I’m trying my best not to be disappointed. That’s especially difficult when you haven’t had much sleep. It was Lucy’s last show last night and afterwards we went to The Tent (the marquee with a bar where cast and audience mingle after performances) so we could make our farewells. There had been the odd rumbles of distant thunder earlier in the evening but the skies were pretty clear. Within half an hour we were in the grip of a full midwestern storm.
Now, the weather in Saint Louis is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. For starters I’d never heard a tornado warning until this trip. Sirens blare and a barely intelligible voice echoes around the city telling everyone to get into their cellars. With recent news of Joplin, where hundreds died when a massive tornado touched down, a twister so fierce that it stripped the bark off trees, and seeing for myself Saint Louis airport, which had been hit at Easter and where half the windows are still boarded up with chipboard, you bet I was down in that cellar the moment that siren started wailing. Luckily no tornado landed on our neighbourhood but a few other parts of town got visited upon for a moment or two and the odd roof got stripped.
Thunderstorms have a habit of whipping up in an instant, or so it would appear if you’re not a meteorologist. I think what they really do is zoom across the empty plains like vicious joyriders, smacking things around a bit for a few moments of noisy chaos and then leaving as quickly as they arrived. Last night’s was no exception apart from the matter of its departure. It arrived quickly but it clearly liked beating up Saint Louis and so, oddly, it hung around for four hours. Only during a brief lull in the torrential rain were we able to escape The Tent and run to our car to drive home. At 3 a.m. the storm finally eased up and staggered off to bed, like a belligerent drunk.
We were up again at 6.15 and off to the railway station by 7. We’re taking the Amtrak train, The Texas Eagle that began its journey more than a day ago in San Antonio, up to Chicago. I’m on it now as I blogify.
America has some fine railway stations. Washington DC’s Union Station is lovely. New York’s Grand Central is stunning. A pity that most useful trains go from the much duller Penn (though I would loved to have seen the old Penn Station, notoriously flattened before its destruction could be prevented). Los Angeles’ Union Station is another beauty. Saint Louis used to be one of the busiest rail hubs in the country and its old Union Station reflected that – a manorial terminus built in stone. As I’ve blogged recently, the Amtrak station has been moved and Union Station is now a chain hotel and third-rate shopping centre. The new station is a steel-framed shed that makes Bristol Parkway and Watford Junction seem luxurious. Such a pity and a real downer when you’ve envisaged something from a 1930s movie, with a steaming station buffet-cum-oyster-bar (as you find in Grand Central), that’s peopled with ticket clerks wearing green visors and sleeve bracelets, with porters wearing smart blue uniforms and beaming smiles.
Amtrak would have you believe many of these things and a few others besides. They offer a free checked baggage service. We thought this would be a good idea rather than handling our four suitcases ourselves. So we rolled up good and early only to be told that the service wasn’t available. We waited for a half hour, not unlike waiting to board a Ryanair flight, and schlepped our luggage onto the train. The carriages on this route are double-decker and you leave your bags below and ride up top. Oddly, like Ryanair, you have a train reservation but no reserved seat. A conductor asks you where you’re headed and points you into a carriage where you look for a seat that doesn’t already have a ticket above it, or a person in it, and climb in. Shortly the conductor comes along (there are plenty of them on American trains), checks your ticket and scribbles out a reservation slip for the seats. That’s you set for the rest of your journey. Now you can wander around the train or sit in the observation car (or Lounge Car as they call it).
Amtrak’s blurb says this train has a dining car. You can even look at the menu online. There are photos with smiling chefs and white linen table cloths. I was up for a bit of this and last night had already punted on French toast with maple syrup served, so I imagined, from an elegant metal jug with Amtrak’s logo on the side. And coffee in a cup, china of course. On the white linen cloth.
We asked the conductor if the dining car was open for breakfast. “The dining car is not in operation but you can buy snacks from below the lounge”. Oh. No apology or explanation. No smile. That’s just the way it is, and I suspect it’s the way it always is on this leg of the journey. That explained why we saw several passenger detraining at Saint Louis (where the train stops for about an hour) and popping into the station’s KFC for some hot, albeit disgusting food. Yes, that’s what you get instead of the steaming buffet-cum-oyster-bar, a KFC and a Pizza Hut. So much for progress.
As the train crawled out of Saint Louis and across the seething Mississippi I volunteered to get us some breakfast. Lucy bagged a booth in the Lounge Car and I went downstairs. The buffet made First Great Western’s seem positively opulent. A guy who had clearly been to a special Amtrak clinic to have any bonhomie surgically drained from his system responded to my request for various breakfast items from the menu in a flat negative which kind of implied I was several kinds of idiot to even ask for them.
“Two of your yoghurts please.”
“There ain’t any.” (Thinks: what kind of moron wants yoghurt?)
I gave up scanning the menu (Bagel and Cream Cheese? Nope…Muffin? Nope…) and just ordered what I could see scattered about him. So we each had a plastic-wrapped Sara Lee cinnamon danish and coffee in paper cups. It turns out he was doing an egg, sausage and cheese muffin because someone else got one, scalding hot and still wrapped in cellophane, which can only mean it had been electrocuted in a microwave. I think I’d rather stick with the eternally “fresh” danish. Funny that, as it was trying very hard to stick to me.
Next to the Lounge we could see a Dining Car. My hackles preparing to rise, I asked a passing steward about it. “Only open to sleeper passengers” was the response. Sleeper passengers get meals included in the price of the ticket so feeding the few people I could see in there was an obligation. I couldn’t see any table cloths though. Or jugs of maple syrup.
The Lounge Car is all very well with its curved ceiling windows and outside-facing seats but on this stretch of journey there is very little to look at. The countryside of Illinois is an expanse of dull farmland, mostly vast fields of corn. Otherwise it’s all suburbs or, worst of all, large tracts of ruined industrial landscape. You could be forgiven for thinking, from looking out of the windows as you pass through most of these cities, that America is pretty-much broken. It’s an impression that riding in its slow and inefficient trains does very little to dispel. What a pity.
Huh. No sooner had I plonked down that last full stop when something rather sweet happened. A conductor announced that there was pizza for the whole train, a slice each which we could collect from the Lounge Car. She called us in, coach by coach (there are only three coaches aside from the sleepers and the Lounge and Dining cars) and everyone took back to their seats a slice of cheese, pepperoni or sausage pizza, on an Amtrak (plastic) plate as well as some cookies, crackers and dried fruit. It looked like the pizzas has been delivered straight to the train at the station where we last stopped.
How very surprising and I’ve no idea why they did it. I also see that we are now running along side the old Route 66. Things are looking up. For $32 (£20) each for a ticket it seems churlish of me to moan.