We left our sunny, idyllic retreat in the North Carolina mountains and headed north, destination Chicago. Back to the real world. People, traffic, roads…and the dreaded Greyhound bus.
I braced myself as we entered Knoxville’s Greyhound terminal, knowing what to expect. The waiting room presented a depressingly predictable picture: grim-faced broken people looking forlornly into their future through a miasma of poverty, anger, body odor and rubbery takeaways.
They were the same sad characters of previous encounters: the heavily tattooed thug, just out of chokey; the struggling young mother, cursing at her unruly child; the lost, lonely Mexican, hunched up beneath his cream plastic cowboy hat; the red-eyed hobo, two weeks shy of a bathtub; the sullen scrawny redneck, desperately drawing on his last Marlboro…
Over at the counter, the same miserable, monosyllabic staff moved slowly behind the counter, scowling at this pitiful ragtag of humanity. From high up on a wall, the same old scare stories screamed out from Fox News, where hysterical reporters brought news of an ‘Alabama bloodbath’.
These places must surely be some of the most miserable places in this great country. If there is a hell then surely the condemned travel there by Greyhound. Not then, the kind of place you wanted to spend a minute more than necessary. And tonight the bus was late.
The passengers were becoming restless. A slightly unhinged-looking hick standing nearby huffed heavily and said loudly to no-one in particular ‘Call George and have him order me a bottle of Ger-ray Goose.’
I shared his irritation. We had a connection to make in Cincinnati and, whilst we had left ourselves an hour and twenty minutes to make the two miles between train and bus stations, we were starting to wonder whether that was enough.
Half an hour ticked by, 45 minutes, then an hour. Finally, our carriage arrived.
The driver, a squat little man sporting an ill-fitting jacket which flapped around him like a penguin with sudden weight-loss, could offer like reassurance that he would make up any of the time lost. He snarled at us from under his ragged smear of a mustache: ‘what were you thinking of, only leaving that amount of time to make your connection?’
I was gobsmacked. I still can’t find the words to describe such a service. So instead I’ll leave it to Tanis, a friend of our back in the mountains: ‘It is pitiful, lowbrow, and ultimately chavish.’
An hour late, we boarded the bus and headed out into the gathering darkness, chugging up the Interstate and over the Kentucky border. We passed large brown tourism signs for horse racing, the state’s famous ‘bourbon alley’ and even for a local restaurant, ‘Colonel Sanders Cafe – KFC birthplace.’
Sadly no local delicacies for us, as we headed on to the town of London, pulling in at a Burger King. Different London, same plastic restaurant, same cardboard food. Once more we were prisoners of the Greyhound and the Interstate: dull, lifeless, predictable.
Except for one thing: this being Kentucky the god-botherers were also in evidence. The Ten Commandments hung from in a frame over the counter; leaflets at every table asked ‘Do you know for certain that you will have eternal life?’
Keep eatin’ them burgers…
Back out on the road, the religious zeal continued. ‘Jesus can turn March madness into pure gladness’ a church sign proclaimed. Clearly the ‘buckle of bible belt’, which we had been told we were entering upon arrival back in Nashville, is rather large indeed.
It provided little comfort to us in our current predicament – time was against us. The air temperature was dropping (38F / 3C); our anxiety was rising. Would we make it?
An hour later the traffic started to thicken and the sky suddenly lit up with the glare of a million lights: Cincinnati, our transfer point. The bus rolled downhill towards downtown, crossing the Ohio River, the state boundary between Kentucky and Ohio.
A historical fault-line along which the nation was divided during the Civil War it also marked a transitional point for us – we were leaving the South behind and entering the North. I had little time to ponder the significance of this before our bus pulled into the terminal. 45 minutes late.
The empty streets of Cincinnati were soon speeding past us as our taxi headed to the train station. Our friendly Senegalese cabbie gave us a potted history of the city’s background before we pulled up before an impressive but decidedly empty-looking building. Dim lights shone from inside but not a soul moved.
‘Are you sure this is the train station?’, Lara asked nervously.
We heaved our bags out, entered a cavernous entrance hall and gasped in the gloom. It was a fabulous art deco interior, replete with marble pillars, ornate lettering and huge murals depicting stages of the region’s development.
This was bizarre. All this grandness and yet no people. A land-lubbing Marie Celeste where time had stood still and people had moved on. It was a museum (quite literally), not a train station.
Finally – right at the back – we found it: a modest little sign pointing to closed-door ‘Amtrak.’ We walked through, entering a small art deco waiting room and a completely different travel experience. A friendly fellow behind the counter was only too happy to serve us and the other handful of passengers who sat around on handsome wooden benches.
Sensing our bemusement he outlined the history of the station. We were sitting, he assured us, in a station that once saw 200 trains a day (400 during World War II), a key stop on the rail lines heading east and west. Today that service has been radically reduced. To just one. Six days a week.
I was gobsmacked. How could this be? The railroads, once the glory of America, the vital arteries which opened up the West, traversing mountains and deserts and defying Indian attacks in order to carry freight, passengers and freight-hopping banjo players, now reduced to this. One train a day? It wasn’t even a skeleton service.
Despite this ignominious decline, our Amtrak employee obviously took pride in his work, recounting the sad story of the railways as he personally escorted the small group of passengers down onto the platform.
We shivered in the cold as he told us of the establishment of Amtrak, the back in 1971, created out of the nationalization of the private rail companies. As he told it, the company was deliberately neglected by a government which had decided that rail had no future, hoping the passenger service would simply wither and die.
The next year, 1972, Cincinnati station saw its platforms reduced from twelve to one. The future looked bleak and the line itself would probably have disappeared if it weren’t for the determined efforts of an influential Senator from West Virginia.
Today the service still runs, leaving New York and chugging slowly westwards, arriving at Cincinnati at 1 am, not ideal for the locals but thereby allowing said Senator to appreciate his beloved West Virginia countryside during daylight hours. A small price to pay surely for preserving this vital public service.
It was a small train as well, composed of only three passenger carriages, a dining carriage, and a sleeper. The ever-helpful staff escorted us to our seats and we sank back into the huge, comfortable seats, luxuriating in our acres of space, two seats apiece – a decent mini-bed for the rest of the night.
The onboard atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to the Greyhound and its paranoia, pent-up aggression and hopelessness. It was friendly, relaxed and surprisingly jolly at such an hour.
Train and bus: they couldn’t be more different experiences in the US, yet another example of the great extremes which characterize this country.
I found myself wondering how could this supremely wealthy nation, rippling with massive economic muscles, swaggering with technological might, could have such a poor public transport system.
They had built the railroads through hostile terrain and opened up the West, erected lovingly-designed buildings and inspired many a romantic song but then somehow they abandoned them, convinced that rail had had its day and roads were the answer.
Was it down to the American love of cars and the power of the auto industry? Did it stem from a personality trait buried deep within the American psyche? The desire to be independent, free from government intervention, the master of their own destiny? Or is the country simply too big to cross quickly by train?
I still didn’t have the answer as I woke up hours later, the bright winter sunshine crowbarring open my heavy eyelids and flooding my vision with the flat icy cornfields of Indiana. They stretched on morosely for mile after mile, the relentless monotony is broken up only by clumps of bare trees, chunky red barns and grain silos, dark shadows against the swirling snow.
The scenery wasn’t the only thing to have changed during the night; the accents were noticeably different too, the drawl of the mountains now supplanted by a nasal twang. ‘Howyoodoin’?’, a lady enthusiastically greeted us. The intonation was unmistakable – we could only be drawing into one place: Chicago.
Soon the small towns gave way to one long urban sprawl, the sidings crowded in on both sides and we drew in to ‘the Windy City’.
Chicago. The hub of the country’s railway network, a city that grew upon the iron road, its astonishing population boom driven by the expansion of the railways and the industry that followed it.
Another train station echoing to former glories, and a huge, grand waiting hall straight out of The Untouchables (which indeed it was). I felt I was back in a museum again rather than the nerve center of a modern, fully functioning public transport network.
Entering the street outside the station looked rather an anomaly, squeezed under the towering, sleek skyscrapers, hidden away like an embarrassing old uncle. It was light-years from Japan, even-aged in comparison to home. Would they ever catch up?
Back on the Cincinnati platform, we’d been assured there was a chink of link at the end of this long, dark tunnel: Amtrak enjoyed its highest-ever passenger numbers last year and President Obama has already announced more investment in train services.
Is this the first step towards a resurgence of the railroad? On behalf of all Americans who don’t own a car I truly hope so: as our experiences have shown it takes a train to laugh, it takes a Greyhound to cry*.
*With thanks to Bob Dylan