about everything.. Troy, a tall black gay man from San Fran. He’s heading to Portland Mien for a job interview - a job he won’t talk about either. We hear about everything else though and all the old favorite subjects are again covered, discussed and examined in endless detail.

Incident: whilst disembarking the train for a smoke at Buffalo I squeeze passed, getting on, the U.S. border patrol police, four of them. I think nothing of this though, for some reason, while I stand in the cold and wet smoking on the windy platform. When I get back on board I notice that they are spread out throughout the train checking ID’s and asking all non U.S. citizens for Passports and checking very carefully. This is not what I need at all, as my Visa has expired and the only reason I am taking the train in the first place, instead for taking a quicker and cheaper flight. I was told by my lawyer it was not advisable for me to fly right now, at all, as all those without 'papers in order' would be detained - meaning taken into custody at county jail. So instead of returning to my seat, I take a chance and push past them in the other direction, heading for the lunch car again, smiling all the time politely, but saying nothing (hiding in the toilet seems pointless and an old fare dodging trick). The police are busy checking ID's etc to even really notice me, it seems and one even stands to one side and says he is sorry. I just keep walking and don't look back. In the lunch car Fabian is looking flustered and immediately waves me over to his seat. He knows my situation having told him about it over the endless hours and said that he was worried that I had been picked up. 'They ask so many questions', he said obviously relieved 'You were very lucky, Simon'.. And he is right too; it was a close and unexpected one for sure.

Constant problems.. At least another five hours of delays expected - that’s a possible ten hours in all. We are now told more big storms are coming in and there are fallen trees down on the tracks ahead and will not be able to move until they are cleared. Its pitch dark outside and we are in the middle of no-where (somewhere between Buffalo and New York??) I look around at my fellow travelers under the murky and milky strip light of the carriage blankly. No-one has any answers or comfort for anyone else and we are all talked out hours ago, preferring now to be quiet and alone in our separate seats. We have been together for about twenty six hours. The stench from the toilet leaves the sharp smell of ammonia at the end of every breath. Rain sheets down against the left, (north) window and the Air Con rattles loudly and unevenly and it feels like its getting colder. This is America I remind myself, but finding no piece-peace of mind whatsoever..

We are still sitting in darkness. Another passenger train pulls up next to us and grinds to a halt - parallel trains on parallel lines reflect parallel lives. Parallel universes almost touching divided by glass, steel, rain, silence and darkness. I look across the six foot void beyond my own sad reflection into the opposite carriage and begin searching for my possible parallel self in the opposite carriage and meet the eyes of a guy in his forties who kind of reminds me of Elvis Presley except with big red bushy sideburns. He is holding a comic book. His expression looks the same as mine and I wonder if he's thinking the same thing: ' The guide books I brought are useless, I need a dream dictionary.'

I long for my destination in New York with Euan and Andrea, yet know that it is the journey that is always the place to be and often more significant. This I will not know though until it is over - until the next phase on. In my experience anyway.. so close, but with every station we seem to get further and further away. Strange. I hope I am awake for our arrival. Never thought it would be this way. Me, in three day old clothes, dirty, stinky, unwashed and unshaved and unsure. Hungry, thirsty, tired and emotionally exhausted. Arriving probably at dawn in a severe summer storm with no gravity to any of my plans - I hope Euan is there or this sorry list gets bigger and full of danger and uncertainty.. We'll see...


  1. "100 photographs an hour" - I love that! You are a great writer as well as a great photographer Simon, very well done!

  2. You captured perfectly the essence of solo travel. For me it is the only way to go; traveling companions can be a distraction, no matter how near and dear they are.

    I enjoyed this entry very much. I'm looking forward to the next one.

  3. Hi, I have noticed when viewing my blog stats that this particular post has been recently getting a lot of traffic and views. If this has been posted elsewhere, besides here, could someone please let me know where you saw it before coming here to it's original home. Many thanks. Simon x