Monthly Archives: January 2017

California Zephyr

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Walking though the deserted, snow-lined streets of Denver with a spring in my step, Union Station looms into view. One of the great terminals of the American railroad system, the beaux-arts interior has been recently funked-up and now sits squarely at the heart of the city and, in many ways, the Amtrak network and America itself. Pigtrain Coffee is doing brisk business with incoming Cowtown commuters, who do not linger as long as I do over the fridge magnets and t-shirts.

Here the California Zephyr pauses for breath on it’s 60-hour odyssey across the country. After leaving Chicago and crossing the plains to the east, the eight car behemoth pulls in here each morning and picks up waifs and strays like me. I am, without exaggeration, expecting one of the great journeys of my life today and pretty much bouncing on the spot as the enormous wagons reverse into the station. As it turns out the journey, though eventually truncated, thunders superlatives.

We’re invited to form two queues, one for sleeper passengers and the rest for coach car cheapskates like me. I’ve paid $114 for the 30 hour trip to the Pacific Ocean, which gets me a roomy seat with plenty of legroom upstairs on a double-decked coach. On a cold January Friday the train seems to be about half full, but many passengers are heading into the Rockies, packing skis in the tender coach. After some tinkering of what is clearly old rolling stock we’re off, only to pause by the Platte River as a gigantic freight train loaded with a mile of containers passes in front of us.

So much later, and so much has passed, and how much more still to go.

From Denver we accelerated into the mountains, foothillish at first, then spectacular beyond words through Glenwood Canyon. Initially there is a rush for the Observation Car, tempered by some well-phrased chiding by the car attendant lady, who also pops up with historical details and anecdotes, which due to the decrepit PA make gloriously little sense. She either realizes this or runs out of stories. Lunch is served early, and I am sat as a lone traveller with two others, both of whom are on rail odysseys that make my trip seem like a gad into the West End on the tube.

It is after this, after everyone gets out at Glenwood Springs that the trip settles into a strange and lonely pilgrimage into the American West. With little company and the snow driving horizontally, the train feels heroic as it smashes along the ice-covered tracks, horn honking at bald eagles lurking in the ever-present Colorado River. A lone man, miles from anywhere, walks purposefully between the tracks and the river. Who is he?

Quiet times staring out of big windows fill hours, with texts from home reminding me of the real world. Today it seems I can have both. I feel lucky. The hardest decision I had to make today was whether to go to Dave’s Depot at Grand Junction, Colorado, the only retail outlet on the entire 2400 mile route from Chicago to San Francisco. I go in but there’s nothing to buy. I was over-zealous in pre-departure snack buying. Sorry Dave. Another train coming tomorrow.

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Grand Junction seems to barely exist, high in the Rockies but distant from them. It’s fine station building is boarded up. The town itself seems to be quietly falling asleep. Perhaps seeking to make up for this, Union Pacific railroad has stationed hundreds of diesel locomotives here, lined up one after another. It’s hard to fathom them all getting used when two can pull freight trains miles long, but they look shiny and ready to go. The absence of British-style platforms adds to the feeling of their size. We stare up from rail-level, and the locos seem to stare impassively like Easter Island moai, rather than the chirpy smiles of our own engines, viewed face-to-face.

Today is Donald Trump’s inauguration. As usual I can find nobody who seems to have voted for him. Kind people express concerns about what he’ll do, and what effect he will have on America. They don’t see the country as robust. To them, it is fragile, perhaps because their own lives have so little protection in work, health, anything. And yet they’re warm, and interested, and caring for each other in thoughtful conversation. Warm and cold, America. Perhaps only kind people take trains.

Before dark we drive through a red-stone canyon that runs for miles, studded with rocky outcrops and smooth-lined caves. It is completely breathtaking, up there with the very best train rides I have ever done. A man opposite me almost silently plucks at a banjo making an uncannily-timed and perfect soundtrack. Who is he, and where has he come from, framing the moment with delicate riffs.

Though sunset is a little tragedy on its own, the hush that descends on the train after dinner turns another page in the day. The Serbian chaps in front of me, Balkan in their directness and their stern expressions, continue to chat with great jollity.

In the darkness I can see snow-covered fields, small homesteads, trees sunken in snow. Salt Lake City, with temples and domes, comes and goes. It is freezing here and I do not linger on the platform.

At night the coach where I’m sitting is warmed by human bodies and silent. I sleep in odd contorted positions, some less uncomfortable than others. At no point apart from now has it crossed my mind that I could have paid more for a bed in a sleeper, or that I could have skipped the whole thing by flying so it can’t have been all that bad. Tennessee is two timezones back. Soon it will be light. Just as well because Winnemucca, Nevada is locked in an icebox. From there we speed across the Nevada desert, snow-covered with rolling hills on one side as dawn breaks on Saturday. Over breakfast I do meet some Trump voters, Baptist Christians who seem to regret their actions.

No sleep until the Pacific Ocean.

And then the thread snaps. In a second, the journey stops. On arrival at Reno at half past eight we are told the train will wait until 2pm to clear the mountains, and ‘that we should enjoy all Reno has to offer’. After strolling the Truckee River path, having a coffee and visiting the Nevada Museum of Art I have done that. On returning to the train I notice that it has started to smell of BO, and someone mentions a 4pm departure, and an air of quiet denial appears to be in order. The trains sits in a trench beneath Reno, engine humming but forgotten. An itchy finger reaches for the flight timetables, and a Southwest hop over the same mountains that are blocking us pops up. I only dither for an instant, then grab my bag and go. The airport is another world – everything modern, all on time, fast and frantic, but we get through, and I arrive only two hours behind schedule.

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The California Zephyr, in its ambition and effort, says much about America as it once was and may still be, and in its foibles and frustrations nods to fragility and uncertainty about what has been solid and unshakeable. Or perhaps all that’s what it seems to me, and it is simply one of the world’s most beautiful train rides.

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Wrexham

Wrexham. The word means only one thing to those of us who were there.

F.A. Cup third round, 4 January 1992.

Wrexham 2 (Thomas 82, Watkin 84)
Arsenal 1 (Smith 43)
Racecourse Ground, Wrexham
Attendance: 13,343

Unpacking memories of attending this game 25 years makes me feel not only old, but like I grew up in another age altogether. In January 1992 Arsenal were League Champions, having cantered to the title in 1990-91. Liverpool may have imploded after Kenny Dalglish’s resignation but we won it in some style, losing only one game in the process. Like the 1991-92 champions (Leeds United. Leeds United!) that season has been lost to the post-Premier League revisionist zeal that for some reason the media are happy to buy into. Bastard media. George Knows.

Wrexham had finished 1990-91 last in the entire Football League. They were spared relegation only by the expansion of the league that season.

And they won. To say this result delighted everyone that wasn’t an Arsenal supporter is something of an understatement. It was, and remains, the perfect FA Cup story. And it has Arsenal losing which always helps the media pick one out of many. They all hate us.

The aftermath begun immediately. Danny Baker, hosting radio phone-in 6-0-6, started his show celebrating the result, along what had been an awkward (as in ‘well, this is awkward’) draw for West Ham at non-league Farnborough Town, as proof that Zigger-Zagger – no, he really said this, more than once – the God of Football is real, and was meting out retribution to clubs who were punishing their own fans with unpopular bond schemes intended to finance the rebuilding of their grounds. The valediction was justified – the bond schemes were hugely unpopular – but he didn’t half go on about it. Or perhaps he didn’t and it just seems that way now, since the drive home which Dad & I knew would lead to at some point having mockery heaped on us by someone just drifted on forever. Memories of a Luton Town-supporting local neighbour leaving celebratory posters outside our house after their victory in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final led us to expect that kind of thing. Bastard Luton.

Beyond the scoreline, the journey. From London to Wrexham, north Wales, via a strange route I have been unable to trace exactly since, that seemed to pass through Monmouth. Going via that town makes so little coherent sense that we probably really did go that way. On the way there, of course, this was a jolly outing to a brave minnow who would roll over for the mighty Arsenal. We ate a burger outside the dilapidated stadium that tasted so bad I can still see, smell and taste it. It had ‘cheese’ on it. Our standing ticket admitted us to a paddock terrace in the away end that continued to step down significantly below pitch level. It had presumably been like that quite uncorrected for decades. The floodlights barely penetrated the murk, which in one way is just as well. This is why photos and footage of the game make it look like it’s being played in a dimly-lit stable. All very apt given we were at the Racecourse Ground. Despite this, we had a perfect view of all three goals. Our one was quite a tidy move. Never gets shown on TV.

On leaving the ground we found our way back to the car, parked in the field we had left it in. The field had not liked being used as a car park. Between us leaving and returning it suffered an inglorious breakdown and was now just mud. The wheels spun hopefully but inconclusively and I got out to push. As I shoved, the wheels spun further and coated me in rich Clwyd ooze. This might have been the highlight of the day: the car was released, and we had something to laugh about on the way home. That something was me. The journey back after a stinker of a game is usually more fun than you might think, with gallows humour and a siege mentality saving the day. It’s when you get home, to the shame of all football supporters who have been away from loved ones all day, that the funk really sets in.

I was 15 in January 1992 so was still at school, so must have been fairly mercilessly mocked for this result. If so, I do not recall that trauma in the way I do schoolboy ragging after, for example, losing 6-2 at home to Manchester United the previous season. Perhaps the absence of Wrexham fans in London, N2 meant there was less comment, but I doubt it. I have probably blacked out what cannot have been a pleasant occasion. Keeping the faith as I am helpless but to do the rest of the 1991-92 season, once we escaped a winless January was unforgettable for my Arsenal-mad teenage self. Sheffield Wednesday got beaten 7-1, Liverpool 4-0 and on the last day of the old North Bank Southampton were dispatched 5-1 with Ian Wright claiming the Golden Boot.

I still get a kick out of having been at games like Wrexham. I’ve supported a winning team all my life that have won leagues and cups and played in Europe. What do I know about supporting Wrexham? Plucky Wrexham as they’ll be known forever. Bastard Wrexham. And if you look closely as Mickey Thomas (the Welsh one, not our one) smacks in that free kick as Match of the Day show it for the 2000th time just before Ryan Giggs gets his disgusting hairy chest out in a montage of ‘best-ever’ FA Cup moments, you can see me, trying to digest that burger as the footballing equivalent of a bucket of excrement is tipped over the away end.

William Blake

After Christmas and before New Year, London hides away in a lull. The tubes and roads are quiet, shops and services for the busy city in partial hibernation. It is the ideal day for a raid on a less-explored corner. We pile downtown to Old Street and walk to the Geffrye Museum, with plenty of other people who have had the same idea, then walk back down Kingsland Road in search of lunch. After that, but before heading home I suggest a detour to Bunhill Fields, and on the way explain to the boys that it’s named after the pile of bones that lies beneath, a burial ground for Londoners who for centuries would not do what they’re told.

 The big wow here is William and Catherine Blake’s memorial stone, not marking the exact spot of their burial but close enough, next to another, larger marker for Daniel Defoe and across the courtyard from John Bunyan. Plenty of others pass this way in search of the greatest ever English artists, who mastered art and prose. Offerings of twigs and stones sit atop Blake’s stone. We add ours, then walk away talking about Jerusalem and The Tyger – I find I can recite and explain all of the former and some of the latter two.

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Later that night George asks me to sing Jerusalem, which I do. ‘That poem is a series of questions to which the answer is no.’ says Harry. I think it is not a bad thing for Blake to still be asking questions 200 years after his death.