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I heart Samantha

I heart Samantha

In response to a few comments and queries, Samantha isn’t a real person. She’s the name of my Asus EEE mini laptop which did the trip around the USA with me, and is pictured in various places (Arizona, Los Angeles, Oregon, Chicago, New Orleans) in this post. Samantha proved incredibly popular, and I must have been asked about her easily over a hundred times. From train travellers to people in hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants to very excited librarians, Samantha was the centre of attention on so many occasions.

Samantha at Tucson station

Why Samantha? It’s named after Travels With Samantha, probably my favourite work of American travel writing after Blue Highways. Travels With Samantha was one of the first major works produced, and put on, the Web. It subsequently won the Best of the Web award for 1994. nb if you have recently gone through a pet bereavement, then advise not reading the first chapter of TWS.

In TWS, Samantha was also a laptop which the author carried around the US with him on what became an epic journey. Rebrand More about Samantha. She’s the PC 901 model, running Windows XP and with Open Office installed. 1.6 GHz. Problems to date: zero. Improvements that could be made: more memory on the solid state hard drive; non-essential software removed before start-up.

Bench outside Klamath Falls library

One of my tasks on the trip to the US was to see how much work one could do on the road. And the answer is – a heck of a lot. The battery lasts for 6 hours on a full charge, probably because it takes less power to run a solid state memory than a hard drive. In the first few days, I managed to do a powerpoint presentation and a couple of articles; as the trip developed, I did both of my conference presentations from scratch. The small screensize can make fine detail a bit tricky to see; you’d also not want to do heavy SL development work on it. But for most other things; fine.

First drinks of GLLS2008 tagged :-)

Speed: fast; it’s very quick from starting up to getting in and doing things. Issues: the hard drive needs to be bigger. The keyboard can take a bit of getting used to. The Wifi pick-up seemed remarkably good (though others contest it may be weaker than other machines), as I picked up many, many wifi signals when travelling around the US (side-point: thank you, so many Americans, for leaving your wifi routers open. Especially those of you close to Amtrak rail lines).

Connie and Gumbo

Accessorise? Yes. I have three items. The Obama decal, which resulted in two people wanting to buy Samantha for more than she was worth. And the mouse and case, pictured below with her. The mouse is a Belkin one costing around 10 pounds which glows in ever-changing colours, and retracts. The case is a soft pouch which weighs virtually nothing. According to the kitchen scales, the computer, mouse and case between them weigh 2 pounds and 10.5 ounces. Hence it was one of the lighter items that I carried with me to the top of the 6,900 foot mountain in Montana.

EEE, case and mouse

Do I recommend it? Yes. They’re cheap; you don’t like it – put it up for sale on eBay and you’ll get nearly all your money back. It’s robust – my older, much larger and heavier laptop would not have taken the punishment Samantha has through America. But if e.g. airport security manage to destroy it, then you haven’t lost a fortune. Above all, the weight and the compactness of the whole thing (the mains adapter was also miniature) meant it could all be literally thrown into the backpack with other bits and pieces. Samantha went everywhere with me, except to the shower room on Amtrak trains or to the Obama presidential party. So we’re good mates now, and I’m glad I never sold her.

Trip summary

Trip summary

Days of trip: 36
Miles travelled: 19,763
Travelling companion: Samantha
Countries visited: Scotland, England, USA, Mexico.
Countries viewed from ground: Canada
US states visited or passed through: 18
Conferences presented at: #GLLS2008, #IL2008
Key words used at conferences: “Internet” (#IL2008), “Tool” (#GLLS2008).
Favourite American accent: Tennessee
Favourite place: Shortlist: New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Whitefish. Winner: Memphis.
Highest altitude attained: 6,900 feet.
Best moment: 10pm, 4th November.
Worst moments: Noon, 5th November. Sometime in night of 9th November
Best meal ever: 6am, 7th November, a diner in Memphis Tennessee.
Most surprising outcome: Somehow, despite often unhealthy food, losing 11 pounds in weight.


Important lessons learnt:

  • Don’t think that because you are floating in a Californian swimming pool that you are not getting sunburnt.
  • Seattle has the best washing machines in the USA.
  • The Cheesecake Factory does not sell just cheesecake.
  • Elvis’s crib is surprisingly small.
  • You really wouldn’t want to be lost in the Texan outback.
  • Flu victims can survive on little more than hotel cookies for several days.
  • I am hot at Wii bowling on a big screen.
  • Count the number of pick-up trucks with dogs in the back outside rural diners. Three or more: the food is good.
  • A pile of dollar bills guarantees a good day of service.
  • People will tip just about anyone for anything.
  • Earplugs are essential when a hockey team and their families are staying in the same hotel.
  • West coast women are Laguna Beach, east coast women are Kima Greggs (The Wire) / Starbuck (new BSG).
  • East coast women are much better at dealing with taxi drivers than exhausted Brits.
  • Money buys an audience.
  • People can have varying reactions to the bite of a black widow spider.
  • The Mississippi is the awesome-ist river ever.

Downtown church

  • Rhinestone boots are “in” for librarians.
  • In New Orleans you can (probably) get anything, legal or not.
  • Do not take someone sensitive/unworldly on a late night walk through New Orleans unless you want to be answering awkward questions about “Free lube”.
  • 40 year olds can survive surprisingly well on 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night for two weeks. But no longer.
  • It is difficult to find someone more determined to overcome misfortune than a resident of New Orleans.
  • Really, don’t get me started on the tea…
  • But if you want to start an argument between two Americans, the easiest way is to say “So, that Sarah Palin, eh?”
  • Bear poo. Once smelt, never forgotten.
  • Everyone has the steak on Amtrak trains.
  • By day three of being on the same train hygiene tends to (literally) go out of the window.
  • A third of electricity in California is used just to move water around the state.
  • Hotels provide free Wifi as standard (British hotels, are you listening?).
  • Everything is cheaper than Britain, except house prices in cities and Amtrak baggage storage.
  • American’s who think 2 dollars for a cup of coffee is outrageously expensive are in for a big shock when they visit Britain.
  • Oprah Winfrey is royalty.

…and the most bizarre one of all:

Texas: a thousand miles of bugger-all

Texas: a thousand miles of bugger-all

(Note to Texans: the phrase in the title is Brit slang for “nothing”, as opposed to … oh never mind)

The train ride from New Orleans to Los Angeles is 1,995 miles. Factoring in the 3 time zones that the train crosses and the trip takes 2 days and 15 minutes. That’s a long time to spend in the confined company of a small group of people not of my choosing.

So it was with dismay that my first dining ‘companion’, just after the train left New Orleans, was a lunatic. He sat opposite and stared – without blinking – at me. Uh oh. “I can read your mind; you can’t stop me, you know. I can tell you want me to stop reading your mind.” He got that last part right, but probably didn’t need to read my mind. He continued: “I am this bread roll.” Right, enough. I left him to be at one with his roll, took the remainder of my lunch back to my roomette/cupboard, ate it and started to type.

And type and type and type. Maybe it was the intensity of the last week, maybe the lack of sleep over that time, maybe the pain from the spider bite on my hand, maybe whatever I’d inhaled without knowing it in New Orleans. I wrote a whole heap of stuff, some work related, some personal, some dark, some positive. Louisiana slid past the grubby train windows, swamp and tree stumps and moss and hillocks and low flat detached wooden houses, porches holding small knots of men, drinking beer while their dogs sat in the back of nearby pickup trucks.

Three Obama supporters hanging out

Enveloped, the only things that mattered were my thoughts and the ever faithful Samantha collecting them. A smoking stop came up. I got some ciggies, joined the group, got back on. Ordered Jack Daniels, continued to type and type and type. The bite mark on my hand appeared to be getting bigger and going purple. I typed a list of all the people I’d met from this trip. Dinner time. Myself and my one dining companion (thankfully different to the last one) were professionals at the whole Amtrak dining thing. Shake hands, swap first names, sit down. Give a brief summary of where you’re from and why you’re on the train. Then see where the conversation goes. Dinner finished. We pulled in at Houston for a while.

Houston, Texas

No Wifi pick-up. The station was some way from anything, and it was pouring down, looking like the set of Bladerunner, so I couldn’t upload pictures to Flickr or download emails. I got back into the observation car, settled down with more Jack Daniels, typed and sang Rolling Stone songs. People avoided me. I was glad; a month on the road and I needed some space. Samantha alerted me to Wifi networks that were within range. I looked out the window; it was 3am and we’d come into San Antonio. We were here for a few hours while the train was refuelled, restocked, serviced, and joined to one from the north. I sent off the build-up of offline email, did some 2.0 tidyup and update, twittered and had an e-chat with a colleague in Japan who was struggling with her exams in the language.

Arizona mountains

Then fell asleep to wake up to a huge expanse of … nothing. The open plains of Texas; “A thousand miles of weed.” And I wasn’t sure about the weed. The shower was unoccupied and hotter than the gumbo I’d had in New Orleans. For breakfast I was thrown in with a Mexican mother and grandmother who smiled but looked nervous the whole time.

The morning was spent watching Texas roll past. Have you seen No Country For Old Men? Watch it on a huge cinema screen, then watch it repeatedly for 24 hours. That’s the Texas outback (which is most of the state). Huge and empty; cactus and weed and brown grass and not much else. Dry gorges gave way to plains of scrub, and mountains so distant the curvature of the earth hid their foothills.

Lunch was fun. Dining companions were a couple aged 78 and 80 travelling back to Los Angeles, and a Texan aged 76. He used to be a conductor on Amtrak, and took advantage of the retirement option of travelling for free on the trains. Which he apparently did with avengance. His politics were interesting, appearing to be a George Bush-hating Republican (not the first one I’d met on this journey). And, with his permission, I took a clip of him while waiting for lunch to arrive; watch with the sound turned up:

The afternoon was spent more Texas-watching. The observatory car slowly filled up. Unfortunately, unlike on the LA to Seattle and Seattle to Chicago runs, no cheese and wine tasting. But as cheese had become the key food of this trip, probably not a bad thing. El Paso. We slowly rolled in. On the other side of the border, a huge Mexican flag, visible for miles around, waved. I tried to photo the flag, but couldn’t do justice to its hugeness.

El Paso turned out to be sprawling, industrial and mainly grim. I headed south, had a bit of an unnecessarily time-consuming adventure, then got back to the station just as the Amtrak train was doing its ‘all aboard’ hoot. Got aboard. We chundered off, through west El Paso. Signs pointed out US territory. In the rapidly darkening twilight, we could see guard towers and wire fences. It was all a bit depressing, and reminded me of those posh hotels on the Platinum coast of Barbados, with wired-off beaches. I swam around one and into a rich person’s holiday den a few years back, just for the hell of it, and got into some serious trouble. Mexico and the US reminds me a bit of that.

Last dinner, and I was thrown together with the people in the roomette opposite. They were really nice, mother of about 50 and her daughter. There was obviously a back story about why they were travelling, but it was just good to enjoy their company. Until the lunatic from my first meal on this train was put with us. “What are your names, and where do you live?” he asked the two women opposite, killing the conversation for the rest of the meal.

The three of us requested the one dessert that was take-away (Haagen Daas ice cream tube), went back to the roomettes and breathed a collective sigh of relief. we split a bottle of red and called it a night. Tucson, Arizona, hometown of one of my Finnish/American friends, came up well ahead of schedule.

Samantha at Tucson station

We had two hours here, which gave me the opportunity to find and use some more Wifi and do various things. Tucson itself seemed pretty nice, though it was a bit tricky to say in the dark. Wish I’d been here for a day or so, as might then have been able to visit Alice Robison (no, not just for your swimming pool).

Next time. Went to bed, the last of six nights I’d be sleeping on an Amtrak train on this trip. Woke up after an unusually good nights sleep with an idea that had been growing in my head since sitting in a Cheesecake Factory in Chicago a week or two back.

Tried to forget about it by going to breakfast. I was joined, for my last meal on an Amtrak train by a lovely elderly couple who were also doing a tour of the US by train. He was originally from Texas and used to be a maintenance man in a rare metals mill, she was from Minnesota and used to be a school bus driver. I guessed correctly when she challenged me to guess which state she was from, as she looked distinctly of the genetics of many of the settlers there a century ago. They both now lived in Oregon. They spent a lot of time reading and using their public library, and had basically educated themselves to a position where they were not loaded, but were comfortable, with no debts and monies safely stashed away, even against the current economic fallout.

He saw America as, still, being a land of opportunity for anyone wanting to work at it. They were both in their 80’s and didn’t have a cynical or negative bone in their bodies. I went back to my roomette and watched Arizona slide past. Mile after mile of desert plane, then a rash of wind turbines, then huge, crumbling mountains and flat, still lakes underneath flocks of slow-flapping seabirds. We pulled in to Los Angeles four hours late. But when you’ve been on the same train for over two days, it didn’t seem to matter. This is the train station I left from 23 days ago. After not far off 7,000 miles, this particular Amtrak adventure was done.

Time for a little bit of Los Angeles, then to head, finally, to the Getty Center.

Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Put some South in your Mouth

After an excessively and stupidly late night drinking with Mark, Tyrone and Oscar on the train out of Chicago, I woke up to the coach attendant banging on my roomette door as we were early at our destination. It was 5:20am. “Leave me alone; I’m British!” “Sir, you gonna need to get your shit together; we pullin into the station real soon.” After the world’s quickest shower and a bag pack where more by luck nothing was left behind, I staggered off the train into the darkness of a pre-dawn Memphis. I felt like crap. Several days with little sleep, too much drink the night before, and an awesome five days in Chicago had done me in. The lack-of-sleep aching in my arms and neck had gotten real bad and my heart felt like it was attempting to escape from my rib cage.

Luckily, there was a perfect diner, apparently the oldest restaurant still going in Memphis, across the road. And it was just opening. I went in, trailing clothes and luggage everywhere (only on the way out did I discover one of my socks jamming the door open). Holly appeared, and in the most southern, Tennessee accent possible read my mind (or saw my general demeaner), fixed me with eyes as blue as the Mississippi I’d see a little later and said “Yew wan lotsa ca-ffee, sur?”.


Best to just say that my answer was in the positive. A startled Holly brought over a pot of coffee which I started to work through, while wondering (after Brooke in Montana) if every waitress in the USA had blue eyes. In an hour I drank enough to give an elephant the shakes. I ate a huge, spinach and mushroom filled omelette and drank more coffee. A trip to the restroom and I filled up with coffee again. I packed better, went outside, collected socks and spotted trolley cars, similar to those in San Francisco. Got on; the conductor / driver informed that the cars do a large loop taking in downtown and the bank of the Mississippi. Perfect. As the car slowly trundled around, extremely well dressed people, mainly 50+, got on and off. Turned out there was a church conference going on in downtown Memphis, and people were converging on it. In three laps of the loop I had a good chat to several groups, and was invited to their gospel service that evening. Which was kinda tempting.

Off to church

Three laps of the loop later I’d worked out a plan for the day. First, breakfast number two; fried chicken, corn and soda while sitting on the banks of the Mississippi, watching the boats chug by. The food was real good, and sitting there was as relaxing as it could get. But my ticket for Graceland was for the 11am tour. I got my shit together, found a taxi, dumped (literally) my luggage off at the hotel, and continued on to Elvis’s crib. Where a surreal few hours was spent wandering around his house, cars and airplane.

Oh, and trying on the glasses in the gift shop…

Elvis is in the giftshop...

I tried to ring Scotland. There’s many things I love about America, but one thing I really hate is attempting to make an international phone call from there. An impossibly complex and contradictory set of labels on ehe phone implied that 50 cents would get me “Up to 5 minutes” for a call to the UK, if I followed the instructions. E.T. probably had an easier time phoning home than I did phoning Scotland. The call turned out to be a lot less than 5 minutes, and costed a lot more than 50c. Convinced this is a conspiracy by cellphone customers to get more people signed up, I returned to Memphis. Much of the afternoon was spent chilling on the bank of the Mississippi.

Twilight over the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee

Everyone who passed me (many joggers, a few cyclists, the odd policeman) said hello. After a while, and aware it was my only full day in Memphis, a wander around some of the streets was in order. Beale street is the main drag, with a combination of blues bars, cafes, Irish pubs (some more genuine than others), seafood and southern food. I ate ribs in one place that had the irresistable slogan ‘Put some South in your Mouth’, then wandered, looking for somewhere that sold Obama t-shirts, and ended up in a blues bar. And it was good; the band played, beer of some kind arrived, and I chilled out. Annoyingly, it was dark in there, my camera battery had given out and I couldn’t find a recharger in the gloom.

I left the bar feeling sated but even more wrecked. A taxi was waiting outside. I got in the back and possibly rudely demanded to be taken to my hotel. Turned out it wasn’t a taxi, but a Memphis police car which has similar markings to one of the taxi companies. Words were said between the policeman and me (we won’t be exchanging Christmas cards). I got out, as it was preferable to a night in a communal cell, and found a legitimate taxi. I got back to the hotel with the intention of doing lots of admin things, repacking, organising, whatever. But was too out of it so literally crawled into bed with my laptop, gave up checking emails or doing Flickr stuff, had a twitter conversation about digital library researchers with an imsomniac in London and fell asleep.

The next morning I felt sharp and truly awake for the first in a long time. Hit the shower (Mmmm, hotel shower, nicer than Amtrak train shower) singing Ash’s “Shining Light” loud enough to wake most of the hotel. Getting said hotel to get a taxi to the train station was problematic. “It’ll be here in 10 minutes”. It wasn’t. “Here in 5.” It wasn’t. “It’s just pulling up now, sir.” “How? Why are you sayin this? We can both see out there for miles. There’s no traffic! Is this an invisible taxi, pulling up?” I gave up on the hotel and got my own taxi. Got to Memphis station just as the sun was rising, and the smokers from Chicago were outside puffing away. Here I met Dwayne and Martin and took their picture with the sun rising over Memphis behind:

Dwight and Martin

Dwayne, on the left, had an interesting story. He was heading back to New Orleans, where we used to live, earning a living as a landscaper. Hurricane Katrina came along and destroyed his house and the neighbourhood. He had a pretty graphic account of the days after the hurricane; people shooting over a bag of ice; the neighbourhood he lived in literally floating away; people disappearing when the alligators came; the breakdown of law, order and society.

Dwayne and Martin both speculated on whether the hurricane had caused all of the damage, and the levee that seemed to have exploded inward; they both noted (and I’d heard this from others down from Chicago) that more than a few people wanted extreme “solutions” to New Orleans “issues”, with Katrina coming at an opportune time. Three years on and Dwayne still hadn’t gotten his FEMA compensation, and was only now starting to seriously plan on returning. He seemed like a decent, hardworking kinda guy who just wanted to get by and raise his family well.

“Git your asses on board, sirs”, so we did. The train trundled through the Mississippi countryside and for a while it bizarrely reminded me of … Worcestershire, with little copses of trees, ordered fields, small houses and tractors. But then the countryside changed to something very un-Worcestershire like, with cotton fields and swampy woods. The trees were still the star attraction, leaf turning bronze and red in the fall weather.

The nearly nine hours to New Orleans was spent doing admin, processing pictures, looking at the countryside of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana go past, and inevitably talking to people. One group of four people were off to New Orleans to jump on a cruise ship for a friends wedding in Caribbean waters. The teccie of the group, who not surprisingly took an interest in Samantha, told me he hated weddings and usually avoided them. But in this case, on a cruise ship with unlimited drink and many bridesmaids, he was reckoning on a good chance of being laid. I wished him luck and suitable precautions.

A chef from a New Orleans restaurant sat at my table and we ended up chatting for several hours. He was pretty useful in marking out where to go, where not to go, which taxi companies were legit (few) and which were not (many), and where to eat and drink. I now know what a tap rat, and several other things, are. After a while, the cottonfields gave way to different trees, and smaller shacks, often on stilts. The trees changed, to more tropical varieties, and the swamps increased in volume and number. The land flattened out; parts of Louisiana reminded me of Norfolk, just with hotter sun and alligators in the water.

Louisiana swampland

The last hour in to New Orleans was spent looking for the bitey creatures (my count: just one lazy one). Then, we slowly came in, through inhabited suburbs of lo-rise detached houses. So this is the Big Easy. I get the feeling this is going to be fun…

Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Miles travelled on trip so far: 10,186. Planes: 3. Trains: 11. Buses: 14. Taxis: 7. Car trips: 6.

A train ride of 32 hours, not far from much of the USA to Canada border, brings me to Chicago. Montana is one of the most scenic places I’ve stayed in. The nickname “Big Sky Country” fits the state perfectly as the horizons seem to fall away, leaving a huge expanse of blue. Always blue. The last time I experienced rain was in early October in the Outer Hebrides. Montana is also big. It’s five times the size of Scotland, but has less than a million residents. And it shows, as river gorges and forests eventually give way to open praire, with a few horses and cattle here and there but little sign of habitation. Occasionally, we’d pass an abandoned wooden dwelling, or a small trailer park (grim), or the odd Swedish-style farmhouse (an indication of the ancestry). Which is not such a coincidence; the plain of central and eastern Montana kinda resembles a more arid and treeless version of southern Sweden.

It took most of the day to cross just this one state; it’s even got it’s own time zone called MT (Mountain Time!). Turn your watches forward an hour when entering Montana from the west, and an hour forward again when leaving through the east. The train stopped at numerous small places (not all of them timetabled), including Shelby. Oddly, I got a Wifi signal and was able to very quickly check email and tweet. It’s here that it felt like real ranch country and I noticed a few such folk get on the train at this point.

Lunch saw me slotted in with Mr Rancher, and a couple from London. Mr Rancher didn’t say anything. Mr and Mrs Tourist were enjoying the scenery, until possibly the moment Mrs Tourist said to her husband “Ooooooh, look, it’s so like Brokeback Mountain.”

This didn’t make Mr Rancher happy.

“That God Damned movie. Hollywood. Think they know us.”

He stopped eating, and slowly put his cutlery back, neatly, on either side of his plate. It was one of those moments you had to be there, almost like something from a Coen Brothers movie.

“Hoe Moe Sex Ewe All cowboys.” He shook his head, slowly. I quietly marvelled at how he’d made one word sound like five distinct words in his accent.

Mr and Mrs tourist, possibly very unused to this level of non-PC talk, suddenly studied the scenery with incredible intensity.

Mr Rancher turned to me. “Have you seen that God Damned movie too?” I truthfully replied that I hadn’t, and thought it best not to tell him the three word review printed by one British downmarket newspaper (“Gay cowboy romp.”).

Mr Rancher was in his element. “Thur ain’t no fah-guts here.” (Very long pause) “Ne-vur have been.” (Very long pause to drink most of his coffee) “Ne-vur will be.”

I winced. Mr and Mrs tourist went pale. Both, in a very English way, suddenly remembered it was time to do some unspecified task and left.

The train rolled on. Neither of us spoke. There didn’t seem much point, this time, in asking my fellow diner who he was going to vote for. And I guessed he wouldn’t be impressed at the reason I was attending Chicago. The thought of him probably saying “God Damned Vee Dee Oh Games” meant we ate in silence. About ten minutes later, out of the blue Mr Rancher uttered: “They all live in San Fran Sis Cow.”

I finished my lunch. Mr Rancher didn’t say another word. I saw him a few times later in the trip, once questioning a couple over breakfast, with thinly veiled disappointment, about their church attendance record.

At three o’clock, wine and cheese tasting took place. Unlike on the Los Angeles to Seattle train, this one was free, so it was even more baffling that more people didn’t turn up. Not that we were complaining, as the large surplus of wine meant that most tables were slipped a mostly full bonus bottle, after their four full glasses. By four PM, some people were seriously wondering if they would make dinner.

In between glasses three (nice Merlot) and four (a Californian red), the train slowed and pulled into a station. I glanced at the name. Glasgow. I glanced again, and bolted for the door with camera. One of my more realistic ambitions on this trip (as opposed to “Kill a grizzly with my bear hands” [I had a great uncle who apparently did this, though in Canada] or “Discuss the national energy policy with Paris Hilton”) was to get some kind of picture of the namesake of Scotland’s largest city. Just as the train started to pull out of the station, I managed to get a distant shot of the sign on its roof. Result.

Glasgow station

I got back to the wine tasting, which was jolly, but still civilised. There’s a thought. Can you imagine the outcome if First Great Western announced over the tannoy one evening “A free cheese and wine tasting will now take place. Any interested participants, please make your way to the buffet car. First come, first served.” How many people would die in the stampede? At what point would the train stop and vanloads of police have to charge through it to restore order?

Here, someone dropped a napkin but that’s as rowdy as it got. A classical music quartet, playing Strauss, in the corner of the carriage would not have been out of place.

At four o’clock, wine tasting ended. The last possible booking for dinner was 6pm (Too early! I’m British!), and the onslaught of unhealthy Amtrak meals continued. At this point I noted we were *still* in Montana, not being long out of Wolf Point. There was still North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and some of Illinois to cross before reaching Chicago.

We finally left Montana. Sadly. It’s possibly the friendliest region I’ve visited anywhere. People are unprovokingly and genuinely pleasant i.e. they aren’t doing it out of self-interest, or to glean money or tips. In 5 days I’d had conversations with around 40 residents, all of them interesting and friendly. And with the awesome scenery, which frankly bats Scotland and Scandinavia out of the park, broadband everywhere, friendly and genuine (and genuinely friendly) locals, glaciers, mountain ranges, forests, cheap petrol and food (a sandwich containing “A pound of meat in weight or your money back” for 4 dollars), it’s an attractive place to live… …but unfortunately that’s created a problem, in that over the last few years “City Flight” has taken place and many, mostly rich, people have moved there. To the extent that the house prices in Whitefish, even post-crash, are insanely high. As is renting. Houses are springing up all over the place, many of them preposterously large and as ugly/fake as hell. Look at the displays in real estate windows and there’s lots available – but most of it being several hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of dollars.

At dinner, we manoeuvered it so the same group of four from the wine tasting could dine together. This also meant that we have a supply of red wine, from the excess we were given at the end of the tasting. I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening, except waking up the next morning as the train pulled in to Minneapolis. I’d managed to sleep through much of North Dakota.

In carriages with roomettes (the cheapest form of overnight where you have your own bed and privacy) there’s one shower room for each set of roomettes. From the noises eminating from the shower in my carriage it became obvious that there was more than one person in there, and they were going to be a while, so I snucked into an unused larger room (more expensive but with own shower) to clean up.

Breakfast was a sedate affair, watching the dawn break over the river as we trundled out of the twin cities and headed east. Well, sedate until stereotypical trailer park trash family turned up and tested the patience of the Amtrak staff. They were tolerant with the two year old boy throwing food around (unbelievably, he was called “Bubba”! – I was half-expecting his dad to be called Cletus if he turned up) until the kid made the mortal mistake of running down the diner car grabbing the tips people had left.

If there’s one thing you don’t do in America, it’s interfere with tips left for staff (wasn’t there a Seinfeld episode about this?). The mood turned a little nasty, the conductor appeared and even Mother-of-Bubba realised that her demonic son was out of control. He was made to hand back the money, and she left a tip of her own. A quarter. When I get back home I’m renaming the cats Cletus (formerly Jura) and Bubba (appropriate, and formerly Islay).

Minnesota and Wisconsin were “tree worthy”. It’s odd that New England is associated with the colours of leaves during the fall, when the display in this part of the USA is pretty spectacular. Somewhere in Minnesota the crew changed to a Chicago team for the final leg, and the efficiency stepped up. The conductor made it clear that people not back on the train when told to get back on would be left behind, and they were going to try and make Chicago early.

We sped on, past tall corn fields. Last orders for lunch were called at the annoyingly early time of 11:43am. At the dining car, I was slotted together with a retired librarian, schoolteacher and an economist. The conversation was sharp, informative and rapid, hopefully switching on those parts of my brain required for GLLS2008 over the next four days. Now I understand “No Child Left Behind”, which is the kind of wacky policy that would be popular amongst some theorists (who don’t have to actually teach it) in the UK education sector. The librarian came out with some interesting stuff, comparing the different costs of having a public library card in different parts of the US. This ranged from free to a few dollars, but a few places (such as one in Illinois that charged residents 70 dollars a year) were just way extreme. 70 dollars a year? WTF?! That’s NOT a public library – it’s a private book club.

As per usual they asked and I told them my plans; as per usual there was a “Wow!” reaction to being in Chicago on election day. But then the dining car staff, keen to end up and get off the train quickly at Chicago, cleared the car.

Speeding through Wisconsin at too fast a pace to take pictures was interesting. The landscape was, largely, Swedish and indistinguishable from Skane apart from the huge US flags everywhere. This part of the US, from Minnesota down to Chicago, was heavily populated by Scandinavians; over a million Swedish people emigrated here during their years of famine. And it shows. On gentle hills, red-painted barns and farmhouses stood in isolation. The villages consisted of painted wooden houses, often surrounding a white-painted wooden church with a steep bell tower. The white-picket fence image of rural American communities seems to be a recurring theme of these parts.

My last wander through the train encountered a group of Amish people travelling to Chicago. They have a quietly understated sense of humour, and seem to like talking to Brits (well, to me at least). I’ve yet to see an Amish person speak to anyone else, apart from the lift attendant in the Sears Tower, and wonder why this is. Milwaukee was the last major stop for a walk or cigarette break. The conductor warned people not to stray too far from the train, as they’d get left behind if they didn’t make it back on time. Which nearly happened to me, as within a minute of getting off, the train blasted two hoots and we were bundled back on. The train left; looking back we saw two smokers run, belatedly, for the train and get left behind in the distance in that way you normally only see in the movies.

And that was it. 1,620 miles out of Whitefish, we pulled in to Union Station. One taxi trip later and it’s time for GLLS2008.

Montana at dawn

Montana at dawn

Miles travelled on trip so far: 8,492.
Planes: 3. Trains: 10. Buses: 14. Taxis: 5. Car trips: 4.

The Amtrak arrived in Whitefish, Montana just before dawn. Departing the train, I was greeted by the coldest weather yet. No snow, but apparently it’s the right temperature for it.

Amtrak in Whitefish

The hotel has two outside hot tubs, from which the steam is billowing off in the cold morning air. Am imagining getting scalded on the parts below the water, and frostbitten on the parts above (yes, Finnish colleagues, I know you will snort in derision at this). Time to explore Montana for a bit.

Breakfast in Seattle

Breakfast in Seattle

Awesome city.

Day one of the Seattle experience.

Here’s Alex eating a typical Seattle breakfast:

Basically, that’s the complete opposite of the Amtrak breakfast as (a) it isn’t fried in fat and (b) there’s enough fibre in there to make the backside of an elephant explode.

First overnight trip on Amtrak

First overnight trip on Amtrak

The train left Salinas half an hour late. On the platform, as darkness fell, we saw a shooting star. “Oooh, look at that” said a distinctly Brummie voice to my left, and it turned out there were a group of people from Redditch travelling to San Fran. Small world. Boarding meant encountering the roomette for the first time. Basically, imagine an area with two chairs with a two feet gap facing each other, bound by walls behind them, a sliding door to one side and a window on the other. That’s pretty much it, though in a model of efficiency various compartments and switches offered lighting, ventilation and storage options. There’s no room for luggage of any kind, so that stayed on the racks nearby. Scared of missing dinner (old habits die hard) I practically ran to the dining car. Turns out there was plenty of time.

In another model of efficiency, groups of passengers are put together to fill whole tables, so you usually end up with a random selection of fellow diners for every meal. On this occasion, I was bundled up with a Republican voter (and not shy to state this) from New Mexico (“They should build that fence and electrify it”), a stereotypical senior Jew from New York, and a goth from Portland. The goth had the miserable time, going stiff at every rightwing comment, sipping tea and eating a salad while the rest of us tucked into steaks. Perhaps her “Goodbye, hope to see you again” to the republican was not entirely sincere.

Dining car

The rest of the evening was spent getting progressively more sozzled with a group of cowboys and fishermen. It was either that, or watch the movie in the 20 seat cinema downstairs, but IronMan wasn’t appealing. I *think* the foresome were two couples, but couldn’t entirely work it out. One was a Canadian who’d been fishing off Louisiana for the summer; one was a producer of TV shows about cooking. They wore cowboy hats and said cowboy phrases; beer flowed until the conductor closed the bar and turned off the lights. I went back to my roomette and considered how to make the bed properly. I’d already sussed, by accidentally stepping on the foot pedal, that the chairs slumped and came together. Bedding was located, which consisted of quite a good matress, a couple of sheets, and to be frank the most pathetic pillow I’ve seen in my life. No – calling it a pillow is a travesty against pillows. So I borrowed several towels from the racks outside and fashioned a more substantial pillow arrangement from them.

Then got in and lay down, becoming immediately aware of the train rocking. Would sleep actually occur that night. Yes; it happened just after the train left Sacramento. Surprisingly, I didn’t wake up until 7:30, somewhere in northern California (still), with the train ambling through a distinctly western landscape (picture below). A better nights sleep than in some hotels I’ve stayed in. Hopped in the shower (no queue) and found it pleasantly hot and fierce. Went straight to breakfast; dining table companions included a freshman on her way back to college (clutching her teddy bear), and an Amtrak consultant on his way to give a presentation on the future of the company (summary: healthy).

First view in the morning

The rest of the day involved drinking coffee and watching the Cascade Mountains and their covering forests chug by. The train stayed for a while at a very small town where everyone appeared to drive a pick-up with a dog in the back. During the hour there I tried and failed to find a Wifi connection, and tried and failed to use the phone to ring the folks in the Seattle and tell them the train was going to be late.

Klamath Falls

Lunch companions were a talkative senior from Nebraska who was enjoying the scenery no end, and a couple from Seattle. I was the only one who didn’t say grace before lunch. He seemed to have an underlying anger about immigrants of all types, everywhere. She was more amiable, and talked about her trips to visit their daughter in Alaska. They both agreed that Sarah Palin was good, as she was genuine – what you see is what you get.

The afternoon brought with it the Amtrak wine tasting, which was good fun. Though surprisingly not that popular – despite four tastes, cheese and crackters being five dollars, much vino was swallowed by the small group there. It was here that I met a three tour Vietnam veteran, who was doing an epic train trip of the US and Canada for very personal reasons. Partly because of his connections, talk amongst the six of us in our area turned to the election. He said some rather dramatic things (two of which am sure would make the front page of major newspapers) that caused the rest of the carriage to go very quiet.

Wine tasting on the train

And that led on to Chicago. When the usual “Why are you travelling on this train?” came to me, two very conflicting opinions were expresssed about being in Chicago on election day. One camp decided it would be the “Party of the Century” if Obama wins. Another group opinioned that in that circumstance, Chicago would burn – which made me think, what would therefore happen to Chicago if Obama *lost*? After that – a short rest and a watch of more scenery go by. Then yet another meal. Food – hmmm. They do have a different menu for each meal on Amtrak, but healthy it is not. The specialty sandwich of the day (their spelling) turned out to be fried :-( Other healthy options had something nasty lurking in them too.

Meals are included in the price of accommodation for people in the sleeper cars, so I felt obliged to get what I could to maximise money’s worth. Unfortunately, the general unhealthyness, plus the utter lack of exercise opportunities, makes for inevitable weight gain. The train has a cinema, so why not a small pool, or at least a gym?

Four minute stop

And, like this blog posting, it ambled on. Unfortunately Amtrak doesn’t own the track and therefore the trains have to wait and give way to freight trains. Which means that many train rides run late – like this one. So, 29 hours after starting from Salinas – and 37 hours for people coming from LA – the train stopped in Seattle where Alex and Theresa were waiting (probably nervously) to pick up the polar bear and take him back to their place. More on that later…

Pictures, not words

Pictures, not words

Not blogging much for a while; too busy to write prose. Most days though pictures are getting uploaded to Flickr.

The growing set for this particular trip are here… and here’s a few for now from today’s eight hour train ride:

Union Station

Waiting area

Amtrak train

Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Los Angeles and Santa Monica

It’s morning, and around 80 degrees. The eight lanes of traffic on the road outside are getting heavy. A mile or so away, jumbo jets are queuing up to take off, on their way to Japan, China, Europe and Australia. The view from the window:

Waking up in LA

As you may have guessed, I’m not in Berneray. Instead, I’m in an airport hotel in Los Angeles, California (Is that last bit necessary? Does anyone *not* know where LA is?). It’s about a week into the trip away, though it seems a very long time ago now since Shonnie Alick dropped me off at Benbecula airport. Yesterday and today are jetlag recovery days. As it’s my first trip abroad as a middle-aged bloke, and as jetlag has hit me hard on the last two US trips, am in chill-out mode for a while. Especially after the 11 hour flight here, though that wasn’t too bad. Heathrow Terminal Five was modern and relaxing, though the range of things to do was a little disappointing. The flight itself was pretty good; some spectacular views of Greenland (below), Canada, the Rockies, the vast midwest desert and Las Vegas


That Asus EEE is also damned useful in small spaces; I knocked off a whole presentation and about half of a paper in the seven hours of battery power (yay for solid state memory).

Working at 32,000 feet

LAX wasn’t too bad this time, and I was out of there within an hour of the flight getting in. Non-US arrivals are thoroughly checked; passports are scrutinised (not just checked) on three occasions. Two fingerprints and a picture are taken. The questioning can be detailed; I was worried for a few moments that my reply to “Why are you here?” of “To encourage librarians to use Nintendo Wii’s in their libraries” (which it is) may have misconstrued as taking the mick, but they let me through. Today, like yesterday, I’m off to Santa Monica. Last evening was shopping and pier time; today will be beach time, a swim in the Pacific (surely warmer than the sea off the Uists, though probably not as clean), and possibly a trip to the Getty Center.

Pier from the sidewalk

I’m travelling by Amtrak to get around the US on this trip. This’ll be an interesting experience, and it started yesterday when making the first reservations in the fabulous Union Station in central LA. Amtrak, oddly, seems to operate more like an airline (used to) than airlines do now. They advise you to arrive 90 minutes before, check in your baggage, and do other bits of admin before getting on the train. Tomorrows trip is a mere 8 hours (so no overnights) from LA to Salinas, after which I’ll make my way to Monterey where I’m presenting in a few days time.


Logistically, so far so good. Sensibly, US hotels often have laundry rooms, so I’m pretty up to date with clean clothes, supplemented by cheap purchases in the UK (Primark) and the US (Gap). And so, with just laptop, camera and towel packed, it’s off to the beach…