Five hours after arriving at Penn Station to board the Lake Shore 49 overnight sleeper train to Chicago, I was still there. Due to the now minus 15 temperatures outside, just about all of the rolling stock in the Penn yard was frozen solid to the tracks. We weren’t going anywhere – at least, not yet.
Now if this was England, what would happen is that all the Amtrak staff would be running about like headless chickens, with no information, and then the train would be cancelled due to the “wrong type of cold”. Over in NYC they don’t do things that way: the station staff simply put all us sleeper passengers into the first class lounge, plied us with sandwiches and hot drinks, and the staff worked on the train continuously for hours until… it worked! So five hours behind schedule I was finally boarding the Lake Shore 49 for a marathon trip to Chicago, via the lakes of New York State, Ohio and Indiana.
I’ve always wanted to take a sleeper train trip. Must be all those times I’ve watched Poirot on telly. (For anyone who wants to do the same, The Man In Seat 61 is the place to go: see the website here.) My Viewliner Roomette compartment was compact and bijou (suited me…) and although I can’t see how you could share it with even your most intimate companion, it was somehow preposterously exciting to have a fold-up toilet and and fold-down sink next to the fold-out bed. Obviously I was hoping for a murder to take place in the middle of the night, and Poirot to have to board the train so I could help him solve it. How stupidly easily I am pleased.
You meet some pretty random people on trains like this, especially in the 50s style dining car. (They never stop feeding you on these trips, and it’s all included.) At breakfast – eggs, which is just about the only veggie option anywhere – I got talking to a couple from Toledo, Ohio who ran a small company providing the rubber soles for brothel creeper shoes. They were ridiculously excited, and slightly puzzled, when I revealed that I have several pairs in my wardrobe. I’m not sure I’m their target market, but still. And then there was the intrepid 80 year old with whom I lunched as we flashed through Ohio, who boarded in Syracuse at 3am in minus 25, and was travelling on to Utah to visit her son. (And no, I did not want cheese with my vegan burger!)
The long journey passed through several states that I’d never previously visited and a couple I had, skirting the frozen lakes through New York State, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. For some reason there are abandoned cars dotted randomly across this entire landscape, as if sometime they’d just run out of petrol and been left when the petrol gauge hit zero, or like the triffids had landed and the drivers had just fled or been eaten. In parts, the whole landscape seemed abandoned. Often there were no people, cars or houses visible across the plains for miles.
This took me back to the last time I was in the mid West, I think 1994. For some reason, probably just because I could, I’d been in Chicago to see Girls Against Boys play a gig at the Metro. (Experience the magnificence of GVSB here.) Their US press officer, Stacy, and I then decided that we would accompany the band to Detroit, where they were playing the following night. I hadn’t realised until we set off in Stacy’s car that Detroit is in fact several countries away from Chicago in UK terms. About 7 hours later, we were enjoying the band in the abandoned wasteland of Detroit (apparently, it’s even worse now), before deciding that we should get back to Chicago straight away as (a) Stacy had to work and (b) I had to catch an early flight out of O’Hare to Seattle. This would mean driving continuously across the plains almost straight after the show.
But not before the band had introduced me to the delight of Denny’s diners, an eatery with which I have been obsessed ever since.
It was the middle of the night, somewhere on the interstate halfway between Detroit and, well, nowhere, yet the Denny’s in which they introduced me to ‘biscuits’ (scones without any sugar in, apparently) and ‘grits’ (not sure what, but looked like stale tapioca) and more eggs than you could ever imagine in your life was packed to the rafters with very bizarre people eating a full meal. And no, I hadn’t taken any drugs.
Back out on the interstate we were making good time back to Chicago. The band had long ago peeled off as they were driving back to New York. Stacy had now been driving for about 5 hours and was getting tired. The landscape was just cereal fields in the pitch black, and it was starting to feel increasingly like I was in Children Of The Corn.
Somewhere in Indiana, I never knew where, we decided to stop at the next motel we passed. It was around 4am and the place looked like the Bates Motel if it was in Deliverance. It was run by a pair of brothers, and if one of them had come out to the reception area dressed as his mother, I wouldn’t have been surprised. We appeared to be the only guests, and we were so terrified that we pushed all the bedroom furniture up against the door and took turns sleeping for an hour at a time while the other one guarded the door. We were convinced the door was going to chopped down by one of these lunatics and we’d be axed to death, but fortunately we managed to escape and lived to make it back to Chicago. (Check out Stacy’s current blog here for proof.)
Fortunately, my train journey to Chicago was a little less hectic, though longer, and very comfortable thanks to my charming Jamaican sleeper carriage porter (I hope he makes the trip to England that he’s planned – he wants to go to Stratford-on-Avon, Headingley and Edgbaston before he retires). I arrived in the Windy City just as the snow had caught up with us.
Of which more tomorrow, as I need a chai latte. I’ve obviously been here too long.