Thursday, January 3, 2008
((The sad demise of American railroads and current sorry state of AmTrak versus some embarrassingly excellent trains still zipping and chugging their way around the world... well, that's a topic on my mind as the year 2008 begins. Everyone complains about airport delays, but friends of mine had passenger train screwups and stuck-on-the-track delays this past year lasting eight and thirteen hours.
True, I've ridden some hellbound trains (more loco than motive) in Southeastern Europe and Burma, but I can also remember wonderful trips I experienced in decades past--across the Midwest, around New York State, from Chicago to Seattle several times, up and down the West Coast, and so on. These days I wouldn't ride a U.S. long-distance train even if someone else was paying. But line me up with a Eurail Pass, and I am yours for life (or at least the month); what a brilliant way to zip back and forth across the Continent! And that's pretty much a separate matter from the bullet-trains operating with great success in Japan and France. Where would Britain be without the Flying Scotsman and The Great Train Robbery? or France minus the Orient Express and that exciting WWII adventure film simply called The Train (definitely one of Burt Lancaster's best roles)?
Considering our own railroads' significant history--from construction of the Trans-Continental Railway to hobos riding the rods; from beautiful Art Deco travel posters to blues songs like "The Panama Limited" and "Love in Vain"; from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the City of New Orleans, and the Yellow Dog, to the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe; from North by Northwest and Once Upon a Time in the West to Strangers on a Train and Sunset Limited; from the sad trains transporting Lincoln's body (or the Kennedys more recently) to the victory expresses filled with happy politicos or football fans; from Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers somewhere "Waiting for a Train" to the tragic heroics of John Henry and the engineer of Old No.9; from Gravy Trains and Midnight Specials and certain others "bound for glory," to the "A" Train and "The Golden Rocket" and Elvis riding his "Mystery Train"... well, almost anyone over 30 could list page after page of train lore.
Anyway, I wanted to celebrate trains past and present this time. They used to, and maybe some still do, take you to faraway places and strange folks. There's a famous and remarkable railway that rolls straight across the Outback of Australia, from Sydney to Perth. It's a train I was glad to board; and here's the relevant section from my 1986 around-the-world journal, with most details likely still similar today.))
The steel wheels are rolling, and the steel rails humming, as the famed "Indian-Pacific" hurtles west. I decided I had to see Perth--and this train--even though it means a three-day trip across the full width of the continent. And even though I'm sharing this roomette with a young virologist from Edmonton, Alberta, who seems a combination of nerd and know-it-all. (He probably dislikes my grumpy taciternity too.)
Spent the morning and early p.m. wandering Sydney's main museum and rambling expanse of park. I learned about the Aboriginals, peculiar flora and fauna Down Under (dangerous spiders, for example), the continent's geological history. Most fun was a film and exhibit on the dubious duck-billed platypus, which I hope to coax into a poem sometime.
So far we've chugged up and over the Blue Mountains, which feature 3000-foot peaks, winding valleys, sharp escarpments, and lots of bush, with the population of Aussies getting scarcer by the mile.
Dawn. My lands, what we are seeing: burning sky, a lake of dead trees, sheep and cattle stations in flat scrub-growth stretching for miles, a flock of flamingo-like birds in flight (some kind of heron maybe), a herd of kangaroos bouncing away from the onrushing train, and a pack of panicky, bobbing emus. The other early risers around me are burning off camera film at a fierce rate.
Later... We stopped for an hour at Broken Hill, a major mining town (silver, zinc and lead) on the border between Aussie states New South Wales and South Australia. I trudged around in the surprisingly chilly air, admired some interesting turn-of-the-century architecture, little else.
Then on across mostly wasteland, with even the animals tucked away somewhere else. And this was the easy part--the desolate Nullarbor Plain still lies ahead. Another late-afternoon stop gave us a quick taste of Port Pirie, a slightly sleazy seaport a few notches up the southern coast from Adelaide. Otherwise, on and on, into the night. No lights or sign of what's out there, but we'll hit the Nullarbor about 3:30 this morning.
In the heat of mid-day the Nullarbor seems little more than a dreadful desert plateau--not sand, but rock scrabble, with minimal bits of grass, a few 'roos and emus (seen early morning only), and nothing else. Certainly no trees; thus its Latin-derived name. The plain features one stretch of perfectly straight train-track 478 kilometers long!
Anyway, you look out, see nothing but dusty white plain--no land features; a patch of moisture mirage perhaps. Go 20 kilometers on, look again: exactly the same. Perversely beautiful.
I started a poem during the night. Brief stops and side-shuntlings kept waking me up, so then I tried to sneak outside in mid-Outback to see Halley's Comet. But every door was locked tight. Frustrated, I picked up the pen again.
Later... Ten hours after rolling into the Nullarbor, we finally begin to see taller vegetation and then a few trees again. Some huge hawks, birds called gallahs, scrawny cattle, scrawnier weather-hardened Aussies. Braked to a stop about 6 p.m., in Kalgoorlie, in the gold mining region of Western Australia. With a couple of hours to wait, I walked out "downtown" with my meal-mates, a mother and her two children, bound home to Perth from Melbourne.
But only three kinds of places were open: pubs catering to locals and passers-through; the single still-in-operation gold mine, which runs organized tours timed for this train break; and Kalgoorlie's infamous Egan Street, which offers still-functioning bordellos--quasi-legal, or at least ignored by the authorities. Unfortunately (or do I mean fortunately?) not in walking distance.
I've shelved the Nullarbor poem for now--too gloomy. More useful might be a belated description of some of the characters I've been "training" with: roomie Hans and his sister Marguerite, he thin and with a silly gigolo mustache, she stout and aggressive, both of them staking out the club car, holding forth for hours on end. Another peculiar pair, Arthur and his Mum, are too amazing to ignore--hirsute and stout, a bit bandicoot-like; him shy and lonely and awkward, her whining after him, again and again, "Arthur, Arthur..." More charming, but in a gruff way, are "Athos," "Porthos," and "Aramis," our three Kiwi musketeers, country boys heading for farm jobs near Perth: one skinny, one rock-like, one rotund, and all three spending endless hours guzzling beer and telling incomprehensible jokes.
The Aussie capacity for drink has been well-documented, but in person it is truly, shall we say, staggering. Red-faced men, tiny old ladies, young hellraisers, rowdy "sheilas," all with can after can pyramiding up around them--Foster's and Swan, Emu Export and "XXXX," and "Another round here, mate. No worries!" The train toilets, which flush directly onto the tracks, have left a rather wet trail across the, er, wastes.
April 9 and after
Continuing yesterday's brew-haha, I neglected to mention the outlandish number of pubs and pub-hotels, t-shirts extolling beer-swilling, and even best-selling books that picture drunken Aussies partying, puking, and passing out.
I had a sampling of all those cultural wonders as I wandered the streets of Perth today. A happier city than Sydney, I think--smaller but still quite international in its ethnic mix, its shops and restaurants and arts on display. Located on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Perth is actually closer to Singapore than to many of the cities in Oz... full of stately homes, well-tended parks, burgeoning skyscrapers, lovely suburbs arrayed around the sprawling Swan River Estuary, white-sand beaches leading up and down the coast, sparkling sunshine and bustling energy. Its lively spirit derives from strong regional growth, booming oil fields, the America's Cup Challenge going on at nearby Fremantle, and the land's western vantage looking out on a watery frontier. I could live here for sure: the size is still manageable, the folks' outlook confident.
Everything here feels charged up, like Chicago in the days when Sandburg called it "City of Big Shoulders"--a buzzing, brawling, beautiful chunk of urban excitement. The bus driver yesterday could be both cynical and nostalgic for the old days, the Western Australia of farms and towns he grew up in. But to a newcomer, Perth feels like the future.
This is the edge--the edge of a huge continent, of a wide-open ocean, and of a dangerous blade called Progress. Sydney with its sprawl and Metro trains and busy ferry system runs like a well-oiled machine, a New York not yet out of control, while Perth still struggles, experiments, makes mistakes. But is going for it!
((The train trip back across Australia delivered a strange, one could even say mystical, post-midnight moment, which I'll regale you with next time.))