As Antoina writes in her essay Extreme Trains? Amtrak’s Empire Builder is anything but — that doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to offer, pretty much every famous travel writer in the world has written at one time or another about the joys of train travel.
This past week, however, I’ve been reading a book about American train travel written by someone who is adamant that she is not a travel writer. At the very beginning of her book A Stranger on a Train, author Jenny Diski asserts her non-travel writer status, stating ”I am not a travel writer in any reasonable sense of the word”. It’s almost as if she feels insulted by the idea, even though she is, in reality, writing a travel book which, ironically, won the 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
True, it is no ordinary travel book. Recounting two journeys around the perimeter of the United States, it is also a trip in the deep recesses of Diski’s mind as we learn about her struggles with drug addiction and depression in her early twenties. It’s composition goes something like this – two parts memoir, part travelogue, one part celluloid western flashbacks, and one part people watching.
The landscape and scenery is secondary not only to the cast of characters and events that take place along the way, but also to Diski’s addictive need to maintain her pack a day smoking habit. In fact, most of the action, dialogue, and flashbacks take place in the smoking section of the trains, where it seems all the colourful and interesting characters – a young Julia Roberts lookalike nursing a growing blood clot where someone had slammed a door against her head, the drunk Raymond who invites Diski to share his life, and the once-pretty Bet, with her cowboy boots and bereavement – dwell.
Somehow, Diski seems to make the idea of smoking your way around America appealing. Of course, these days, there is no smoking section or carriage on any Amtrak train, so the opportunity, however tempting, is lost.