There’s still a certain romance about train travel and especially overnight rail journeys. Tonight, after his successful programmes in the UK and Europe featuring Bradshaw’s guide, Michael Portillo begins a new series and this time he’s heading Stateside. I’ve ridden a few Amtrak trains, mostly on short hops such as New York to Philadelphia, but last summer did a few longer legs, making the journey from New York to New Orleans with stops in Syracuse, Chicago and Champaign-Urbana. Here’s what I learnt.
The biggest cause of complaint from my fellow passengers was the slow speed of the train. Freight takes priority so it’s common to crawl along or sit for ages in a siding until a long line of containers rumbles past. Go with it. Don’t book any tight connections, pack a book or something to pass the time and make sure you have plenty of snacks and drinks in case the station café is closed. Break your journey and savour your surroundings.
It’s worth stopping off en route
I had some work to do on my book Hammond, Me which took me to Hammond NY (nearest station Syracuse), Hammond IL (nearest station Champaign-Urbana) and Hammond LA (which actually had its own station!) Of these, I really enjoyed Hammond LA which had a sleepy charm and a café selling the best iced lemonade I’ve found in a long time. Many people think that you can’t see America without a car, but that’s not true of everywhere. Do your homework (and check where the station is located) and you’ll find you can do a rail trip without needing to drive.
It’s worth paying for a bed
In terms of cost per hour, the price of overnight travel using Amtrak is more expensive than comparable journeys in Europe, especially if you book sleeper accommodation. Needing to take two overnight trains, I decided to break my journey in Chicago, opting for a seat on the first leg and the quaintly named Roomette on the second leg down to Louisiana. The overnight part with a seat from Syracuse to Chicago cost about £51 while the overnight Roomette from Champaign-Urbana to Hammond Louisiana cost £156.
That’s steep. Are you sure it’s worth the upgrade?
For the extra money, I had a Roomette for single occupancy, whereas the reclining seat was in a full carriage. Travelling with a lockable wheelie, I wasn’t worried about the security aspects; in such a busy carriage, it would have been hard for a thief to operate. But many people, despite the late hour, were glued to smart phones or tablets and my allocated seat was next to a young man playing video games. Even with the sound off, the flicker and movement of the screen wasn’t conducive to a good night’s rest. I managed to move, but didn’t really arrive rested. In contrast, I had a solid seven hours’ sleep on the comfortable bed in my snug Roomette (think cupboard with a door) and enjoyed an included breakfast. Service was attentive and all in all it was a pleasant experience. But yes, it was expensive for what you got. For less than a third of that price, I travelled from Munich to Berlin in a luxury private compartment, en-suite toilet and shower and breakfast delivered to my room.
Befriend the onboard staff as they can help make your journey extra comfortable, supplying extra pillows, making your room up first and ensuring you get the meal sitting of your choice. Also, book early, as prices do go up considerably and sleeper compartments sell out. Make sure you’ve worked out how to get to the rail station as they aren’t always central as they are in Europe. Transport connections can be limited and you’ll either have to take a taxi or walk. But above all, do it. This is one American adventure that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Yesterday I posted about my six best city experiences of 2015; if you didn’t catch it, read it here: https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/six-of-the-best-from-2015-cities/.
But what about out in the countryside?
Torres del Paine
Visiting the south of Chile as late in the season as April was a risky choice in terms of the weather, but luck was on my side. Getting up close to the blue crevasses of Glaciar Grey and watching the clouds pull aside to reveal the Torres del Paine in all their splendour were just two of the highlights of this very special place. Staying in a luxurious ger at Patagonia Camp and waking to a pink sunrise over Lago de Toro made this one of the most incredible places I’ve ever stayed.
Haiti was hard work, a trip fraught with worry. Despite arriving several days later than planned after being stranded in Jacmel because of a transport strike, the beautiful beach and turquoise waters of Pointe Sable at Port Salut were worth the wait. Staying mid-week, I had the sand almost to myself, save for a few upturned fishing boats and a stray hawker or two. Who needs beach bars and banana boats when you can enjoy such solitude with only a few tiny burrowing crabs for company?
Acadia National Park
I’ve been fortunate to visit many of America’s National Parks, but Maine’s star attraction felt more manageable in size. From the drama of the granite cliffs and blowholes to the serenity of unsigned and overlooked beaches, this was a real treat. The addition of a clutch of Model A Fords chugging around Park Loop Road on a weekender only added to the spectacle. Feasting on freshly caught lobster down the road at Bar Harbor was the icing on the cake.
Five hours from the Chilean mainland, Easter Island is one of those places that promises to blow your mind. Fortunately, it lived up to expectations. Waking before dawn to watch the sunrise behind the fifteen moai at Tongariki was a very special experience but the real surprise was of how much the island had to offer beyond its famous stones. The vivid colours of the volcanic crater lake at Rano Kau and the sight of wild horses thundering down the road towards the car made a lasting impression.
Having visited seven Hammonds on my US travels this year in preparation for my book “Hammond, Me”, it seems only fitting that one makes the list. Most fun had to be the llama racing in Hammond, Wisconsin but in terms of getting out into the countryside, it’s Hammond, Illinois that stood out – classic barns surrounded by fields of corn and an Amish community down the road.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Strictly speaking, a view of the countryside rather than a visit to the countryside itself, but looking across the valley from the mediaeval walls of this impossibly quaint German town just can’t be missed off this list. Visiting in early autumn, I missed the crowds, caught the weather and fell in love with the place.
Now over to you. What are your favourites from 2015? And what are you looking forward to for 2016? I’m currently busy working as a researcher for a book on Essex dog walks. Overseas, my travel plans for the first half of the year include riding Sri Lanka’s trains, visiting the Seychelles on a budget, trialling an error fare to New York City and exploring Oslo and Stockholm. Practising ABBA songs as we speak…
Today the six finalists for this year’s Bradt Independent travel writing competition were revealed. I wasn’t among them, but this year have received a “Special Mention” which is my best achievement so far after a few goes at entering this prestigious annual contest. See who’s made the cut here and then read my piece, which will feature in my “Hammond, Me” book next year.
Three little girls in Illinois
As I swung off the road and onto the gravel, I didn’t see those three little girls.
The country town, small enough to be considered no more than a village in Britain, was pretty much deserted. Surrounded by cornfields and bisected by a railroad that carried only freight, the only thing that crossed the faulted concrete of Hammond’s main street was dust. A few stray leaves hugged the kerb. Aside from a post office and a rough-looking bar, there was little evidence of business; that which was there appeared to be hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
Houses, mostly, lined the road. Some were humble and unkempt, paint flaking. Others, grand in comparison, had rocking chairs on wooden verandas and neat picket fences. A semi minus its trailer occupied one front yard, but the neighbours’ rusting cars indicated that not everyone here had a decent job.
I’d parked up to take a photo of the water tower. It had Hammond written on one side and bore a smiley face on the other, its optimism incongruous with the general feel of the place.
As I crossed the street, I heard a child crying. Immediately after, I heard an older child, exasperated, telling her to shut up. I glanced over to see there was also a third girl. She chose not to take sides, though her body language told me she was irritated by the interruption to her play time.
The little girl, whose age I guessed to be around five, looked to me for comfort, getting none from her big sister. “Lady, I hurt my knee.”
“Oh sweetheart,” I soothed, “what did you do?”
“She was runnin’ and fell over,” said the older, bossy sister, in a tone loaded with self-righteousness that told me it was her sister’s own fault and any sympathy I may have was misplaced.
More tears, increasingly agitated from the fear I would side with Bossy.
“Does it hurt?” I asked, already knowing the answer but keen to distract.
“Yes, it hurts a lot! Can you fix it?”
“Well, I have some Wet Wipes in my car over there, so I could certainly clean it up a bit,” I suggested, not knowing if Wet Wipes translated.
Bossy interjected. “We aren’t allowed to cross the road.” She spoke with a finality that suggested her kid sister didn’t deserve to anyway.
No traffic had passed while we’d been speaking.
“How about I go and get the Wet Wipes and you wait here?” Bossy looked suspicious and I was well aware that those kids probably shouldn’t be talking to strangers, even benevolent ones. To the little girl though, the tiny rivulet of congealing blood running from her knee was reason enough for her to trust me, even if it was going to get her in big trouble with her sister later.
I grabbed the wipes and a sticking plaster and hurried back. As I gently cleaned up the small cut and gently smoothed on the plaster, the sobs subsided and she began to chat.
“My name’s Chloe and these are my big sisters. Where are you from? You talk different.”
I told her, and she sounded impressed. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Eng-land,” she said, splitting the word in two.
Curiosity began to get the better of Bossy too. I fielded several questions before asking her whether Hammond was a good place to live.
“Yes.” She hung on the word, drawing it out for emphasis. “We have lots of friends here and we get to play in the street.”
I couldn’t help but think about some of the children I knew back home, complaining about how little there was to do in the large town in which we lived, with parks, cafes, clubs and all manner of distractions. We said our goodbyes and the three girls headed back down the street. I allowed myself a smile as I finally heard the middle child speak. “She was a kind lady”.
Life was simple in Hammond, and happiness came in the form of a plaster.
I’ve reached NYC on my Hammond book research trip, following a successful expedition to Hammond, Maine. Unlike in Maine, there’s a chance that the New York Hammond has a connection to the family, as it was bought and named after one Abijah Hammond whose family emigrated from Lavenham, Suffolk. A wealthy NYC merchant, he bought and sold property, mostly in Greenwich Village (then a separate place) and made enough money to build a mansion at Throggs Neck which overlooks the East River on the fringes of what’s now the Bronx.
I caught the 6 (singing J-Lo songs in my head, of course) and then the Bx40 bus to find his house at Silver Beach. It’s now in poor state, with a couple of refurbished rooms being used as offices for the Silver Beach Association. The delightful Carol from SBA welcomed her unexpected visitor with open arms and told me a little about the house, which dates from 1795. As a non-profit co-op, they don’t have the money for repairs, unfortunately, but it was good to know the local residents still refer to Abijah’s place as “the mansion”.
It was a real privilege to be in Abijah’s home, more so as this place is not open to the public. There’ll be more of his story in the book, and it looks like there’s quite a story to tell from this colourful character.