Lawrence’s Missive From…The ‘Maple Leaf’

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Alas, not the autumn-hued imagery that a maple leaf might conjure up, I write to you from car #2 on the Amtrak train from Toronto to New York – the ‘Maple Leaf’ is the monicker they’ve given the route. And syrupy it is not. It’s late March and, since arriving in Toronto five days earlier, I’m told at every opportunity by the natives that I’ve come “at the wrong time of year”.

Maple LeafThere’s about a four-week window between the snow receding and Spring being sprung that drains the country of colour. Flying in low over Lake Ontario, the shimmer of hammered pewter off the mesmerising blue water was in stark contrast to the uniform lifelessness of the surrounding countryside. It is a sight to behold, though, the size of that lake. Good Lord. And it’s the smallest of the five. What’s more, the barren-ness this time of year is inescapable because the country, contrary to the rolling hills and snow-capped peaks I had in my mind, is flat as a pancake. Or seemingly so, in fact I’m told it’s so big and the camber of the country so gradual that it only looks flat. Upstate Ontario is something like three times the height of the CN Tower. That aside, hopefully you get the picture. It’s big. It’s flat. It’s brown.

So, the train. The first stretch circles the lake. If, like me, you’re picturing a couple of hours chugging past a beautiful waterfront vista, think again. We’re set back a couple of miles from water itself and going through industrial Canada. Even the border crossing at Niagara is some twenty minutes from the falls. Short of a bridge over the canyon of the river that marks the border, there’s little of note on this part of the route. I may as well be on a commuter train in south-east London.

Rail-side HousesOnce over the border, after an hour or so I’ve dismissed the limitations of the view’s aesthetics and instead peer from the window into ‘back yard’ America. Like any train journey, really, I’m literally slicing through the country, cutting across fields (brown), forests (bare), across roads and rivers, passing disused factories and farms with those quintessentially two-tiered barn roofs and grain silos. Through country, then suburb, town, suburb and country again, passing school playgrounds, football fields (including the odd pair of soccer posts), deck chairs, gardeners raking leaves, climbing frames and swimming pools, at one point I think we’ve even bisected a golf course fairway and I think I’m starting to realise that this really isn’t what I had in mind when I booked the ticket. Did I say I may as well be on a commuter train in south-east London?

There’s one oddity that I think is uniquely American though; there’s no barrier between me on the train and the passing landscape. In some instances I’m looking out across flat prairie, roads peel off into the distance and, in contrast to Blighty, houses aren’t clustered or terraced but look like they’ve been unceremoniously dropped onto the landscape. In fact, there aren’t ‘barriers’ anywhere; no sidings to the tracks, no fences around the houses, no hedgerows along roads…I wonder what happens when the wind whips up?

GrimsbyTo be honest, rather than spending half of the journey, camera poised, in anticipation of the definitive train-across-America shot, I think I could have read a few hundred pages of my book or engaged a fellow passenger in conversation or even tried counting the leaves on trees. As the train rattles on (and rattling it is – this is pretty tricky to write), the motion would have a soporiphic effect were it not for the infernal driver tooting the horn every second breath. What, at first, added to the charm has now become a foment of frustration. Still, it’s making me look up and take note so I suppose I should be thankful that I won’t miss anything. Not that there’s much to miss. It’s amusing and comforting to know that some of the towns we pass through are named after Europe’s finest cities; Rome, Amsterdam, Grimsby. Others are wonderfully American; Schenectady, Poughkeepsie and Blaghnickerknacker (okay, I made up the last one). Speaking of the towns, passing west to east, they seem to become less industrial and more affluent, perhaps as we inch closer and closer to New York itself. By the time the sun sinks behind the not insubstantial Albany, we start to follow the Hudson into New York itself and, at last, some picturesque scenery – only now it’s dark. And will be for the next four hours.

I wouldn’t recommend this. This isn’t the wistful, romantic journey across New York state I had in mind. For 12 hours I thought I’d see buffalo sweeping across plains and be winding my way through snow-capped peaks. Instead, I passed the graffiti’d backstreets of Buffalo, New York, and the only peaks to be seen were the caps of a pair of police officers on the platform at Albany. I suppose ultimately I did look out into America but an America that’s a far cry from that of my imagination. I concluded I needed a lesson in geography. Great God, what on earth will the Trans-Siberian be like…

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