DATELINE: Chicago, Illinois
After three relaxing days exploring, imbibing and dreaming at waterfalls in Portland, we parted ways with Rachael, our native guide and superstar driver, to catch the ‘Empire Builder’ train back to Chicago. It’s been emotional. And tiring. Mostly tiring. 50 hours in transit does funny things to your brain.
Our cab to Portland’s train station was driven by someone who looked just too much like Hunter S Thompson: the shaved head, the shades, the almost clinically sober expression borne of one too many bygone drug frenzies. That’s not guesswork either: this guy was, to his chagrin, banned from voting for a drugs felony. Caught with 3.2g of cocaine and $400, he escaped the threat of serious jail time – after one month in the “disgusting” state prison – in exchange for 200 hours community service. But now he’s not even allowed to cross the river into Washington state, and he can’t vote in the Democratic primary, which he seems pissed about. Hunter would’ve been livid.
Thanks to melting snow flooding the tracks east of Portland we’re shoved onto a grotty replacement bus for the first part of our journey. In Britain this would’ve been cause for some pretty hardcore grumbling, but the passengers are all merrily laissez faire about it. The gallows humour is as rich as blue cheese dressing as we wander hopefully off into the dark in search of a train. It’s like if ‘Lost’ was a light-hearted comedy rather than a Serial Confuseathon: people from all walks of life thrown together by circumstance, mucking in and happily teasing one another. A mouthy young punk boy, a middle-aged massage therapist, two good ol’ boys in their 60s with military eyes, a young hispanic family.. modern America in all its glory.
The massage therapist is for Hillary. “Just because she cares” she says to me. Her new friend, a short 30 year old woman with a midwestern waistline, is not shy about confronting her on this: “she does NOT care. My children are both diabetic, and we were at this event for diabetic children which Hillary came to, and she went a long way out of her way to avoid talking to any of them.” “Oh” said the masseuse, before returning to her banter with the punk boy.
Eventually, at some point in a night of fitful naps, sporadic grazing, and weary bag-dragging, we boarded the train that would take us the remaining, ahem, 44 hours to Chicago. We talked politics with a lot of great people during that time.
Gail, a Democrat whose husband is half-Blackfoot Indian, told us how upset she was with Bush, how her husband would argue that his ancestors had been fighting terrorism since the 1500s. Maurice and his wife were both excited about Obama and Clinton, just hopeful that one of them can beat McCain. There was Antonio, the dining car waiter and unofficial train jester – “who do you want to get assassinated first, the woman or the black guy?”. Young New Yorker Josh, who spent 18 months serving in an artillery unit in Iraq (”what was it like?” “it was real“), voted Hillary for no particular reason he can think of: “they make you vote in the army; it’s seen as a duty. I don’t really mind who’s President, as long as they do their job properly.”
And now we’ve come full circle back to Chicago, ready to fly back to London and let the jet-lag turn our insides out. There’s a hell of a lot more to come, from us and this election: so keep checking back.