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Stateside With Rosalea: Chicago to Fort Worth

Stateside with Rosalea: Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas

(Part 3 of an account of my summer vacation trip.)

By Rosalea Barker

I left off last time in Chicago, waiting to board Amtrak's Texas Eagle, clutching the Texas Department of Transportation's 2003 State Travel Guide in my hot little hand. And hot it is in Chicago's Union Station. Along with the Texas Eagle, another big train is boarding at about the same time - the California Zephyr - so the waiting room is packed.

On board, I find myself seated behind two ladies with immaculately coiffed hair that looks so stunning the car attendant asks if she can take a photo so she can have her hair done like that too. She's still a teenager, a solo mum who's going to college (polytech) in the Windy City, and doing a summer paid internship with Amtrak.

The National Parks ranger doing the Rails and Trails talk in the observation car has also boarded at Chicago, but I have to admit I'm not all that interested in Illinois' canal system. Instead, I note that the Canal Street Self Storage building is painted with big US flags, the dates December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001, and the words "America will never forget."

At first it seems that Illinois is cornfields to every horizon, but after Lincoln I see some fields of sunflowers. The ladies in front of me come back to their seat just as we pass one cornfield in which the plants are only ankle high, and I see exactly why that hairstyle is called cornrows. Intricate flocks of birds, like strands of DNA on the move, wheel above the fields as the sun gets close to the horizon. Just after Alton, we come to a graveyard of old train engines, mostly Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, but there is one Cotton Belt engine as well.

Just south of Alton is where the Missouri runs into the Mississippi and shortly after sunset the kids behind me say they're going to go to the observation car to see the train go over the river as we approach St Louis. "It's scary!" they say. We slowly squeach over a big iron bridge into the city that, on September 23, 1806, was the end point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I have covered in a matter of days one half of the round trip that they started out on on May 21, 1804.

I sleep through most of Missouri and wake next morning in Little Rock, Arkansas, too sleepy to figure out which side of the tracks those song-fabled two little girls came from. At breakfast I'm seated with a couple of truck drivers on their way to Mexico for a vacation and a woman who does "honor sketches" of individuals and groups within the armed forces. Later she shows me her portfolio and in it is a photo of her backstage with Tony Orlando when he was presented with one of her sketches in honour of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree". On my trip I saw quite a number of yellow ribbons - one tied around a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes in the yard of a very modest home, where the car in the drive also had two small US flags attached to its roof.

As we go further south the houses get smaller and more run down. There's deer and, in a swamp, white herons. "Look at them birds. Standin' on one leg," the city boys behind me shout delightedly. Later, we're stopped in a station just inside Texas and at the front of it there's a whole lot of hangars on bare red dirt, surrounded by a chainlink fence topped with razor-wire. "It's a prison," declares one of the boys.

After Longview I see an oil "horse" in a paddock next to the line and there's white fences and cattle. This eastern region of Texas is known as the Piney Woods and we cross into the Prairies and Lakes region after Big Sandy - founded in 1877 when the Cotton Belt railroad was put through - and Mineola, where I see 19.84 acres for sale, and a house with the US, Texas and Confederate flags flying in its yard.

It kind of reminds me of Taranaki, what with the cattle, the occasional oil derrick, and big hayrounds scattered in the fields. But you can tell it's hot, hot, hot out there. The cattle are huddled together under the small trees, there's not a skerrick of wind, and the clouds have that hazy tinge that spells triple-digit temperatures. At Oak Gtove we pass a Baptist church that consists of a corrugated iron shed with a wooden steeple fastened on top. It's in a bare red yard, with no shade trees and it must be like a pizza oven inside. At Mesquite there's a big sign for a gun and knife show, and we start to see the Dallas skyscrapers visible in the west.

On the outskirts of Dallas a homeless encampment has formed under a motorway bridge and opposite a liquor store. It's the middle of the day, and I can feel the heat through the double-glazed glass on the train even though I'm sitting on the shady side. Dallas is down on the plains but Fort Worth is up on a bluff above the Trinity River, just a short commuter train ride away. (If you're not traveling Amtrak, of course!)

Between the two, the railway runs alongside a road lined with motels, car sales yards - one of them flying the Mexican as well as US flag - and a car repair business boasting of "shock and strut" among its specialties. The Fort Worth station is recently redeveloped with a visitor center inside, where I'm given a book of local attractions. It's cover declares Fort Worth to be the real City of the Angels (because of some 3D decorations on a local concert hall).

Outside it's so hot even the locals are flummoxed but my hotel is only a few blocks from the station and I opt to walk, albeit with several stops to take photographs on the shady part of the street. Did you know that offset printing of newspapers was pioneerd in Fort Worth? Well, there's a plaque that says so!

The hotel I book into is expensive, inefficient - they give me the key to a room that someone else is staying in, and the bathroom sink in my correct room drains even with the plug in it - but it is airconditioned, a virtue for which a multiple of sins can be forgiven!

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