With the arrival of Michael Portillo’s Great American Railroad Journeys on SBS, there’s a wonderful opportunity to immerse your mind in a relaxing, slightly nerdy form of vicarious enjoyment. Watch attentively, and you can make some notes on your own options for this delightful form of escape.
Portillo takes us with him as he rides the railroads of America, armed with Appleton's General Guide to the United States, published in 1879. Some of the most beautiful American journeys are to be found on the swaying carriages of that once fine nation’s most civilised transportation system. It’s a fascinating choice to take a trip both into history and through the landscape, particularly in the context of our prevailing turbulent times.
A dapper gentleman, Portillo’s choice of travel guide is apt, speaking to a more relaxed time. A time in which, even with the presence of terrible inequality, violence and war, at least nobody was calling each other anything on Twitter and they hadn’t yet invented nuclear weapons or reality TV.
Watching Portillo’s journey through both time and space, you can cast your mind forward to the trips you might explore in the future. You can imagine watching the rolling hills pass into flatlands or forests as you escape an authoritarian stranglehold for the freedom of the anarchist forbidden zone.
Train journeys are an incredible way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. You don't have to worry about the stress of driving, traffic, the life-and-death knife fights for dwindling petrol stores, or the fear that the authorities will be checking papers in order to restrict the movement of radicals.
Here are some of the more beautiful train journeys in America. It’s worth paying attention, as your choice of where to go will depend both on your aesthetic preferences, what kind of beauty in landscape speaks to your poetic soul and exactly how badly the disintegration of society will be at the time you choose to take your trip.
1. New York to Miami
After leaving New York via tunnel beneath the Hudson River, the daily overnight Silver Meteor train runs parallel with the eastern seaboard for 1,389 miles. There are stunning views of the sea around Chesapeake Bay, Charleston and along the Florida coast, assuming that coast isn’t underwater by the time your trip comes around. You might want to make plans to get this particular journey done some time in the next six months or less. Depending on the levels and intensity of climate change, agrarian features you might miss if you waste time include peanut and soya bean farms, tobacco and cotton plantations, forests and swamps, orchards, dairy farms and alligator-infested lakes.
2. Chicago to San Francisco
The California Zephyr train is an ideal choice for travellers wishing to see the best of North America in a short space of time or before it disintegrates entirely in the corrosive rains of a post-Kim Jong-un vs Trump golf match-cum-nuclear winter. The California Zephyr is renowned for being one of the most beautiful train journeys in North America.
3. Georgetown to Mt Vernon
In the show, Michael Portillo explores a former slave market in Alexandria, Virginia. In order to eradicate slavery, America fought a Civil War in the 1800s. Now, the socio-political divide has grown so wide that there's talk of another one approaching. Everyone back on the train!
If you’ve finally escaped the US, the daytime trains of Rocky Mountaineer were created to showcase the magnificent mountain landscapes of British Columbia and Alberta, with overnight stops in hotels so that none of the scenery is missed. Depending on the state of surveillance, you might want to avoid hotels in favour of seeking accommodation in an AirBnb or rebel safe house.
It’s never too soon to start planning a holiday or escape route. It’s nice to watch those incredible landscapes rolling by and Michael Portillo’s Great American Railroad Journeys is a charming visit into the present through the lens of the past at a time when the future looks so incredibly horrifying.
Season 2 of Great American Railroad Journeys airs Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS. Missed the first episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand: