(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 28.)
I am writing this column on a train. This is something I have never done before and probably will never have occasion to do again.
To be precise, I am on a train called the California Zephyr. We pulled out of Union Station, Chicago, at 2pm on a Wednesday and arrived at Denver, Colorado, at 8.45 the following morning, having covered 1670 kilometres.
Now we’re underway again, climbing west through the foothills of the Rockies. Our train ride will end in another 33 hours - assuming we keep to schedule - at Emeryville Station, near San Francisco, from where my wife and I will fly home to New Zealand.
By then we will have travelled nearly 4000 km on the California Zephyr. We originally intended to undertake the entire train tip in one hit, but couldn’t get a sleeping compartment and didn’t fancy sitting for 52 hours. So we broke the journey for a day and night in Denver before reboarding.
It’s now 9am on Friday and we won’t reach Emeryville till 4pm tomorrow. I have travelled in America before, and flown across it, but this train trip has given me a new appreciation of the country’s vastness.
Before boarding the California Zephyr in Chicago, we spent several weeks travelling in rental cars, covering about 5500 km through Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Michigan.
Americans we spoke to were appalled when we told them of the cities we intended to visit - places like El Paso, Texas (unfairly reputed to be one the most dangerous cities in the US, due to its proximity to the ultra-violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez), and Detroit, which has become a byword for crime, unemployment, drugs and urban decay (again, not entirely fairly; we enjoyed downtown Detroit and never felt unsafe).
“You’ll be seeing the armpit of America,” exclaimed the woman sitting next to us on our flight to Houston, our first destination. Certainly some of the towns on our itinerary are no tourist meccas, but I had my own reasons for wanting to see them - reasons which will become apparent if and when I finally get around to writing the book that has been gestating in my head for several years.
Along the way we have had some great experiences. Before flying to Texas we attended a memorable performance of the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion, recorded before an enthusiastic audience at a spectacular venue high in the hills above San Jose, California.
Just getting there was a quintessentially American experience. The rental car agency in the small town where we were staying couldn’t supply us with a car, so gave us a V8-powered Ford F-150 - the classic good ol' boys pickup truck - instead. All that was missing was a gun rack in the cab.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we spent a Saturday night at Cain’s Ballroom, founded in 1934. Cain’s Ballroom was the home of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the originators of a musical genre known as western swing, and the tradition has been kept alive by the current band at Cain’s, the Tulsa Playboys.
In Detroit I made a musical pilgrimage of a different sort - to the two modest houses at 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the great Motown soul hits of the 1960s were recorded. I stood in the recording studio, which has been preserved much as it was then, and marvelled at the prodigious outpouring of music that flowed from this claustrophobic basement before Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr ended the magic by relocating to Los Angeles.
In El Paso, we drank Dos Equis beer and ate burritos at Rosa’s Cantina, an unprepossessing bar on the outskirts of town that supposedly inspired the Marty Robbins cowboy song familiar to any New Zealander who ever listened to a 1960s radio request show.
At the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, we watched a succession of confident young men heroically tackle a 72-ounce steak. If they managed to finish it, their meal was free. None did. Gross? Yep, but very Texan.
There was lots more, of course, but it will have to wait for the book.
Now, after six weeks away, my wife and I are ready to go home. Travelling is a great adventure but it can also be tiring and stressful. Driving and navigating in a foreign country - especially one whose freeway system is as unforgiving as America’s - is a challenge, even when you think you’ve become accustomed to it.
On this trip, the latest of several we have made to the US, we used a GPS system for the first time. It certainly made navigating easier at times, to the point where I found myself wondering how we ever managed to find our way around without one.
But even the GPS was overwhelmed when we struck manically busy freeway interchanges in some of the bigger cities, where dense traffic moves at 110 kmh and multiple exits peel off in all directions. In cities like Houston and Kansas, we encountered interchanges that made Auckland’s famed Spaghetti Junction look positively Lilliputian.
At such times Mandy, as we christened our GPS (I confess we got into the habit of talking about her as if she were a third person in the car), would go into meltdown and I would have to make a split-second decision about which exit was the correct one. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I didn’t.
At times like these, when we're floundering around an alien city looking for the accommodation we booked online (always hoping we’ve made the right choice out of the bewildering plethora of hotels and motels offering), I can see the appeal of taking a guided group tour rather than travelling independently.
Having someone else take care of all your arrangements and make the decisions about where to stay, where to eat and what attractions to see must alleviate a great part of the stress and uncertainty of travelling. But I have a nagging suspicion that it takes away a lot of the fun and adventure too.