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Stateside: Rosalea Goes To Washington (Part 1)

Stateside with Rosalea

Rosalea goes to Washington (Part 1)

Okay, so what are the odds that your faithful correspondent would be checking into the Hinckley Hilton (as the locals here in DC call it) just as Ronald Reagan was checking in for his final flight to California?

Actually, we both left California for DC on the same day - he by plane direct to DC and my by plane to Albuquerque to pick up the Amtrak Southwest Chief where I left off back in October 2001. At that time, ALB's Sunport was the first airport in the country to have armed National Guardsmen patrolling the terminal (because of its proximity to Kirtland Air Force Base), but now it has the normal complement of Transportation Safety Authority security screenersw that you see at every airport in the States.

From the Sunport I took a $10 cab to the city's Amtrak station, which hasn't yet been upgraded, although the local transport centre next to it has. Across the corner from that centre is the most interesting restaurant I've eaten at yet in the US. The Tucanos is a Brazilian grill with a $9.95 all-you-can-eat buffet that has choices ranging from lettuce to Mexican-style beans and rice, to Brazilian items and Southern food like collard greens. Even mashed potatoes.

On your table is a tricolored wooden dowel - turn it so the green end is at the top and servers will come around in procession with vertical skewers of freshly grilled meats - chicken, pork, etc - which you can accept or pass up. Turn the dowel red end up and they'll pass by your table without asking. Lay the dowel on its side and they'll offer you dessert. Frankly, the complimentary appetisers of fried cactus root (like wide, fat potato chips), fried mozarella balls and fried banana, served with a delicious raspberry dipping sauce was a taste delight on its own.

Perhaps because it was the last week before the summer school holidays or perhaps because Amtrak ridership is up, the train was pretty much full. Albuquerque is always quite a long stopover because it's a trading post for local Native American handcrafts, but we had an extra long wait before leaving, because the drug squad came on board and asked everyone to identify themselves and their luggage. One woman in my carriage complained to one of the police officers that it amounted to harassment because the train had already been gone over end to end by Amtrak police with sniffer dogs before it left LA.

The Southwest Chief route in the 1930s was the glamour mode of transport between Chicago and LA for movie stars and magnates, as an article in the June Architectural Digest attests, but it's the views rather than the accommodations that are its selling point today. Still, it's comfortable enough to travel coach and sleep in your seat overnight if you don't want to pay the extra for a sleeping car.

Having instead flown over the rumply ridges of Arizona, and the red cliffs of New Mexico that the train passes through between LA and Albuquerque, my journey began with the New Mexico desert in the early afternoon, then across a corner of Colorado, the whole of Kansas (mainly in the dark during a lightning storm), Missouri, a corner of Iowa, and Illinois. The difference between the landscape and the weather on the Wednesday I left and the landscape and weather I woke up to On Thursday was remarkable: from sunshine and sage green to drizzle and corn green.

A conversation in the cafe car with the grandson of a corn belt corn farmer elicited the information that the old saying the corn should be "knee-high by the Fourth of July" is not such an old saying after all: before the recent advent of new strains of corn, the Fourth of July was when corn was planted. From the same young man I learned how hugee an industry corn and soy crops are to that part of the States. He leapt up to grab a fistful of the small packets of condiments in the cafe car to show me how many contain corn and soy byproducts, and assured me I could safely cook a hamburger wrapped in the USA Today newspaper sitting on our table because it's printed entirely with soy ink.

His enthusiasm stemmed from working as a builder of the huge storage and treatment plants dotted across the countryside where corn and soy seeds have pesticides, fungicides and insecticides added to make the crops more profitable. He was quite a contrast as a travel companion to my seatmate, a young woman from North Carolina who was on her way back home from New Zealand, where she'd been working on organic farms.

Besides Dodge City, Kansas (home of Gunsmoke), the train passes through Marceline, where Walt Disney spent his childhood. Legend has it that Main Street USA at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is based on that little town's main street. The route also crosses both the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers, the latter just before Galesburg, home of the poet Carl Sandbug and site of one of the famous 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas seeking to represent Illinois as US Senator. Although Lincoln lost, the debates launched him onto the national stage as a political force to be reckoned with.

By mid-afternoon on Thursday, I arrived in Chicago, with just a short layover before joining Amtrak's Capitol Limited to Washington DC.

(to be continued)


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