It’s approximately 3,000 miles from the east coast of America to the west, about 5 times the distance from Lands End to John O’Groats. Go back 150 years or so to the early days of the USA, and it was pretty much an insurmountable distance. That is, until the advent of the railway. Given America’s history with the railroad it seems a crying shame that only about 10% of rail journeys nowadays are made by passengers – all the rest is freight. In writing All Gone to Look for America, Peter Millar has given us a beer- and music-fuelled insight into the America of today as seen from the windows of the Hiawatha, the California Zephyr and the Empire Builder, grand old dames of the American railroad.
Millar makes it clear early on that he’s not aiming for detailed analysis, instead he takes us on a tour of America following the lines of the tracks and his own personal tastes. Starting and ending in New York, he rides the rails from city to city, stumbling out from each station in search of accommodation, food, beer and company (not necessarily in that order), before taking in the sights (such as they are) of each place he visits. While he has a tendency to lose a little focus from time to time, not least with his fixation with the multitude of flourishing microbreweries he finds, for the most part he gives us an endearingly British, witty and insightful view of some genuinely interesting places. We see each location on its own merit (or lack of), with perfectly balanced and often fascinating snippets of their history interspersed with Millar’s thoughts and experiences as he makes his chaotic way around each place. Considering the vast distances involved he doesn’t appear to have done much preparation, which leads to some entertaining musings on the differences between British and American public transport as well as some slightly scary experiences in less than wholesome surroundings.
The train journeys themselves get detail where relevant, but also prove to be an effective tool for splitting up the book, framing each section and creating a good, clear structure. It’s astonishing to see some of the distances, reminding us just how unfathomably massive America really is. Where else is it possible to travel over 10,000 miles and still only scratch the surface of the country? Over the duration of his journey Millar takes in genuine wonders of the world like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, goes hunting for dinosaur bones and visits shrines to Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley. That he shows us crumbling buildings, endless empty parking lots and examples of the attitudes that give Americans a bad name, well that’s just taking the rough with the smooth.
Despite Millar’s assertion regarding his intentions for the book, one clear observation jumps out throughout which is that in many of the places he visits there is a clear correlation between the decline of the railroad and the wider economic downturn afflicting the country. It’s not all doom and gloom by any stretch, but it’s fascinating to see the ups and downs of the railroad, from its youth as the backbone of America to its current faded glory. It’s not hard to see the parallels between the railroad in the USA and industry in (certain parts of) Britain.
If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to what to see in America, you’ll probably be disappointed with this book. It’s not your average travel book – it’s rambling, bumbling and selective in what it shows. It’s one man’s personal journey around an intriguing country, filled with the history that he finds interesting and shot through with a very dry, British sense of humour. Great fun, and genuinely fascinating.