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An American trip: October and November 2008

An American trip: October and November 2008

During October and November of 2008, I took a month-long trip around the US of A. The main mode of transport was Amtrak train, and the trip tied in neatly with two conferences I was speaking at – one of which was in Chicago on the day Barack Obama was elected (and one heck of an evening that was). I did a lot of writing on that trip, thinking it was just a few people in the Outer Hebrides and a few friends and colleagues who were reading it – and not realising until recently that others were too, for various reasons. I’m relieved now I didn’t delete the words.

Since demolishing my blog and, essentially, restarting all of my online presence as new as I can, the diaries have gotten messed up, but they should be restored here as a set of 32 postings.

Don’t know which post was the “best”, but a few folk have said the Surviving New Orleans posting is their choice because of the tweeted engagement story in it. Mine is the Texas one, where I seem to have just lost inhibitions and fears and just … wrote.

Oct 18th – Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Oct 20th – Pictures, not words

Oct 21st – Sleepless in Monterey

Oct 23rd – Monterey aquarium

Pier from the sidewalk

Oct 25th – First overnight trip on Amtrak

Oct 25th – Breakfast in Seattle

Oct 26th – An afternoon in the mountains

Oct 26th – New York deli breakfast in Seattle

Oct 27th – Montana at dawn

Oct 28th – Whitefish, Montana

Oct 29th – Sign of the times

Samantha at Tucson station

Oct 29th – Election, American style

Oct 30th – Do bears…?

Oct 30th – Is black the new ginger?

Oct 30th – Election day events in Chicago

Nov 1st – Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Nov 1st – GLLS2008 food

Nov 2nd – American time, British time, Obama time

Nov 4th – Chicago on election day


Nov 4th – Outside, it’s America

Nov 5th – “Oh, you look so beautiful, tonight…”

Nov 5th – The morning after

Nov 6th – In America, academics knit

Nov 7th – Goodbye Chicago

Nov 8th – Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Nov 8th – Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Nov 10th – New Orleans (1)

He won

Nov 10th – New Orleans (2)

Nov 12th – Surviving New Orleans

Nov 13th – Texas: a thousand miles of bugger-all

Nov 13th – The American Dream

Nov 16th – Trip summary

There’s also a set of pictures on Flickr, some of which are embedded in the postings anyway.

The civility of the American

The civility of the American

Is it possible to watch something online and be simultaneously very happy and very jealous? Yes; today I was. Watching some of this webcam footage live, which the White House has put in the public domain.

White House

Watching the news it can be difficult at times to believe in the USA as a civilised and progressive country and society. The politics, as portrayed through television news, appear entrenched, angry, volatile and dangerous. Incidents, such as the recent shootings in Tucson, distress. News reports fill with individuals and crowds, commentators, angry, seemingly on the edge of violence. And it makes you think; here in the UK, especially in the current political and economic climate, there is a lot of anger and bitterness; see, for example, the recent protests over student debt.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But, we rarely violently attack politicians, or their families, or other high profile people here. We just … don’t. “That kind of thing happens in America, not here in Britain” is the standard view, especially of the older generations. So a viewer of the traditional news and media could reasonably assume that the USA is a country ‘divided’, with millions of people hating a group of millions of other people. Well, maybe not. TV news show the incidents, the controversy, the marches, and angry people angrily waving signs of varying degrees of literacy. Is it really like that, nationally? If you make a large and random selection of the public meet one of the most high profile people on one ‘side’ of the political ‘divide’, how many would get angry, or not be civil, or would generally be unpleasant.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

How about … hardly any of them?

Today was the second anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. As an unexpected surprise, Michelle Obama and their dog, Bo, waited in the Blue Room of the White House to meet members of the public who were doing the tour. Cue lots of surprised Americans being suddenly met by Michelle saying “Hi!” or “Welcome to my house!”

Even better, this was all piped live through the White House website, so people online could watch what happened and how members of the public reacted. The White House set this up neatly, with one webcam focused on Obama and Bo, and the other on the entrance to the room at the point where visitors realise they’re about to meet the first lady.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

Considering that a significant portion of the population vote, or voted Republican, and with the Tea Party, the libertarians, and the aforementioned angry and divisive nature of the politics that we see, frequently, on the news, it was a relief and good to see that no-one refused to shake hands with Michelle (apart from the kid who was terrified of dogs and ran away from Bo), or was rude or dismissive to her.

And this wasn’t staged; watching this for quite a while, it was good to see people repeatedly shocked, then surprised, then delighted that they got to meet the first lady. How awesome is that?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And Michelle was actually … hugging … random members of the public(!) Seriously. Male, female, black, white, old and young. Physical contact? Here in England, politicians shake hands politely, kiss babies for the media on campaign trails, and that’s about it; it’s all very … restrained and repressed. You don’t … hug politicians and they don’t hug you. Royalty are even more distant; lightly put your hand on the Queen, even if you are prime minister of another country, and face the wrath of the media. All part, perhaps, of the class structure and the doffing of one’s hat or cap to your social and economic superiors?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But there, in America, the wife of the president of the United States is hugging random members of public. Some of whom appear to be in mild shock at this, while others, especially the schoolkids, jump up and down a bit. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives, when a visit to the White House turned into something unexpectedly else.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And watching Michelle meet hundreds of Americans (and tourists from other countries) today, all of whom were polite and friendly, is one of the many reasons I have a soft spot for America and politely ignore those who forever seek out the cynical angle. Despite what the traditional media try and repeatedly tell me otherwise. Most, nearly all, Americans – and I have met thousands over the decades, so this isn’t a random guess – when you meet them, are decent, friendly people who just want to get on in life without big controversy or anger.

And, though that may not make for dramatic news footage, seems fair enough.

Conversations with librarians

Conversations with librarians

Three months wandering around the Midwest of the USA come to an end in a few days, when I get on the plane from Chicago to London. It turned into a bit of a road trip in the end; during which I’ve met some fun people, expanded the social circle and contact network, eaten a spectacular range of finest American cuisine, explored cities e.g. Detroit, Ann Arbour and Toledo, wandered into Canada, swam in two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario), watched several baseball matches, seen numerous firework displays, got up close and personal with buffalo, travelled by road, plane, Greyhound bus and Amtrak train, started geocaching, and explored parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. And also got some work done.

All of that was enjoyable, every last baseball observed and calorie consumed. But the most fun was visiting rural libraries in Indiana and speaking to the librarians who direct, run and staff them.

Fremont was my first experience of a rural Indiana library. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The building was large, roomy, cool and quiet. Furniture was tasteful; electricity sockets were everywhere; the wifi was free. There were areas to do historical research and to generally sit down in a group. As with every library I visited, at least one large American flag would be prominent in the building:

Comfy seating area

The computer labs would be the envy of public libraries in Britain (as well as possibly a few schools and university departments). Several banks of – new – PCs were complimented by several areas of – new – Macs with large screens:

Mac Lab

I chatted with a male librarian, who seemed pretty friendly. He, and I quote, “real enjoyed” working there and enjoyed helping out the patrons who came in.

Topeka was a small town – basically a crossroads with a few building either side – deep in Amish country. Their library building was opened in March 2009, and like many of the newer buildings was well lit, cool, and roomy:

Topeka library

The friendly librarian chatted for a while. She ran various teen programs, such as movie nights, which helped bring kids in from a wide area around. It helped that the building had a community room (free for non-profits, a small fee for businesses) which was kitted out with various media kit, plus a piano. Topeka libraries serves a rural area of some 25 mile radius – and rural it is, with the town surrounded by corn fields and much of the traffic being Amish buggies. The Amish made up a sizeable proportion of the patrons of the library, and while we were chatting several came in and borrowed books.

Angola public library was also in a new building. Actually, the old library – restored and used as the reference centre – was also inside the new building, which also included the fountain that also used to be outside. It’s not everyday you see a fountain inside a public library, but there you go:

Angola library

One of the library staff was happy to give a guided tour, then introduced the director. She explained the (horribly complicated) way in which libraries in Indiana were funded – basically a combination of property taxes, donations, fines, and fees for out of township residents. I think – the system of funding, and who was eligible to use the library, seems complicated and differs between libraries, even in the same county. For example, a town and a township are not the same thing. From what I understand, villages, towns and cities are inside townships, which are inside counties, which are inside states. And each level has its own criteria (stop press: just been told that some can be incorporated – which adds another complication).

Angola library itself received most of its funding from local property taxes, as well as some clever auctions of items and services donated by local businesses:

Angola library

The collection itself was interesting, with ‘weeding’ being a counter-productive aspect. The Amish bishop instructed the children not to read any books published after 1975 or 1980, which meant that Amish children finding a book on the mobile library would first of all flip to the date of publication before checking out the book further.

LaGrange public library was inside a cramped building. It looked nice from the outside, near the centre of the town and opposite an Amish farmers market where I bought some jam and sausage bread. Inside, it became very obvious that this is a library that needed to move to a larger building. Desperately. Signs on the road coming into town indicated (as confirmed by a librarian) that the move/upgrade was the focus of some local controversy:

LaGrange library controversy

Inside, the staff were struggling moving around a building clearly not designed for either a growing collection of the current size, or people unable to use the many flights of stairs. Like the old library in Angola, the one in LaGrange was a Carnegie Library, one of many funded partially by a Scots philanthropist during the development of many rural American towns.


Despite the small size of the rooms in the building, like the other public libraries on this tour there were several newish PCs for free Internet access, plus a whole pile of community information. LaGrange had several churches offering community meals, as advertised through the library and other places in the town. On the bannister of the stairs in the library porch was a stream of cards where residents could advertise, and request, services and goods from others. Sort of like a localised Saturday Swap Shop.

Community swap

All these public libraries were interesting and staffed by friendly, helpful people. But my favourite public library – not just in this corner of rural Indiana, but of the hundreds I’ve visited across America and Europe – deserves a posting to itself. Next.

The American Dream

The American Dream

This particular adventure draws to a close; in a few minutes Pablo the limo driver (cheaper than a taxi) will return, hopefully with my luggage, and we’ll be off to LAX. The pictures on this page I took earlier today around the Getty Center. There are two American dreams. It’s ironic that I’m typing this while in Los Angeles, the magnet for people looking for the first one:

Dream 1. The shortcut to wealth. Be discovered, become a star; quickly build up a business empire and make millions. Protect your wealth through whatever means, be they economic or political.

Sycamore tree

Dream 2: Find someone special. Afford a house with a white picket fence. Raise a family. Grow old together, enjoy each others company. Stay healthy, stay out of debt. Read. Be optimistic. Live modestly.

I met plenty of people who were after dream 2. Some, like the couple at the last meal I had on an Amtrak train, had found it. Others were looking. Those two dreams; they partially but don’t totally fit the political scene. Many Republican voters would prefer dream 2; some Democrats have achieved dream 1.

Open plaza

What connects them both is opportunity and education. Learn how to find the opportunities. Give yourself the skills to take advantage of them. Whatever American dream you follow, unless you get extremely lucky or are born into money, you’ve got to go for the opportunities. And they’re there. If you want them and go for them. And you have a large slice of luck with things such as health. So Americans seem quietly determined; at least the ones I met. Perhaps this is a manifestation of their ancestry, with people determined to leave behind poverty and repression and make a better life. Maybe it’s a desire to get on in life. Connect with like-minded people. Move on, and build what is still a new country, make it better.

And maybe this is why the US has what I call The Hive. It’s an extremely intense network and community of self-driven digital library researchers and practitioners. They each make considerable use of Web 2.0 and other net technologies to what some may think are extreme degrees. They don’t *have* to do any of this; they just do. I met some of The Hive at #IL2008 and #GLLS2008; others online, through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and email.


This doesn’t exist in Britain to the extent it does in the US, and I’m not sure it could. Work conditions, negatively, count against it. Americans would say “Just do it.”; Brits would say “Why on Earth are you doing it?” in that ever-cynical way I’ve gotten tired of over the last decade. Cynicism is not the same as intelligence, which is why Britain would never elect someone like Barack with a message of “Hope” and “Change”. By coincidence I had a late night twitter exchange with someone senior from the UK academic digital education scene, who made pretty much the same point about a lack of any substantial UK “Hive”. This needs investigating properly (RB: we need to talk).

What is America? It’s being in wonder at something without looking for fault or cynicism in it. It’s strangers saying hello. It’s trying at something. It’s having conversations that are never dull or predictable. It’s having an opinion. It’s making a cause, and voting, and elections, and not giving up when a hurricane washes away your house but going back and rebuilding it and making a home and starting again. It’s an utter diversity of landscapes, communities and people. It’s being awake, it’s realising what’s outside and what you want to do, and who you are. Smell is the strongest sense, and to me America smells of Amtrak diesel, pomegramates and lemons, strong coffee in a Memphis diner, badly made tea, gumbo, the dollar bill, hotel cookies, peanut butter at Graceland, Louisiana swampwater, Seattle breakfast fruit, rooftop swimming pools, bear poo, the sweat of a nervous taxi driver, the breakfast buffet at #glls2008, hot dogs on Santa Monica pier, fish feed at Monterey aquarium, Pike Place in Seattle, cheesecake, the Mississippi at sunset, deep Chicago pizza, the edginess of El Paso, hotel conference room carpets, the hair of someone hugging you who was a stranger yesterday and will be a friend for life today, a library in Montana, the tangiable excitement of a crowd counting down the seconds to their president-elect…


But there’s only one colour for me and that colour is blue. Blue for the sky over the Getty Center in Los Angeles as I type this, of the sky over the Canadian rockies, of the Mississippi at dawn, of the sky over a Swedish-style house with a white picket fence I glimpsed in Minnesota and can’t forget, of the eyes of Brooke and Holly, of the winning party. “Soak it up – be inspired – let yourself be open – you don’t know what might come in.”

I did, and found America, and home.

Thank you.

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.

Goodbye Chicago

Goodbye Chicago

Thanks for an unbelievable five days. As night falls and the skyscrapers light up, the calling of passengers for the overnight train following the Mississippi down to Memphis and New Orleans is imminent.

Chicago skyline

Highlights? Too many to remember coherently or put in one posting. The obvious one is 10pm on tuesday when the result of the election was announced, and what seemed like a million people in the park went in search of tea … no, I mean went delirious.

Rather a lot of people

Am still sorting through pictures and videos I took, and the camera is not good at night – but here’s a few videos from the event:

Other things that come to mind:

  • Seeing the crowds for the first time and getting a weird, really tight feeling in my stomach.
  • Counting down the 10 seconds to 10pm when we’d figured out that would be the moment.
  • The huge reaction of Oprah when she appeared.
  • Two black women, I presume sisters, skipping madly down the street shouting “He’s going to the White House, he’s going to the White House”.
  • People wandering down the street offering food from huge containers to anyone who wanted it.
  • The utter multiculturalism of the crowd.
  • Being interviewed by some Fox News outlet (thanks, Amy).
  • The reaction of a Chicago policeman in the park when I asked him where I could purchase a cup of tea.
  • The crowd starting to stampede when one of the big screens was switched from CNN to the park TV.
  • Obama entering the stage on the big screen.
  • One of the crowd next to us saying “Hey, you’re librarians, you know everything or where to find it.”
  • Speaking to lots of different people about anything and everything. But especially Obama.

That’s my train being announced. Gotta go. Goodbye, Chicago, and thank you.

Oh, you look so beautiful tonight…

Oh, you look so beautiful tonight…

The lyric to a U2 song and, indeed, the backdrop of sparkling Chicago skyscrapers is lovely to look at. And more impressive when between you and it are a million people going deliriously happy because their man won the presidency.

City lights

The Four Librarians Of The Apocalypse, a new group borne out of #glls2008, went down to Grant Park in Chicago along with a million other people. We saw the results come in, at first nervously and then with increasing cheer.

Where's the grass?

TV and radio crews were everywhere. I got interviewed by a radio station and um Fox news of some description.


At the end, McCain conceded (in a dignified fashion) and Obama arrived. He took to the stage in the next field and it was relayed to a now delerious million or so people onto giant screens:

Newly elected president speaks

As we left to try and work out how to beat a million people to the nearest taxi, the song was played that on the giant speakers around the park. Anyway, despite the lack of adequate tea facilities in Grant Park, Chicago, a most enjoyable evening was had by all (perhaps a more accurate observation: 1 million people were giddy with happiness and excitement). Wednesday is a rest day when it’s time to say goodbye to some good friends; then I’m off on the Amtrak to follow the Mississippi to New Orleans, stopping off at Memphis to visit Graceland and Sun Records on the way.

Outside, it’s America…

Outside, it’s America…

There was this moment, about 10:30am this morning.

I was in our joint presentation; my co-speaker had the brilliant idea of awarding cash prizes to people who could identify the Nintendo games in her part. To speed things up, I started to throw dollar bills at people who came up with the right answers, like some kind of Las Vegas pimp on a night out in a joint on the strip.

Outside the building, long lines of people are waiting to vote, even in states with early voting. In Ohio, the police have got riot gear on already. In Virginia, a crucial swing state, voting machines are breaking down. In Pennsylvania, another key state where there was no early voting, the queues to vote are extending up to a mile.


18 miles from here, the police are trying to organise an event where Obama accepts the presidency, and up to half a million people are expected to turn up. Part of me wants desperately to go to it. But another part of me is terrified at the thought.

The news is wall to wall election – there is no other news – it’s election on 80 channels; rumours and anecdotes feed into the less-than-insulated event here in a Chicago hotel. The conference organisers, attendees, librarians, gamers, and gamer-librarians, seem pumped up, nervous. Someone threw up their breakfast this morning, ran off to the restroom. Her colleague turned to the rest of the table and just said “Election”. And it’s pretty clear, from the reaction in the room to the last slide of my half of the presentation…

…which way the political allegiances of the attendees leans.

Chicago seems on edge; locals stopped smiling when the election was mentioned from about a couple of days ago. But that moment; it must have been some kind of hyper-moment, throwing dollar bills at people while being aware of some of the extreme events happening for hundreds, thousands of miles in every direction as over 130 million people cast votes to decide who will be their collective president. Suddenly it felt … yes. Yes, this is America.

Chicago on election day

Chicago on election day

The TV news is awesome this morning; a country appears to be queuing to vote. View from hotel room balcony below. Apologies to other guests a few minutes ago who were opening their curtains; I should probably have put some clothes on first. Your day can only get better (depending on who wins).

Good morning America...

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.