Looking for America

Looking for America: METTY’s Grand Tour On the Rails with AMTRAK,
September-October, 2018

Trains have fascinated me since I was a child in the Philippines, growing up in the barrio of Pasacao, in Bicol, south of Manila. The thrill of that first trip when I was six years old, I will never forget. Mama was taking us to see the circus, and that was surely another thrill, but paled in comparison to the excitement of getting on the train for the first time. We were restlessly waiting for it to arrive at the station in Sipocot, craning our necks to be the first to view it as it emerged from the tunnel of distant trees and became visible from the platform. Suddenly, it appeared and we shrieked, “Mama, it’s here, it’s here!” and in awe, stood motionless and speechless and watched with mouths agape, the behemoth iron caterpillar approach belching smoke and roaring thunder and shaking the earth where we stood. We were jolted to action as it hissed steam and insistently clanged its big brass bells and squealing heavily on the iron rails, came to a stop and its doors opened to admit us into its belly. We ran and elbowed our way to get to the few vacant seats remaining in third class coach. We were among sacks of palay (unhusked rice) and crates of produce and chickens on their way to tiangge (market). It was a long trip, overnight or entire day, and many passengers brought their baon (brown bag) to save on food. But Mama wanted to treat us to the ultimate experience, buying food from vendors at the train stops. We precariously balanced our bodies out the window to signal purchase of the special delicacies, sweets which were rarely allowed us like suman, sapin sapin, maruya, turon, and pili marzipan. At its final station at Tutuban we got off wide eyed and unbelieving, pinched ourselves to be sure we were in Manila and on to another awesome adventure, the circus!

Since then, I had associated trains with unforgettable adventures and travel. I had been on trains all over the world from crowded third world hit or miss turn-of-the-century remnants of colonial infrastructure in Egypt, India, Myanmar and Mexico to the sleek modern in the Middle East and China and the extensive rail system connecting Europe and the Eurostar to London to the sleek, fast-as-a-speeding bullet Shinkansen, and the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. Inspired by the latter’s cross-continental route I thought going cross-country in the USA on AMTRAK would be just as thrilling.

Before Johnny passed we had made plans to go on the road across the USA on a Winnebago, but since that was not meant to be, this would be a doable trip for me traveling solo. I had planned this for my 75th birthday and to coincide with my Class ‘67 Golden Jubilee last year, but scheduling it then was not possible. But I had to go and now is time. In preparation, I stumbled on John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Michael Crichton’s Travels, which inspired me to give my wanderings focus.

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